The Beriev A-50 is perhaps the most important system in the Russian military’s airborne inventory, reflected in the type’s intense workload and the importance attached to its upgrading.
In early 2011, the Russian Air Force’s (Voyenno- Vozdushniye Sily – VVS) airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) force entered a new era thanks to the introduction of the long-awaited upgraded Beriev A-50U. By mid-2013 there were two A-50Us on strength, with a third expected by the year-end and a fourth slated to follow suit in 2014. Compared to the classic A-50, with its 1980s vintage bulky and energy-consuming electronics, the A-50U is considered a much more capable AEW&C platform, albeit not as advanced as the latest Western systems packed with enormous processing power and featuring lightweight active phased array radars, passive electronic and signal intelligence gear. Nevertheless, the A-50U upgrade could be regarded as a huge leap forward for the VVS, at last introducing a range of 21st century computing and display systems, married to the existing powerful radar.
The Mainstay is just one part of an integrated air defence system. It is capable of detecting, identifying and establishing the position of air, land and sea targets and downlinking its radar picture to ground- and sea-based C2 centres. The controllers aboard the A-50 are tasked with managing friendly fighters either by encrypted datalinks or voice commands via radio. They can also manage strike packages or fighter sweeps in contested airspace. Other tasks carried out by the VVS’s A-50s include monitoring high-value air assets, such as head-of-state aircraft or aircraft transporting special cargoes, and controlling shipping.
The aircraft can also be used as an early warning radar facility or remote sensor platform, supplying a recognised air picture to a ground-based C2 centre responsible for overall battlefield management. It can carry out these tasks autonomously, acting as a C2 cell in its own right, or as part of a bigger picture using information transmitted by datalink and radio. It can also perform both functions at the same time. The A-50’s flight crew comprises two pilots (commander and co-pilot), navigator, flight engineer and radio operator. The 10-strong tactical crew in the rear compartment is made up of a system commander, a senior fighter controller, two fighter controllers, a senior tracking operator, two tracking operators, a system engineer, a radar engineer and a communication suite engineer.
The system commander manages the tactical crew’s workflow and communicates with ground- and ship-based C2 centres. The tracking operators monitor the air, land and sea situation in the designated areas of interest on their tactical situation indicators, adjusting the operation of the automatic target acquisition/tracking and identification (ID) systems and performing manual tracking and ID of selected targets in complex tactical situations when the automatic modes have been rendered unusable or are unsuitable. The system displays relevant target information in a label next to the target symbol on the controller’s screens; reference number (assigned by the operator), heading, altitude and speed plus IFF status, while friendly fighters also uplink information about fuel state and the mode of the weapon control system.
Fighter controllers are tasked with managing intercepts, mission control of strike packages and guidance of friendly fighter escorts. The three engineers, occupying the forward-facing consoles, monitor the entire system and perform in-flight fault isolation and rectification of the A-50’s mission system, radar and communication suite.
Enhancing the Mainstay
The upgrades applied to the A-50’s mission system during the late 1990s were intended to add new capabilities, such as reliable detection and tracking of low-flying helicopters and integrating modern data exchange terminals for the system’s ground users to expand the user base down to the ground force’s division level. Data fusion – fusing radar target data with data derived from on-board ELINT and SIGINT systems – to achieve more reliable target recognition was another goal. Another requirement was to facilitate operations by two or more A-50s simultaneously, with one aircraft acting as the master and the others as slaves supplying radar picture and supporting the intercepts and air traffic control operations dictated by the tactical crew aboard the master Mainstay.
These enhancements were implemented during the A-50U upgrade programme, originally designed in the early 2000s and tested until 2009 on a prototype aircraft Bort number `Red 33′ manufacturer’s serial number (MSN) 58-05. Modern hardware replaced most, if not all, of the 1980s vintage processing and display systems. The final report on completion of the A-50U’s test and evaluation effort was signed by then VVS Commander-in-Chief, Col Gen Alexander Zelin, in October 2009. The first upgraded example, `Red 47′ Russian state aircraft registration RF-92957, MSN 40-05, was handed over to the VVS on October 31, 2011, while the second, Red 33/RF-50602, MSN 41-05 manufactured in 1984, followed suit in December 2012. These examples entered upgrade at Beriev’s plant in Taganrog in late 2008 and early 2011 respectively. Red 33 was the first upgraded Mainstay to sport the new style dark grey camouflage that has been introduced across the VVS fleet since late 2011.
The testing and evaluation effort for the A-50U is reported to have taken five years and no less than 800 flights. The new hardware is said to have extended the maximum detection range of the system’s radar greatly, thanks to better processing, while the number of targets that can be tracked simultaneously has increased to 300. The tactical crew members are provided with new consoles featuring large high-resolution liquid crystal displays, capable of showing much more data than the CRT-based circular displays they replaced. Last, but not least, the new significantly smaller and lighter mission system left room for a crew rest facility, a small galley and a toilet – amenities lacking on legacy Mainstays. Another advantage of the weight reduction is the ability to take off with more fuel, thus allowing additional time on station.
The majority, if not all, of the new processors and other important hardware used in the upgraded Shmel mission suite are said to be of Western origin, as the Russian electronics industry is still deemed ill-suited to offer high-performance domestic equivalents. The new processing systems occupy just one equipment rack while the old equipment required no less than seven. The A-50U’s satellite communication system was also improved in terms of reliability, speed and the volume of data it can handle.
The upgraded, more powerful, radar system has given the Mainstay a greatly increased target set and vastly improved maritime surveillance capabilities. It is understood these new targets include low-flying and hovering helicopters as well as low-observable (stealth) aircraft, cruise missiles and UAVs; it can also work reliably in conditions of dense jamming created by enemy electronic warfare systems. In addition the more powerful processors, together with new software, enable detection and tracking of air targets flying tail-on relative to the A-50 at much greater ranges than was possible in the past. The new jam-proof communication suite has turned the enhanced Mainstay into a complete battle management system.
The first A-50U for the VVS is reported to have attained operational capability in February 2012. VVS plans foresee upgrading one A-50 to A-50U standard each year and the type is set to remain in service for 15 to 20 more years.
Kołobrzeg (Kolberg) in 1945. 80% of the city was destroyed during the war.
In November 1944 Kolberg, a large Baltic seaport in the Prussian Province of Pomerania, was designated a stronghold as Festung Kolberg. It was one of the key German positions in the Pomeranian Wall, a vital link between Pomerania and Prussia. The German High Command planned to use the seaport to supply nearby German forces, and hoped that the stronghold would draw off Soviet forces from the main thrust towards Berlin.
The Soviet East Pomeranian Offensive, commencing on February 24, 1945 managed to cut off and surround the city and its defenders (mostly from Army Group Vistula). The first commander of Festung Kolberg was an elderly general, Paul Hermann, but due to illness he was transferred in February to a less demanding post. The command was taken by Colonel Gerhard Troschel. After March 1 the city was under the command of a former Afrika Korps officer, Colonel Fritz Fullriede.
The German defence forces represented various formations from Army Group Vistula, some tasked with defending the fortress, others simply cut off in the Kolberg pocket. The most notable units included elements of the Third Panzer Army; the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French) and the 15th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Latvian). Estimates of the German defenders — including local militia and volunteers (Volkssturm) — range from 8,000 to 15,000, supported by some artillery (about 60 pieces), an armored train and about 18 tanks and a dozen support vehicles of various types. The German units also received some air and sea support (including artillery fire from pocket battleships Lützow and Admiral Scheer).
The Soviet forces attacking the city can be divided into two waves: one of units of the Red Army (March 4 to 7) and one of Soviet-controlled Polish units (March 8 to 14), although some Soviet units took part in the combat after March 8. The Soviet main units were the 45th Tank Brigade (engaged from March 4 to 7) and the 272nd Rifle Division (March 6 to 9). Polish units included elements of the Polish First Army (from the 1st Belorussian Front): Polish 6th Infantry Division (from March 7); Polish 3rd Infantry Division (from March 9); Polish 4th Infantry Division (from March 12), and various support units. The personnel of the Polish units numbered over 28,000.
The first attack was led on March 4 by the Soviet units of the 1st Belorussian Front and 2nd Belorussian Front; with first Soviet units entering the city around 0800, but was repulsed. On the same day, the nearby city of Köslin (now Koszalin) fell and Soviets started to gather reinforcements to take Kolberg.
On March 6 the Soviet High Command decided to turn the siege of the city from the Soviet forces to its Polish allies. By March 8 the Soviets received reinforcements in the form of the units from the Polish People’s Army, the Polish First Army under Stanislav Poplavsky: the 6th, the 3rd Polish Infantry Division and support units. The Polish First Army was now tasked with taking the city; however their first attack was also repulsed. The German forces held stubbornly to the city, protecting the ongoing evacuation. Due to a lack of anti-tank weapons, German battleships used their guns to support the defenders of Kolberg.
On March 12 a new assault was launched, with heavy tanks, additional artillery units and the 4th Polish Infantry Division. The attack advanced but at the cost of very heavy casualties, and was broken off on March 14. The Germans refused a proposal to surrender.
On March 15 the fighting resumed and the Germans received reinforcements from Swinemünde (now Świnoujście) — the Kell battalions. However, they failed to stop the Polish forces, which took the barracks, part of the railway station and the Salt Island.
By March 16 the Germans pulled back most of their forces and concentrated on the defense of the port. The destruction of the collegiate church in Kolberg after heavy artillery shelling by katyushas allowed the Polish troops to breach the inner city. Polish forces assaulted the railway station (defended by a German armored train Panzerzug 72A, which was destroyed March 16), pharmaceutics factory and the horse riding arena.
On March 17 the Germans abandoned most of the defensive lines, leaving only a small amount of the troops to cover their retreat, and started to evacuate their main body of forces from the city. Polish forces took the railway station and reached the port, but most of the German troops managed to evacuate to Swinemünde. The last German stronghold was in the fort built near today’s light house.
Over 80% of the city was destroyed in the heavy fighting. The battle was among the most intense city fights the Polish army took part in. Polish casualties were 1,206 dead and lost and 3,000 wounded.
On March 18, on the day the city fell, the Polish People’s Army re-enacted Poland’s Wedding to the Sea ceremony, which had been celebrated for the first time in 1920 by General Józef Haller (there was also a lesser known ceremony on March 17).
With the Soviet forces approaching in 1945, valuable equipment, most of the inhabitants, and tens of thousands of refugees from surrounding areas (about 70,000), as well as 40,000 German soldiers were evacuated from the besieged city by German naval forces in Operation Hannibal. Only about 2,000 soldiers were left on March 17 to cover the last sea transports.
The repulse in December of Hoth’s attempt to break through to Stalingrad enabled the Soviet command to reactivate one of the original elements of ‘Saturn’, the attempt to cut off the retreat of Army Group A from the Caucasus. The General Staff recommended that the Southern (formerly Stalingrad) Front, while directing its main effort towards Rostov-on-Don, should use some of its forces to take Tikhoretsk; by so doing it would cut off Army Group A from Rostov, and threaten the rear of its 1st Panzer Army. Simultaneously, the Black Sea group of the Transcaucasus Front was to thrust northwards to meet the Southern Front’s forces at Tikhoretsk, and expand towards Krasnodar and Novorossiysk, while its Northern Group was to keep the Germans too busily engaged to break away or manoeuvre.
Shtemenko says anxiety was caused by information that the Germans had learned of the preparations for the Novorossiysk operation, but ‘further investigation did not confirm that there had been a leak’. This is rather disingenuous; as mentioned earlier, that a major offensive was intended in Transcaucasus was among the information on four such operations (including ‘Mars’ but not ‘Uranus/Saturn’) mentioned earlier as deliberately ‘leaked’ in Agent Max’s 4 November 1942 message to Gehlen, composed in the General Staff and approved by Shtemenko himself. That the Germans knew what was coming is also indirectly confirmed by Shtemenko’s own statement that ‘the enemy did not wait for us to put our plans into practice. At the very moment when GHQ issued its directive concerning the attack on Tikhoretsk, the Nazi command began withdrawing its 1st Panzer Army from the Terek to the north-west’, though he attributes this to the realisation ‘that its rear was unavoidably threatened by Southern Front’, a dubious attribution, since on his own testimony the Directive to the Southern Front was not issued until 31 December, and by then Hitler had already authorised withdrawal from the Caucasus. The 1st Panzer Army withdrew across the Don and held the vital crossings at Rostov until 14 February, while the 17th Mussolini had already in November 1942 begun urging Hitler to pull the army back westwards, completing by 6 February its retreat to the ‘Gothic Line’ and Taman peninsula, from where further withdrawal into the Crimea could and would be made over the relatively narrow Kerch Straits. The withdrawals were skilfully conducted, as were those by Army Groups North and Centre from the Demyansk and Rzhev salients in the following few weeks, but, as Churchill said about Dunkirk, ‘wars are not won by withdrawals’.
However, a withdrawal on one sector can provide resources for an attack elsewhere, and that is precisely what happened. About seven divisions-worth of German units, freed in the early stages of abandonment of the Rzhev salient, were dispatched to the southern end of Army Group Centre’s line, to reinforce the 2nd Panzer Army. Five of them (two panzer and three infantry divisions) helped bring to a halt the poorly planned, inadequately supplied and over-ambitious offensives that Stalin insisted on the Western, Bryansk, Voronezh and Central (formerly Don) Fronts undertaking before the spring thaw in March–April.
Manstein’s counter-offensive took the form of a strong strike by Army Group South against the left wing of Vatutin’s South-West Front in the Donbass area, and was applied at full force on 19 February 1943. It achieved complete surprise; though Vatutin belatedly ordered his men on to the defensive, they were unable to hold their positions, and by the beginning of March had retreated to the line of the Seversky Donets river. This in turn exposed the left flank of Vatutin’s northern neighbour, the Voronezh Front, which had recaptured Kharkov on 16 February and was still attempting to advance. The Front Commander, Colonel-General F.I. Golikov, was even slower than Vatutin to react to the danger, and hastily ordered his forces to take up defensive positions only on 3 March. They had no time to do this in an organised way, because on the next morning the 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf attacked from south-east of Kharkov, driving the Voronezh Front back to the north and north-east, with heavy casualties, partial loss of control and several instances of troops fleeing in panic, abandoning their guns and tanks. By 14 March the Germans had encircled Kharkov, and they retook it two days later.
Stalin judged the situation serious enough to order Zhukov and Vasilevsky to the Voronezh Front on the day Kharkov fell, because, as Shtemenko delicately put it, ‘it was impossible to compile an objective picture from Golikov’s reports’. They succeeded in ‘not only uncovering but partially rectifying major inadequacies in the directing of our forces’ and also studied the situation at another danger point further north, the junction between the Western and Central Fronts. There had previously been another army group, the Bryansk Front, between them, but in order to centralise control over the forces attempting to take Orel this had been abolished and its forces resubordinated to the two neighbouring Fronts. However, since it was at the extreme flanks of both, neither Sokolovsky at Western nor Rokossovsky at the Central Front ‘had been able to give it the necessary attention’. Zhukov and Vasilevsky recommended reconstituting the Bryansk Front, sending Golikov to command it and replacing him at the Voronezh Front with Vatutin, who had previously commanded it in 1942. In view of their criticisms of Golikov, their recommendation that he command the recreated Bryansk Front was surprising, and Stalin accepted it only as a temporary measure; by 31 March Golikov had been replaced by Vatutin, was in effect ‘kicked upstairs’ to head the Personnel Directorate of the General Staff, and was never again entrusted with a field command. Zhukov is unlikely to have shed any tears over that; during the 1937–38 purges Golikov, who at that time outranked him, had sought to have him investigated as a potential ‘enemy of the people’ (an episode described only in post-Soviet editions of his memoirs). By 25 March, after the Voronezh Front had retreated 100–150 kilometres (about 62–93 miles), its line was stabilised, and the onset of the spring thaw then enforced a pause on both sides.
Despite the setback in the south, the increases in Red Army manpower and equipment that had made the Stalingrad counter-offensive possible were continuing, and shifting the balance further against Germany. To economise on manpower and create reserves, Army Group North between 15 and 28 February abandoned the Demyansk salient, until then held by 12 divisions, and between 2 and 31 March Army Group Centre abandoned in stages its positions nearest to Moscow (about 112 miles from the Kremlin), in the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, which it had successfully defended for over a year against repeated Soviet attacks. The heavy cost to the Soviets of Operation ‘Mars’ in November–December 1942 (discussed previously) has to be assessed against the fact that the successful German defence of the Rzhev-Vyazma salient had required 30 divisions, at least three of which had already been packing to go south, and would have been joined by others if ‘Mars’ had not been mounted. Abandonment of the salient in March reduced the front line in that sector from 330 to 125 miles, releasing most of the divisions deployed there for Army Group Centre to use elsewhere or put into reserve; at least six of them subsequently fought in the battle of Kursk in July.
The evacuation of the two salients was presented to the Soviet public as the consequence of successful Red Army offensives. In fact both were well-organised and skilfully conducted withdrawals in stages behind strong rearguards, and the pursuing Soviet forces received at least as much damage as they inflicted. There was, nevertheless, an element of truth in the Soviet claims. Successful offensives had indeed prompted the evacuations, but they were those of Operations ‘Uranus’, ‘Little Saturn’ and ‘Ring’, where the destruction of 20 German divisions in the Stalingrad pocket, six more outside it, heavy losses in several others, and the virtual elimination of the Romanian 3rd and 4th, Hungarian 2nd and Italian 8th Armies had intensified the already manifest German manpower shortages. The strategic and psychological effects on both sides were also strong, in the obvious removal of any residual threat either salient might pose to Leningrad or Moscow, and the shortened line freed not only German but also Soviet forces for use elsewhere. At Leningrad the blockade would not be completely lifted for another year, but the effects of Operation ‘Iskra’ (‘Spark’) in January, achieving limited restoration of land links with the ‘mainland’, were also becoming tangible. Over two years the perilous ‘Road of Life’ over the frozen lake in winter, and ferries in the other seasons, had taken in 1.6 million tonnes of food, ammunition, fuel and equipment, and brought out 1.4 million evacuees, but now was no longer needed. In the far south the North-Caucasus Front ended its Krasnodar offensive on 16 March, after advances of up to 70 kilometres (44 miles), and on 28 March the Central (formerly Don) Front did the same, after advancing about 150 kilometres (93 miles). In these areas, as at Demyansk and Rzhev-Vyazma, much of the action presented to the Soviet public as resulting from victories in battle was really pursuit of a skilfully withdrawing enemy, but that the Germans found it necessary to withdraw at all was a moral victory additional to those gained on the Volga-Don battlefields.
During the weeks of inactivity imposed by the spring thaw both sides began planning for the coming summer. In the interim, Zhukov secured Stalin’s agreement to reinforce the Voronezh and Central Fronts with three entire armies (1st Tank, 21st and 64th) from Stavka Reserve. Granted a Soviet ‘army’ was much smaller than a German one, the contrast manifested the changing balance of forces; while Germany was having to abandon long-held positions to save manpower, the Red Army was fielding substantial new forces. Furthermore, it was also out-producing Germany in the tanks, guns and aircraft needed to equip them. The early trickle of Lend-Lease supplies was now becoming a torrent, almost doubling from 2.45 million tons in 1942 to 4.8 million in 1943. Supplies of American trucks and jeeps (118,000 during 1942 alone, over three times as many as the 34,900 produced by Soviet plants) gave the Red Army’s infantry and artillery mobility on a scale Germany could not match, and enabled the Soviet vehicle industry to concentrate on producing tanks and self-propelled guns. American deliveries of transport aircraft similarly freed Soviet factories to produce fighters and bombers of new and improved types with which to take on the Luftwaffe.
When the situation stabilised, the Central Front was occupying the northern and Voronezh Front the southern face of an enormous salient, about 120 miles from north to south and over 60 miles from west to east, centred on Kursk, between two German salients, around Orel to the north and Kharkov to the south. The Kursk salient became the focal point of both sides’ planning for the summer campaigning season.
In German planning the rivalries between OKH, responsible for the Eastern Front except for the Finnish sector, and OKW, in charge of that sector and of all other theatres, soon showed themselves. In the spring of that year 187 (67.5 per cent) of Germany’s 277 divisions were on the Eastern Front, and demand for manpower was increased by Hitler’s insistence that OKW reinforce the North African theatre, to prevent or at least postpone collapse there, because if the Anglo-Americans were victorious, their next move would be a return to the European mainland.
Despite the reinforcements sent to North Africa, Axis resistance there collapsed in May, and the enhanced risk of an Anglo-American invasion prompted senior OKW officers such as Jodl and Warlimont to argue for divisions to be withdrawn from the East to strengthen the Western and Mediterranean theatres. However, their chief, Field-Marshal Keitel, gave them no support, deferring, as ever, to Hitler’s preferences. Guderian, recently restored to service as Inspector-General of Armoured Forces, strongly opposed mounting any major offensive at all in 1943. He saw such an undertaking as entailing the premature employment of the new Tiger heavy and Panther medium tanks, with their mechanical reliability yet untested, their crews not yet adequately trained or experienced to exploit their advantages and cope with any shortcomings, and their numbers too small to implement his maxim ‘klotzen, nicht kleckern’ (‘downpour, not drizzle’), all factors likely to prove important when the expected Anglo-American invasion added pressure in the West to the Wehrmacht’s increasingly heavy burdens in the East.
OKH, not surprisingly, saw things differently. Manstein later said in his memoirs that he had wanted to eliminate the Kursk salient at once, even before the spring thaw, but that proved impossible for lack of reserves. Hitler’s general instruction for the war in the East in 1943, Operations Order no. 5 of 13 March, stated:
It can be expected that after the end of winter and the spring thaw the Russians, after creating reserves of material resources and partially reinforcing their formations with men, will renew the offensive. Therefore our task consists of pre-empting them if possible in the offensive in different places, with the aim of imposing our will on them on even one sector of the front, as at the present time is taking place on the front line of Army Group South [i.e. Manstein’s offensive at Kharkov]. On the remaining sectors our task amounts to bleeding the attacking enemy. Here we must create a firm defence in good time.
In the North Caucasus Army Group A was simply to hold its positions on the River Kuban and ‘free forces for other fronts’. Army Group North was to prepare for another strike at Leningrad, while Army Groups Centre and South were to plan to destroy the Soviet forces in the Kursk salient. To achieve this Army Group South must ‘strike northwards from the Kharkov region in cooperation with an assault group of 2nd Army, to destroy the enemy forces operating before 2nd Army’s front’, and Army Group Centre was to create ‘an assault group to be used for an offensive in cooperation with forces of the northern wing of Army Group South. Forces for this are to be freed by the withdrawal of troops of 4th and 9th Armies from the Vyazma area to a shortened line…’. While Field-Marshal Kluge was arranging this, Manstein was to undertake ‘formation of an adequately combat-capable panzer army, concentration of which must be finished by mid-April, so that it can go over to the offensive at the end of the spring thaw’.
So the general concept of the German offensive at Kursk had been decided by mid-March. However, the proposal to launch it before the end of April, immediately after the thaw, proved totally unrealistic; neither troops nor equipment, especially adequate numbers of the new tanks, could be made available so soon. Delays in tank production, and also the time taken to satisfy Model’s needs for making up to strength divisions worn down in Operation ‘Mars’, prompted Hitler to postpone the offensive several times, eventually to ten weeks later than originally intended; and, as will be seen, the Soviet forces in, around and behind the salient made good use of the time gained by the successive delays.
Hitler issued Operations Order no. 6, for the offensive, codenamed Operation ‘Zitadelle’ (‘Citadel’), on 15 April. Army Group Centre’s 9th Army (Colonel-General Walter Model), with forces made available by its withdrawal during February–March from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, and the 2nd Panzer Army (General Rudolf Schmidt, soon replaced by General Erhard Raus) were to attack the Central Front at the northern neck of the salient, while the 4th Panzer Army (Colonel-General Herman Hoth) and Army Detachment Kempf of Army Group South attacked the Voronezh Front at the southern neck. Their aim was to break through and advance to link up near Kursk, then, in cooperation with the 2nd Army’s foot soldiers on the salient’s west face, to destroy the encircled Soviet forces. Success in ‘Citadel’ was to be followed by the transfer of the 2nd Army and units from High Command Reserve to Army Group South, for an immediate south-eastward offensive (Operation ‘Panther’) ‘to exploit the confusion in the enemy ranks’, and to retake those parts of the Donbass industrial and mining area not regained by Manstein’s March offensive or ceded by line-shortening tactical withdrawals.
Forces of both army groups were to be concentrated in rear areas well away from their start-lines, and to be ready any time after 28 April to start the offensive six days after receiving orders to do so, 5 May being set as the earliest possible date. In the meantime Army Group South was ordered to mislead the enemy by conducting ostentatious preparations for Operation ‘Panther’, including ‘demonstrative air reconnaissance, movement of tanks, assembly of pontoons, radio conversations, agent activity, spreading of rumours, air strikes, etc.’ Army Group Centre was not required to play such elaborate tricks, but should deceive by devices such as moving forces to the rear, making fake redeployments, sending transport columns back and forth in daylight hours, and spreading false information dating the offensive to not earlier than June. All real movements were to be by night, and all units newly arriving must maintain radio silence.
Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad and the evident imminence of a strategically comparable debacle in North Africa was causing some urgent rethinking among her allies. Italy had not stood to gain any territory or much economic benefit from Germany’s war with the Soviet Union, and Mussolini’s main reason for committing the Italian 8th Army to that war was the hope of ensuring that Hitler would respond in kind, after the expected rapid crushing of the Red Army, by making major forces available to help achieve the Duce’s primary ambition, victory over the British in the campaign to dominate the Mediterranean basin and North Africa. A quarter of a million Italians served on the Eastern Front; about 80,000 of them died in battle or captivity, and over 43,000 suffered wounds or frostbite; the survivors cursed the Duce for sending them to Russia, and their German ‘brothers in arms’ for their arrogance and uncooperativeness. Mussolini had already in November 1942 begun urging Hitler to make peace with Stalin so as to concentrate Axis forces against the anticipated Anglo-American invasions, first of Italy and eventually of the rest of German-occupied Western Europe. An indication of senior Italian military opinion was that General Ambrosio, the Army Chief of Staff, who had been insisting since November that all remaining Italian troops in Russia must be brought home, was promoted on 1 February 1943 to head the Commando Supremo, and before the end of May all the surviving members of the 8th Army had arrived back in Italy. With the surrender in the middle of that month of all German and Italian forces in North Africa, the Berlin–Rome ‘Axis’ effectively became a dead letter, with Mussolini’s dictatorship under threat and Italy beginning to seek a way out of the war.
Equally strong effects on other sufferers from the Stalingrad debacle, Romania and Hungary, would soon become apparent. By the opening of the battle of Kursk all Romanian forces had been withdrawn from Soviet territory, except from Moldova and Transdnistria, adjacent to and claimed by Romania, and only two divisions of the Hungarian 2nd Army remained with Army Group South, which employed them on occupation and anti-partisan duties, not as front-line troops.
The ‘Conducator’ of Romania, Marshal Antonescu, and the ‘Regent’ of Hungary, Admiral Horthy, had both begun covertly seeking contact with the British and Americans, in hopes of making peace with the West while continuing to fight against the approach of Communism from the East. Mussolini, on the other hand, continued to advocate coming to terms with the Soviet Union in order to concentrate forces against the expected Anglo-American invasion of Italy, and again wrote to Hitler to that effect on 17 March. But his grip on power and Fascism’s hold on Italy were already loosening; on 25 July he was deposed and arrested.
At the other extremity of the Eastern front, Finland hitherto had been Germany’s militarily most competent and reliable ally, but maintained that its war, unlike Germany’s, was defensive, a continuation of the ‘winter war’ of 1939–40, aiming not to destroy the Soviet Union but merely to recover the territories lost by that war. Marshal Mannerheim, who had been a lieutenant-general in the pre-revolutionary Russian Army, was well aware of the dangers of over-provoking Finland’s giant neighbour, and had agreed to resume the post of Commander-in-Chief only on condition that Finnish forces would on no account take part in any attempt to capture Leningrad. As early as August 1941 President Ryti, on Mannerheim’s insistence, had twice rejected requests from Keitel for the Finnish Army to advance north and east of Lake Ladoga, to link up with German forces advancing along its south shore, and thereby isolate Leningrad. To exercise more pressure Keitel sent his deputy, Jodl, to Finland on 4 September 1941, but Mannerheim remained firmly uncooperative, so exasperating Jodl that he burst out, ‘Well, do something, to show goodwill!’ To get rid of him, and not pre judice Finland’s negotiations with Germany for 15,000 tonnes of wheat, Mannerheim agreed to arrange a small diversionary offensive, but in the event did not make even that limited gesture.
The main constraint on Finland’s independent posture was its dependence on Germany for food and fuel. This dependence became even greater after the United Kingdom, an important pre-war trading partner, bowed to Soviet pressure and declared war on Finland on 6 December 1941, a day ironically significant in two ways: first, it was Finnish Independence Day, and secondly, it was the day that Mannerheim ordered the Finnish Army to go on to the defensive on all sectors immediately after capturing Medvezhegorsk, which it was about to do. He had already begun demobilising older soldiers at the end of November, and by the spring of 1942 had released 180,000 of them. Coincidentally, Zhukov launched the counter-offensive at Moscow on the day before Mannerheim ordered his army to cease attacking, and the day after he did so, Japan brought the United States into the war.
The Soviet victory at Moscow made a prolonged war inevitable, hence even more straining Finland’s limited resources, and this was further intensified after Stalingrad. On 3 February, the day after the last German units there surrendered, and four days after the end of Operation ‘Iskra’ at Leningrad, President Ryti took the prime minister and two other ministers to confer with Mannerheim about ‘the general situation’. They all agreed that Finland must seek a way out of the war, but that it could not do so immediately because of its economic dependence on Germany. On 9 February, at the defence minister’s request, Mannerheim’s Head of Intelligence, Colonel Paasonen, addressed a closed session of Parliament, ending his speech by advising the members to ‘get used to the possibility that we shall once again be obliged to sign a peace treaty with Moscow’. On the 15th the opposition Social-Democratic Party brought the issue into the open with a public statement that ‘Finland has the right to get out of the war at the moment it considers it desirable and possible’. An American offer of mediation was conveyed through the US embassy in Helsinki, and Foreign Minister Ramsay was sent to Berlin to tell the Germans of the American approach and try to extract a promise that German forces in Northern Finland would withdraw voluntarily if Finland requested their removal. No such promise was forthcoming; on the contrary, Foreign Minister Ribbentrop demanded that Finland not only reject the American approach, but also undertake to conclude neither truce nor armistice with Moscow without German consent. Ramsay conceded neither demand, so Ambassador Bluecher suggested applying pressure by restricting supplies of food and fuel, but for the time being Ribbentrop declined to go that far.
Hitler had already summoned the leaders of Hungary, Romania and Slovakia to meetings to pull them into line, and Bluecher demanded that President Ryti, re-elected on 15 February 1943, make the same journey, but Ryti refused. Germany showed its displeasure by temporarily recalling Bluecher, then, from the beginning of June, stopping all deliveries of food to Finland and halving deliveries of fuel and lubricants. However, Germany could not risk antagonising its only ally with proven ability to fight the Red Army successfully (and with a record at that better in some respects than Germany’s own). So the restrictions were lifted at the end of June, even though Finland had still made no concessions.
Most Finnish political and military leaders resisted even the thought of a lost war until at least the end of 1942, but Mannerheim had recognised the possibility much earlier, and throughout the year the Finnish Army not only undertook no offensives of its own but also refused to participate in German ones, such as the attempt to cut the railway along which about a quarter of Allied Lend-Lease supplies were transported from Murmansk and Archangelsk to central Russia.
The Finnish government periodically sounded public opinion by surveys, the results of which were published only after the war. The differences in results of two surveys, one in September 1942, the other in January 1943, indicated how public opinion shifted in response to the Soviet victory at Stalingrad and, on Finland’s own doorstep, to the success of Operation ‘Iskra’ in partially lifting the blockade of Leningrad. The surveys asked simply ‘Do you believe Germany will win?’ The results, in percentages, were as follows:
Finland had been stressed by its war effort to the extent of calling up 45-year-olds, and continued throughout 1943 to explore, quietly, so as not to arouse German suspicions, the possibilities for negotiating a way out of the war. In July the Soviet embassy in Stockholm conveyed a message through the Belgian ambassador, indicating willingness to negotiate, provided the initiative came from the Finnish side, but that approach was not followed up. Unlike the UK, the USA had not yet declared war on Finland, so during the summer of 1943 the Finnish government made a desperate attempt to secure American rather than Soviet or German occupation by notifying the State Department, via the US embassy in Lisbon, that if American forces landed in northern Norway and invaded Finland from there, the Finnish army would not resist them. However, the United States military had no interest in such a diversion, so nothing came of this. Finland did not in fact leave the war until September 1944, but that its leaders began seeking a way out on the very day of the final surrender at Stalingrad was evidence of that event’s impact on Germany’s allies, even on one that had no forces involved in the disaster.
To add to the Germans’ problems, the outcome at Stalingrad had important effects on the population of German-occupied Soviet territory. The Wehrmacht’s inability to achieve the anticipated lightning victory, and the behaviour of German occupation forces, had already considerably cooled the enthusiasm with which many, particularly in the Baltic states, former Polish or Romanian territory and Ukraine, had initially greeted the invaders; support or at least acceptance of their presence was widespread as long as they appeared to be winning. However, the debacle at Stalingrad alerted the inhabitants of occupied areas, whether pro- or anti-Soviet, to the likelihood that ultimately Soviet rule would return, then those who had resisted the invaders would be rewarded, any who had not would be severely punished, and any who had actively assisted them could expect a rope or a bullet.
The consequence was a great increase during the first half of 1943 in the numbers joining partisan units behind the German lines – according to one account numbers doubled, so that by March there were up to 100,000 in 1,047 detachments, and by the opening of ‘Citadel’ the numbers had risen to 142,000. With so many men available, increasingly controlled and supplied by the regular Fronts, large-scale partisan operations became possible for the first time; on the night of 22/23 June, for example, the rail system in Bryansk province was attacked. It was claimed that 4,100 rails were blown up, but that is undoubtedly an exaggeration, as the same account described the main line along which German reinforcements and supplies came in as blocked only ‘for three whole days’. However, an indication of the extent of partisan activity is that these attacks took place only three weeks after the conclusion of a major anti-partisan operation, ‘Zigeunerbaron’ (‘Gypsy Baron’), in precisely that area.
Partisan activity, small-scale and sporadic in 1941, had grown until guerrilla raids became too large and frequent to be countered solely by Einsatzkommandos, police battalions and (mostly Ukrainian) auxiliaries. It became necessary to use army units as well, and this diverted large numbers of German and allied troops from their front-line duties. Operation ‘Zigeunerbaron’ was a classic example. While preparations for ‘Citadel’ were in full swing, the entire 18th Panzer Division and other units, including Hungarian troops and Soviet ‘volunteers’, had to spend two weeks ‘purging’ the forest areas south of Bryansk of partisan forces estimated at 3,000–3,500 strong. The 18th Panzer Division alone claimed to have destroyed 207 ‘camps’ and 2,930 ‘combat positions’, killed or captured 700 partisans, killed 1,584 unspecified ‘others’, taken 1,568 prisoners and received 869 Red Army deserters, evacuated 15,812 civilians and burned down all villages in the area, thereby seemingly denuding it both of partisans and of all sources of support for them. Yet the partisans were able to mount substantial and coordinated attacks on the rail system only three weeks after ‘Zigeunerbaron’ ended.
For ‘Citadel’ Army Group Centre had available three panzer (41st, 46th and 47th) and two infantry (20th, 23th) corps, totalling 6 panzer, 1 panzer-grenadier (motorised infantry) and 14 infantry divisions, with over 900 tanks, supported by 730 aircraft. At Army Group South Hoth had three corps (52nd, 48th Panzer, 2nd SS Panzer) and so had Kempf (3rd Panzer, 42nd and Corps Raus), totalling between them 6 panzer, 5 panzer-grenadier and 11 infantry divisions, with about 1,000 tanks and 150 assault guns, and 1,100 aircraft. In reserve Army Group Centre had two panzer and one panzer-grenadier divisions, Army Group South one of each. The seven infantry divisions of the 2nd Army, on the salient’s west face, were to form the west side of the encirclement that the mobile forces were expected to create, and until that happened were to do just enough to prevent the enemy moving troops to other sectors. The forces available for ‘Citadel’ therefore totalled 55 divisions (15 panzer, 8 panzergrenadier and 32 infantry). All 23 mobile and 15 of the infantry divisions were at or near full strength, and they totalled about 900,000 men.
Even after the Directive was issued, there was still disagreement among the generals about the form ‘Citadel’ should take. On 4 May Hitler held a meeting in Munich with Kluge, Manstein, Guderian and Zeitzler, at which a letter from Model was considered, raising objections to the operation as planned because he still contended the resources allocated to him were inadequate. Possible alternatives discussed included simply attacking the west face of the salient, or allowing the Soviets to attack first, weakening them in a defensive battle, and then mounting a counteroffensive; Hitler rejected the first as necessitating too complex redeployments, and the second as ‘too passive’.
Had Hitler but known it, the defensive option he then disdained was the very one that Stalin had already chosen three weeks earlier, on Zhukov’s recommendation. Apart from one day (25 March) in Moscow, Zhukov was with the Voronezh and Central Fronts from 17 March to 11 April, and Vasilevsky joined him on 1 April. On 8 April Zhukov sent a telegram to Stalin, in which he stated categorically that the Germans’ summer offensive would be against the Kursk salient, that there were two options, to disrupt their preparations by attacking first, or to wear them out in a defensive battle then launch a counter-offensive, and that he favoured the latter course. This meant temporarily surrendering the initiative, something generals normally prefer to avoid unless absolutely sure they know what the enemy intends to do. Yet Zhukov, an anything but ‘passive’ commander, proposed to build the entire Soviet strategy around what he expected the Germans to do, only a few weeks after February’s major Intelligence failure to foresee Manstein’s offensive, and a full week before Hitler even issued the Directive for ‘Citadel’. Why were he and Stalin so sure that they knew what the Germans would do?
Neither Zhukov nor Vasilevsky ever explained the reasons for their certainty. Zhukov said only that ‘by agreement’ with Vasilevsky and the Front commanders a ‘careful reconnaissance’ of the enemy facing the Central, Voronezh and South-West Fronts was conducted in late March and early April, using Intelligence Directorate and partisan resources to establish ‘presence and deployment of enemy reserves in depth…the course of regrouping and concentration of forces redeployed from France, Germany and other countries’. The main problem with this statement is that in ‘late March and early April’ there were few ‘enemy reserves’ for Intelligence to find anywhere at all, let alone deployed in positions that could be positively equated with an intended future attack on the Kursk salient. As already mentioned, Manstein’s hopes of mounting an offensive against it in April had been thwarted by lack of reserves. Some would have become available after the abandonment of the Demyansk salient at the end of February. However, when Hitler issued Operations Order no. 5 his assignments of additional forces for ‘Citadel’ did not mention Demyansk at all, but specifically allocated troops from the 4th and 9th Armies that would become available by withdrawal from the much larger Rzhev-Vyazma salient. When he issued the Order, on 13 March, that withdrawal was still in progress. It was completed on the next day, reducing the length of the front line in that sector from 550 to 200 kilometres (from about 344 to 125 miles), and freeing 20 divisions, 15 of which were redeployed to block the offensive by the Bryansk and Central Fronts in the Orel area. However, by 8 April, the day Zhukov sent his message to Stalin, few of the units in question could yet have moved to locations identifiable by local Soviet reconnaissance as associated with anything beyond the local defensive battles in which they were engaged till the last days of March. In fact 27 March was the first day for several months on which the daily Sovinformburo bulletin announced ‘no significant changes’ in the front line.
As for ‘regrouping and concentration of forces redeployed from France, Germany and other countries’, movements involving more than routine replacement of casualties for units already on the Eastern Front would not be undertaken until that same Operations Order no. 5 was issued, so would not even begin until the second half of March, and only air force units could undertake them quickly (as mentioned below, Bletchley’s first indications of German intentions related to Kursk came from Luftwaffe messages decrypted during the third week of March).
Vasilevsky was scarcely more forthcoming, commenting,
although we didn’t know everything about the German plans we foresaw much, and deduced much, relying both on information from the Intelligence organs and on analysis of current events. Documents in our possession fully reveal the mechanism of the German army’s preparation for a new offensive…Despite all the contradictions and disputes, the German command’s plans amounted to decisively weakening the striking force of the offensive by Soviet troops that they expected in summer, after that develop a victorious offensive in the east, snatch the strategic initiative from the hands of the Soviet command and achieve a breakthrough in the war to their advantage.
This passage is remarkable for two things. First, his use of the present tense ‘reveal’ may be a ‘historic present’ (somewhat more common in Russian usage than in English), meaning that the General Staff had the documents before the battle, or it may mean that they came into ‘our possession’ only after it, at some unspecified time before he wrote his memoirs. Secondly, his summary of the German plans as comprising a defensive battle followed by a counter-offensive is completely wrong. As noted above, Hitler had rejected that as ‘too passive’. Furthermore, Vasilevsky contradicted himself in the very next paragraph, which correctly cited Operations Order no. 5 of 13 March as ‘setting the task of pre-empting the Soviet forces on various sectors of the front after the spring thaw’. But here too he did not say whether the Order’s contents were or were not known before the battle. So neither of the two main architects of the Soviet victory at Kursk shed much light on the question of where they got their information. There may therefore be some point in looking at possible sources that are known to have existed, but that neither would mention for security reasons.
The two principal Soviet Intelligence organisations, the GRU (Military) and NKVD (political), maintained large networks of agents abroad; before the invasion these had provided numerous warnings that it would happen, and some information about planning, but nothing precise enough to shake Stalin’s erroneous beliefs that Hitler would not invade at all, or if he did, that his main purpose would be to secure resources for a long war. Up to and including the Stalingrad campaign, gaps in Intelligence continued to create problems for Stavka. As previously mentioned, one in particular, the failure to discover that the capture of Moscow was no longer on the German agenda, led it into serious errors, when von Bock’s persistence in efforts to take Voronezh during July 1942 was misread as portending a subsequent northward drive to outflank Moscow, leading to retention in its vicinity of large reserves that, if sent south earlier, could have helped prevent the Germans reaching the Volga, Stalingrad and the Caucasus. It will be seen below that a persistent belief in the long-discarded German aspirations to capture Moscow continued to affect Soviet planning up to and including that for the defensive battle of Kursk in July, even though the Germans had abandoned the likeliest launching point for it, the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, during March.
Both the counter-offensives at Stalingrad (Operations ‘Uranus’ and ‘Saturn’) had to be extensively modified during their execution because of gaps in Intelligence information. The forces encircled proved over three times as large as expected, necessitating the temporary suspension of ‘Uranus’ and the modification of ‘Saturn’ into ‘Little Saturn’, keeping far more forces than originally planned in the Stalingrad area, and hence so much reducing those intended to cut off Army Group A in the Caucasus that that objective had to be abandoned. Another gap was closed only by chance. A German relief attempt was expected, but Intelligence could not discover where it would start. The answer was found only on 28 November when reconnaissance patrols of the 4th Cavalry Corps found the 6th Panzer Division, just transferred from France, detraining at Kotelnikovo, one of the two likely starting points that Zhukov had identified in the assessment he sent to Stalin at that time. Then in February 1943 Soviet Intelligence completely failed to detect the build-up for Manstein’s counter-offensive that recaptured Kharkov, and forced the Voronezh, South-West and Bryansk Fronts to retreat to the Seversky Donets river, abandoning most of the just-reconquered Donbass.
Vasilevsky attributed this last failure to ‘incorrect assessment of the strategic situation’ by the three Front commands, especially a misreading of Manstein’s regrouping of his forces in early February. These involved westward movements from the Kharkov area, to Krasnograd by the SS Panzer Corps and to Krasnoarmeiskoe by the 40th and 48th Panzer Corps, and these were wishfully misinterpreted as the first moves in a major retreat to the Dnepr river line. Vasilevsky also admitted that Stavka and the General Staff compounded the error by setting over-ambitious tasks in pursuit of an enemy whom they wrongly believed so thoroughly beaten as to be incapable of mounting a counter offensive. His explanation of his and Zhukov’s confidence about German intentions at Kursk mentioned no sources of information higher than those available to the ‘Fronts’, i.e. prisoners, documentation at divisional or lower level, or reports of unit movements detected by partisans, cavalry patrols or reconnaissance aircraft. Otherwise he mentioned only unspecified ‘information from the Intelligence organs’, and ‘analysis of current events’, without specifying what information, or what ‘current events’ indicative of future German intentions could have been available as early as the first week of April.
An account provided by Anastas Mikoyan indicates that Stalin’s mind was made up even before the end of March. When the dictator summoned him to a meeting, at 2 a.m. on 27 March, he told him that Intelligence information indicated the Germans were concentrating large forces for an offensive in the Kursk salient area: ‘Seemingly they are trying to gain the strategic initiative having a long-range aim at Moscow.’ He was wrong on that latter point, and on the first there cannot have been very large movements by 27 March. Withdrawal from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient had been completed only on 14 March, and not many of the units from there intended for the ‘Citadel’ offensive were likely to have moved in only 13 days, especially since the spring thaw was in full spate. It could be that Soviet Intelligence had gained some information about Operations Order no. 5 of 13 March, but no source so far has disclosed if or how they obtained it; and even if they had, it does not mention Moscow, so Stalin’s reference to it must have derived simply from his reluctance to shed the belief that it must inevitably be the Germans’ prime target.
On 8 April, a mere seven weeks after the complete Intelligence failure over Manstein’s counter-offensive, Zhukov sought and obtained Stalin’s approval for a plan based entirely on what the Germans were expected to do. Granted the salient stuck out as an obvious place to attack, but victory in war frequently rests on an ability to avoid the obvious, and German generals had often displayed considerable talent in that direction. Besides, a case could be made for other objectives. Operation ‘Don’, carried out by the Transcaucasus, North Caucasus and South Fronts from 1 January to 4 February, had forced Army Group A to withdraw to the Taman peninsula but had not evicted it from the Caucasus, and a German attempt to use the peninsula as a launch-point for a renewed attempt to retake the nearest oilfields, at Maikop, was not beyond the bounds of possibility. Nor was another assault at Leningrad, at least to close off the narrow corridor between the city and the rest of the country.
To discard all possible alternatives and identify the Kursk salient as the sole target for the German summer offensive of 1943 required more than inspired guesswork; so did the decision to fight a defensive battle rather than disrupt the German preparations by attacking first. Granted, the three previous major victories conducted or masterminded by Zhukov, in Mongolia, at Moscow and Stalingrad, had all involved a defensive battle followed by a counter-offensive, but in all three that sequence had been dictated by enemy offensives, whereas his proposal to follow the same pattern at Kursk was entirely voluntary. Completely reliable information about German intentions would have to be involved, and it is therefore reasonable to consider where he could have acquired it.
All the members of the ‘Red Orchestra’ networks of Soviet agents in Germany and occupied Europe had been executed, imprisoned or ‘turned’ to work for the Abwehr between August 1942 and January 1943, so none of them could have provided any advance information about plans for a future German offensive against a salient that came into existence only in March 1943.
Another possible source would be ‘Lucy’ in Switzerland, the codename of Rudolf Roessler, a German exile apparently with sources in the High Command. Moscow initially treated him with suspicion because he refused to disclose his sources (he never did), though it eventually came to regard him as highly reliable. Contrary to the fanciful account by Accoce and Quet, who claim Roessler was providing information to the Soviets from the spring of 1941, including the complete text of the ‘Barbarossa’ plan, and that he met his Soviet controller, the Hungarian Communist Sandor Rado, at that time, all Soviet accounts agree that the details of ‘Barbarossa’ were not known in advance (if they had been, Stalin would not have made the erroneous assumption that the main assault would come south of the Pripyat marshes), and Rado wrote in his memoirs that he acquired Roessler only in November 1942.
Messages from Lucy from the first half of 1943, cited in Rado’s memoirs or other sources, included nothing as high-level as plans for a major German offensive. Besides, the changes in Soviet plans necessitated by gaps in Intelligence between mid-November 1942 and mid-February 1943 suggest that Lucy did not provide especially valuable information in that period either. Even if he then began to produce much better-quality Intelligence, Stalin and Zhukov were hardly likely to have come to trust him so unconditionally by early April as to base their entire strategic plan on messages from him. Furthermore, the former NKVD/KGB general Sudoplatov pointed out that many of Lucy’s reports were similar or even identical to paraphrased Ultra material passed on officially by the British, and therefore concluded that he was a British ‘plant’. The British had indeed succeeded in planting an agent in Rado’s group, so Sudoplatov’s claim is credible, but it is probably not the full story, especially as the most authoritative account of British Intelligence in the Second World War does not mention Operations Order no. 5 among the messages Bletchley decrypted during March.
Roessler also worked for Swiss Intelligence; Switzerland, then entirely surrounded by German or German-occupied territory, necessarily kept a very close eye on the Wehrmacht, and a tight rein over disclosing its findings. Roessler cannot have been its only source of information, and since Switzerland’s interests were better served by a Nazi defeat than a Nazi victory, it may well have passed information to Roessler, fully intending it to reach the British or any other of Germany’s enemies. As noted in the previous chapter, Paul Carell’s view was that Swiss Intelligence was the actual source of messages received from Roessler’s sub-source ‘Werther’. He noted that all messages received from Werther after 11 February 1942 gave misleading information that Manstein’s forces were withdrawing rather than concentrating for his March counter-offensive, but claims this was because Manstein did not inform OKH or OKW, so officers there, including Werther, drew the same erroneous conclusion as the Soviets. It took a visit to Manstein’s headquarters to dispel Hitler’s misgivings on this issue, so Carell has a point; but an alternative possibility is that the source was a double-agent and the February messages were intended to disinform.
One Russian author has in fact suggested that Lucy was a German disinformation agent, basing his arguments mainly on manifest inaccuracies in some messages cited by Rado. For example, a Kursk-related message of April 1943, allegedly listing the divisions in the 4th Panzer Army of Army Group South, included five that were there and six that were not – the false identifications included one each then in Norway, Germany and with Army Group Centre, and three that did not exist then or ever. If the purpose of the message was indeed to disinform, such an exaggeration of Army Group South’s strength would aim at deterring the Soviets from attempting an offensive immediately after the spring thaw, but if it was not so intended, then Roessler’s sources were clearly nowhere near as good as Accoce and Quet or Rado claimed.
Two other Lucy messages received in June also appear calculated to deceive. The first, on 17 June, said that the Germans considered an offensive at Kursk too risky in view of the Soviet strength, and the second, on the 21st, stated that Army Group South was regrouping so as to threaten the flank of an expected Red Army offensive. Both could only be attempts to dissuade the enemy from expecting an attack that in reality was only two weeks from launching.
Another ground for suspicion of Lucy is that not one of Roessler’s alleged sources surfaced after the war ended. If they were really members of OKW or OKH, both defined by the victors as criminal organisations, their careers, incomes and prospects had been terminated by the Wehrmacht’s defeat and disbandment, and they faced the prospect of at least a denazification hearing or possibly even a trial as war criminals. Their reception by Moscow would have been problematical; on returning there both Rado and Leonid Trepper, the Red Orchestra’s ‘Big Chief’, were charged with having been German-controlled double agents, ‘rewarded’ with 10-year jail sentences, rehabilitated and freed only after Stalin’s death. However, American or British Intelligence services would surely have welcomed Lucy’s ‘sources’, and even have sought to recruit them as double-agents in the rapidly evolving Cold War, and that would have considerably improved their lives in devastated post-war Germany. Could it be that if Roessler had provided names, then the British, Americans or Soviets would have tried to contact them directly, and would then have found that they did not exist?
The contention that Lucy was a German-controlled double agent is inconsistent with the fact that it was German pressure that obliged the Swiss in October 1943 to locate Rado’s transmitters and shut his ring down. However, there are at least three possible explanations for that. First, that it was a genuine espionage ring, to which the Sicherheitsdienst or Gestapo failed to apply the preferred counter-espionage solution of turning at least some of its members, as they did with the Red Orchestra, and as the British did with all German agents sent to the UK, and the Soviets did with agents sent in to support Max. Secondly, it may have been felt to have outlived its utility as disinformation, and that the Soviets were no longer reacting as expected. Thirdly, it could even be, as is not uncommon in espionage, that the right hand, Gestapo or Sicherheitsdienst, did not know what the left hand, the Abwehr, was doing. That no arrests in OKW or OKH accompanied the shutdown suggests that if Roessler had sources there, they were extraordinarily good at covering their tracks, or were indeed participants in a ‘disinforming’ operation shut down because it had outlived its usefulness. Or it could be that the information was, as Sudoplatov claimed, ‘planted’ by the British, or came from Swiss Intelligence, and that the Swiss complied with the German demand because by October 1943 it was clear that Germany’s defeat, though not imminent, was inevitable. The ring was therefore no longer needed, and continuing risked exposing their own role, prompting a German blockade or even invasion. Evidence to establish the truth is not in the public domain, and probably never will be.
Advance Ultra information from Bletchley may have been among the factors influencing Stalin’s decision of 12 April, but was not definite enough to have been the only factor. Its main utility was that later messages provided useful information about German preparations to the Soviet General Staff planners of the defensive battle. The British official history noted the first signs of German preparations in the third week of March 1943, from decrypted Luftwaffe messages ‘about the movement of panzer divisions on the central sector of the eastern front, and are organisation of GAF [German Air Force] commands which brought Fliegerkorps VIII back to the Kharkov area for close support operations’. Then on 13 April another Luftwaffe message first used the codename ‘Zitadelle’ (‘Citadel’), and on the 19th another disclosed that Luftflotte (Air Fleet) IV ‘was sending forces allocated to Zitadelle to GAF Command East’. If the messages from the third week of March were passed quickly to Moscow, officially in paraphrased form or unofficially by one of the ‘resident’s’ agents, they could certainly have been taken into account in the Soviet decision-making, and may help account for what Stalin told Mikoyan on 27 March, but those of 13 and 19 April cannot have influenced the principal decision about how to fight the battle, because Stalin had already taken that on the 12th, when he endorsed the proposal Zhukov had made on the 8th.
The same reservation applies to the most comprehensive of the early indicators deciphered by Bletchley, a message from Field-Marshal von Weichs, commanding Army Group B, transmitted some time after 15 April and decrypted on the 25th. The gist of it may have been passed on officially to the Soviets, but according to two post-Soviet publications the State Defence Committee received a translation of the actual text from the NKVD ‘resident’ in London on 7 May; one of the accounts says it had been passed to him by Philby, who had received it from Cairncross. A post-Soviet account of Soviet Intelligence operations during 1941–45 devoted an entire chapter to Cairncross. It said that,
in his new job at Bletchley Cairncross received access to a whole range of deciphered German documents, which were immediately passed to Moscow. Philby also had access to a range of such documents – they were sent to him by the Chief of Intelligence. Blunt also sometimes managed to acquire some materials. But Cairncross had these documents in his own safe, and could use them as they arrived, i.e. without great delay. He passed on very important information about the offensive the Germans were preparing on the Kursk salient, indicated approximate dates for the offensive, the technical parameters of the new German ‘Tiger’ tank, and other information. By his self-sacrificing work he made a serious contribution to our victory at Kursk and on other fronts.
The same post-Soviet account credited the NKVD ‘resident’ in London with 14 agents altogether; since MI5’s post-war investigations did not, at least publicly, identify anything like that many, there may have been more than one still unidentified ‘mole’ passing on information. Certainly the Weichs message and anything else the ‘resident’ obtained about ‘Citadel’ would be very helpful to the General Staff planners, but Stalin had taken the crucial decision two weeks before Weichs’ message was deciphered, and four weeks before the State Defence Committee received its translated text. As for technical details of Tiger tanks, the Soviets did not need them; as noted below, they captured several between November 1942 and April 1943, and put them through comprehensive tests in April.
Although Ultra information from Bletchley cannot have been the sole or principal source of Zhukov’s and Stalin’s confidence as early as April about German intentions, information, particularly from Cairncross, about the methods employed in deciphering may nevertheless have played a role in the Soviet decision-making. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the British decided not to share the Ultra secret, believing Soviet security to be German-penetrated, and expecting the Red Army would be speedily defeated. After both assumptions proved wrong, they took to passing on important information from Ultra, paraphrased and without disclosing the source, beyond dropping vague hints about an agent in the German High Command. The Soviets pretended to believe them, but obviously knew exactly what the source was, on information from Cairncross, Philby, Blunt and maybe others among the alleged 14 agents. Perhaps even more important than any information they passed on would be the messages’ evidence that many Enigma-based systems (and, as with the Weichs message, even the more complex ‘Tunny’) had been broken, and that large numbers of messages were being deciphered daily, often within only a few hours of transmission, to the great benefit of the Anglo-American war effort. Even before the war the Soviet Union had had a large interception and decrypting organisation (Sudoplatov mentioned that they were deciphering messages to or from several foreign embassies, including those of Japan, Italy, Turkey and Bulgaria), and the discovery from their British agents that the German cipher systems were breakable would justify a large commitment of intellectual and material resources.
In that connection the account mentioned above goes on to say:
Along with material of a military-operational character, Cairncross passed on data about the machine-cipher Tunny, which was used by the British to decipher German radio messages. On the basis of these data an analogous example of this machine was designed…In the operational file there is a task set by the Centre to the London residency. In particular it is stated that the Germans have made some changes in the machine’s design, and that therefore additional data are required, data that maybe are known to the British and accessible by Cairncross. The data were received from the source and sent on to Moscow. There is no information in the file about the further fate of this deciphering machine.
Tunny was Bletchley’s codename for the German SZ40 (Schluesselzusatz, ‘key-adder’) cipher machine and its derivatives, several versions of SZ42, used for communication at the highest military levels, such as between OKW/OKH and the headquarters of army groups, and including the message from Weichs, mentioned above. It was first observed in use in mid-1941, and by January 1942 Bletchley ‘understood its design and method of operation’. It was far more sophisticated than Enigma, so decryption was ‘normally too laborious to be undertaken by hand, and the first stage of mechanisation was the provision of a decyphering machine, delivered early in June 1942’. As to the unknown ‘further fate’ of the machine, if the reference is to the British machine, it is quite wrong. The first machine-deciphering successes were achieved in early May 1943 by a machine codenamed ‘Robinson’, replaced in February 1944 by Colossus 1, the first programmable computer. The reference must be to an attempted Russian counterpart to ‘Robinson’, otherwise why would Moscow ask its London ‘resident’ for data that could be obtained only from someone actually working at Bletchley? The most likely reason why there is nothing further on file is simply that they could not make the Soviet machine work, but that they even tried suggests a high level of cryptanalytical effort.
Bletchley could not acquire much Enigma traffic from German army units on the Eastern Front. Every division commander had an Enigma machine and radio transmitter in his command vehicle, but except when actually on the move most communication after December 1941 was via landlines, making use of radio too sporadic and the amount of traffic picked up by UK-operated intercept stations too small to decrypt on a regular basis. The best source of information about the Eastern Front remained the Luftwaffe general (‘Red’) cipher. ‘Fish’ messages, though taking longer to decrypt, were also valuable because the information they contained was more high-level, and consequently took longer to become outdated.
The Soviet situation was different. Landlines could be, and frequently were, tapped. During the Battle of Moscow for example, a German unit reported killing a Soviet officer who was doing so. General S.P. Ivanov, Vatutin’s Chief of Staff at Stalingrad, mentioned in his memoirs both receipt of a decrypted message that had been transmitted less than 36 hours previously, and a successful tapping operation against the Romanian 3rd Army. Line-tapping was also among the tasks set for partisans operating behind the German lines.
Radio interception of enemy traffic was frequently mentioned in Front commanders’ reports from late 1942 onwards, though in most cases the references were to voice communication, especially between German aircraft and ground controllers. It is also relevant that Bletchley found Luftwaffe cipher systems easier to break than those of the army or navy. German army operations depended heavily on air support, and in early 1943 about 60 per cent of the Luftwaffe was on the Eastern Front. Luftwaffe liaison officers (Fliegerverbindungsoffizieren, or ‘Flyvos’), each with an Enigma machine, were regularly attached to army units, and their messages frequently provided valuable clues about army operations.
The many secrets unveiled in the post-Soviet era have as yet included very little about the role of cryptanalysis in the Soviet–German war. That high-level Soviet communications were very secure is clear from the experience of Bletchley’s German counterpart, the B-Dienst; it found Soviet low-level tactical military ciphers easy to break, but had no success above that level. Front or higher-level Soviet commanders used Baudot machines and landlines, so messages could not be regularly intercepted, and Soviet diplomatic traffic used codebooks plus one-time pads of randomly generated figures; if these are properly used, messages can be deciphered only by those holding both book and pads. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Soviet expertise in codes and ciphers was of a high standard; the simplicity of tactical ciphers was mainly because low-level transmission resources were often primitive, originators and receivers of messages were not highly trained cryptographers, and any action proposed or requested in tactical-level messages would usually be taken before any third party could decipher or act on them.
In addition to a massive intellectual and technological effort, the British mounted substantial operations (e.g. a commando raid on the Lofoten Islands, seizure of German weather ships in the North Atlantic, recovery of machines and documents from captured U-boats) in order to secure single Enigma machines and associated documentation such as key tables. The surrender of the German 6th Army and part of the 4th Panzer Army at the end of January must have provided Soviet cryptanalysts with a number of Enigma machines and associated documentation far beyond what any British or American operation acquired. Each of the 20 division and 5 corps commanders had one such machine; the 6th Army headquarters had at least one, and may have had a ‘Fish’ machine as well. Some Flyvos probably escaped on returning supply flights, but by 17 January the Soviets had taken six of the seven local airfields, and made the seventh unusable by artillery fire and air attacks, so there were no landings or take-offs in the remaining days before the final surrender, and most Flyvos must still have been in the city. Even if only five were still there, that brings the total of Enigma machines in Stalingrad to 30. The troops were freezing and starving, ammunition, explosives and fuel were almost all gone, the ground was frozen too hard and the troops too weak to destroy or bury the machines. They could at most take a rifle-butt to them, and in some cases not even that – one last message ended with ‘the Russians are breaking in…’. It is also unlikely that key tables, operational documents and manuals were all destroyed, and it is entirely speculative, but not unreasonable to postulate that the haul of machines and documents at Stalingrad facilitated a ‘last heave’ by an already existing programme that had made progress, but not yet resolved all the problems.
This treasure-trove became available only in the first week of February, too late for much exploitation before Manstein’s offensive at Kharkov, but during March it may have become possible to decipher some Enigma traffic, including messages between divisions and armies concerning preparations for ‘Citadel’. Divisions on the move would sometimes have to resort to radio transmission – the order to observe radio silence applied to operator chatter and plain text messages, but not to enciphered traffic, because the Germans did not learn until 27 years after the war that the British had broken their ciphers. Interception of such transmissions could have been among the factors giving Zhukov the confidence about German intentions that prompted his message to Stalin on 8 April. Information from Front Intelligence and partisan observations of eastbound rail traffic would certainly also have been involved, but the most significant preliminary move, the German IX Army’s withdrawal from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, took place by stages between 1 and 14 March. As noted above, this released up to 22 divisions to IX Army reserve, and hence to eventual availability for ‘Citadel’. However, with movement impeded by the spring thaw, and the need to employ several of these divisions to stop the attempted offensive by the Bryansk, Central and Voronezh Fronts, major redeployment into starting positions for ‘Citadel’ could not have been far enough advanced by the first week of April to account by itself for the confident tone of Zhukov’s message to Stalin.
Bletchley’s analytical effort naturally depended mainly on mathematicians, and although the relevance of chess-players is less obvious, work there did attract a number of them, including several of high international ranking. Russia was not short of mathematicians and chess champions, and given what it learned about Ultra from Cairncross and others, Soviet Intelligence must have devoted a large effort to Enigma-breaking. Intelligence failures up to mid-February 1943 suggest no or very limited success until then, but the least implausible explanation for the very marked improvement thereafter is successful exploitation of materials captured at Stalingrad.
No Russian account gives any details about where Stavka received the information that led it three times (on 2 and 20 May, and 2 July) to notify the two Front commanders in the salient that the German offensive would begin within a few days. In fact Hitler first set the date as 3 May, but changed his mind on 29 April, because he considered the numbers of the new tanks, assault and anti-tank self-propelled guns so far available to the attacking divisions insufficient. He then set a new date of 12 June, but ‘events in the Mediterranean’ (specifically the surrender of all Axis forces in North Africa on 12 May) forced another postponement, and even raised the possibility of abandonment. However, on 21 June he fixed the launching date for ‘Citadel’ as 3 July, then on the 25th changed it to 5 July. Stavka’s warning to the commanders on 2 May fits with Hitler’s original starting date of 3 May, and it is just possible that it was based on intercepted traffic. Hitler’s original order specified that Army Groups Centre and South must be able to launch ‘Citadel’ on five days’ notice. A launch on 3 May would therefore have to be ordered by, at the latest, 29 April, the date on which Hitler cancelled it. There is no information in the public domain to indicate whether any orders had been issued before the cancellation. The 20 May warning was simply wrong, but no Soviet or post-Soviet source has said on what it was based. The third warning, on 2 July, was absolutely correct, and its timing is interesting. It was only on 1 July that Hitler assembled at his Rastenburg headquarters the marshals and generals who would lead ‘Citadel’, Manstein, Kluge, Model, Hoth, Kempf and the commanders of the two air fleets, von Greim and Dessloch, and ordered them to start it on the 5th. The time of day of this meeting is not known, but since Hitler, like Churchill and Stalin, habitually worked into the small hours and then slept until at least mid-morning, it was unlikely to have taken place before 10 a.m. German summer time, which was 11 a.m. Moscow time. Stalin’s message warning the Front commanders that ‘Citadel’ was likely to be launched ‘during the period 3–6 July’ was transmitted at 2.10 a.m. Moscow time on the 2nd. That is 1.10 a.m. German time, at most only 15 hours after the meeting at which Hitler gave his generals their final orders.
This rapidity suggests two possibilities. One is that by then some Enigma traffic was being read. After the meeting, and before leaving headquarters, Manstein, Kluge, Model and Hoth, and probably also both air fleet commanders, would necessarily send orders to their own Chiefs of Staff to start alerting subordinate formations to prepare for battle, though without telling them the starting date. Messages from OKH to the headquarters of Army Groups Centre and South would probably use the more complex Fish machine cipher, and be sent by landline, but those from army headquarters to divisions or corps and to Luftwaffe units would be enciphered on Enigma machines, and some of them would be transmitted by radio, therefore vulnerable to interception.
The other, simpler, possibility is that the Soviets could intercept but not decipher Enigma messages, but concluded from traffic analysis that action was imminent because of the sudden large increase in traffic caused by the messages that Army Groups Centre and South and the army and air force HQs under them had to send, to alert their subordinate formations. Either possibility fits the speed of Stavka’s warning to the Fronts better than the idea of messages going from a source in OKW or OKH to Roessler in Switzerland, then through one of his intermediaries, Schneider or Duebendorfer, to Rado, who would then have to encipher it and contact one of his operators to have it transmitted to Moscow. Messages that Rado cited in his memoirs invariably took two or more days to be delivered.
Whatever the means that secured them, the improvements in Soviet Intelligence enabled Stavka’s planning for the summer to proceed more or less in parallel with the German. However, the planners were soon confronted by the disconcerting discovery that the new German Tiger I heavy tank was far superior to their prized KVs and T-34s because of its thicker armour, superior binocular sights and much longer-range and greater-calibre 88mm gun. Tempting fate, the Germans in late 1942 had sent a small pre-production batch of the new Henschel Tiger Is to the Leningrad front, where one became bogged in marshland and was captured. However, the Red Army’s tank and artillery specialists were preoccupied at that time with the situation around Stalingrad, so the encounter then attracted little attention. In December a battalion of Tigers was included in Hoth’s force that attempted to lift the siege of Stalin grad, then in early April 1943 some damaged Tigers were captured near Belgorod.
Tests conducted on 25–30 April, using various calibre anti-tank, field, tank and anti-aircraft guns, showed that armour-piercing shells from the 76.2mm F-34 gun then standard on the T-34-76 and KV-1 could not pierce even the side armour of a Tiger at more than 200 metres, while the Tiger’s 88mm shells could penetrate 110mm of armour at up to 2 kilo metres (1.25 miles). The thickest frontal armour on Soviet tanks was 100mm on the KV1 and 45–60mm on the T-34-76; therefore all would be vulnerable for the time it took them to get within killing distance of a Tiger. Even if they could cover the 1.8 kilometres (about 1.1 miles) at full speed, it would take them over two minutes; a Tiger could fire several rounds in that time, with a good prospect that one of them would score a direct hit.
Nor was the Tiger the only threat to Soviet tanks. The Ferdinand assault gun had an even more powerful 88mm gun than the Tiger, and thicker frontal armour, while the new medium Mark V Panther tank and newer examples of the older Mark IV mounted a long-barrelled 75mm gun, shells from which could penetrate the frontal armour of a KV at 1 kilometre (0.62 miles) and of a T-34 at 1.5 kilometres (0.93 miles). In addition the late G and H models of the Mark IV had been fitted with extra sheets of armour-plate at the front and over the tracks, and even many of the obsolescent Mk III tanks had been retrofitted with a long-barrelled 50mm gun, shells from which could also penetrate the armour of a T-34 at over a kilometre. Furthermore, the Zeiss binocular sights fitted in the new and up-gunned older tanks ensured more accurate fire than Soviet tank crews could achieve.
The Soviet position was further eroded by the fact that only their commanders’ tanks had radio transmitters. The rest had only receivers or nothing at all, so that if a commander’s tank was knocked out, his entire unit became leaderless. Their German counterparts mostly operated from ‘command tanks’ equipped with a wooden dummy gun, with the liberated space in the turret used to mount superior radio equipment; tank crews subordinate to them could receive and transmit, enabling the second-in-command to take over if the command tank was knocked out, and crews to inform their superiors quickly of any changes in the local situation. Soviet accounts noted that the Germans were well aware of the Soviet lack of transmitters, and tended to concentrate their fire on any tank seen to have a transmitting antenna.
Stalin had further muddied the waters; in an attempt to exploit the superior speed and manoeuvrability of the T-34 he had issued a directive on 19 September 1942 ordering tank units to begin engagements by a storm of fire from their main armament and machine guns while on the move, carrying additional shells and bullets for that purpose, and enhancing mobility by mounting extra fuel tanks on their rear decks. Tank gun stabilisers had not yet been invented, so firing on the move was inaccurate and wasteful, while the additional ammunition created storage problems in the cramped turret, and the unprotected fuel tanks were a serious fire hazard.
Although the claim that the T-34 was the best tank of the war in any army has cascaded from one post-war publication to another, that claim is tenable after mid-1943 only partially (once its mechanical problems were resolved, the Panther became a strong contender for the title) and in respect of the later version, the T-34–85, which did not start to arrive in units till March 1944. Apart from the inadequacy of its gun against the Tiger, Panther, Ferdinand or upgunned Mks III and IV, the T-34–76 as first manufactured had a number of other shortcomings, to which Timoshenko, when People’s Commissar for Defence, had drawn attention well before the war. In a letter to Voroshilov (then Chairman of the Defence Committee of the Council of People’s Commissars), dated 6 November 1940, he had recommended an increase in the crew from 4 to 5 to incorporate a gunner. The cramped nature of the turret meant the tank commander had also to be the gunlayer, and this distracted him from his command duties, creating serious problems, especially if he had to control other tanks beside his own (the Soviets did not follow the German use of ‘command tanks’ until well into 1944). Timoshenko also sought improvements to the view, especially from the turret, and to the communications system, and changes to the transmission and gearbox. Manufacture was temporarily suspended, while work began on a modified T-34M, due to begin deliveries on 1 January 1942, but the outbreak of war and the need to evacuate much of the production base and work force to the Urals or Central Asia delayed most of these improvements until they materialised in the shape of the T-34–85, seven months after Kursk, with an improved gun, a larger turret with room for an additional crew member, and frontal armour doubled in thickness.
Of all the shortcomings, the greatest in 1943 was the inadequacy of the 76.2mm gun, standard in the T-34-76 and KV-1, compared to those carried in the new and updated older German tanks. Clearly, all Soviet tanks would be completely outclassed unless more powerful guns could be provided. The most successful in the April tests was the 1939-pattern 52K 85mm anti-aircraft gun, shells from which penetrated the Tiger’s frontal armour at a distance of 1 kilometre, so Stalin ordered development of a new tank gun based on this (similar to the German experience – their 88mm tank gun was based on the 88mm anti-aircraft gun that had proved exceedingly effective against ground targets) and four design groups began work in May. There was, however, no possibility that any of them could do more than produce testable prototypes before the German summer offensive, which would inevitably be spearheaded by the new tanks. To counter those would need a combination of measures, and closer than hitherto co-ordination between infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft – in fact copying the German methods as closely as possible.
Stalin’s initial reaction to Zhukov’s proposal for a defensive battle at Kursk was to ask if he was sure that Soviet troops could withstand a German summer offensive – a reasonable question, since they had singularly failed to do so in the two previous summers. Zhukov assured him that they could, but he sought the views of the two Front commanders in the salient. Rokossovsky, commanding the Central Front on the north face, considered that the Germans would be unable to mount an offensive before the end of the spring thaw and floods, in the second half of May, and argued for a pre-emptive attack by the Central Front and the two Fronts north of it, Western and Bryansk, provided additional air and anti-tank regiments could be made available for support. Vatutin, commanding the Voronezh Front further south, where the thaw would be over somewhat earlier, expected the Germans would be ready for an offensive ‘not before 20 April, but most likely in the first days of May’, but unlike Rokossovsky, he did not express a clear preference between pre-emptive attack and premeditated defence. One post-Soviet source claims that both Vatutin and Malinovsky (commanding the Southern Front, due to mount a counter-offensive in August) favoured preemption; this, however, appears to have been not in April but in June, when the successive postponements of ‘Citadel’ raised doubts among some Soviet generals over whether it was going to happen at all. In his April report, Vatutin also suggested that the German options might include a northward push to outflank Moscow, reflecting his past experience as Deputy Chief of General Staff, where, as previously noted, Stalin’s preoccupation with possible threats to the capital persisted long after they had vanished from the German agenda. References in his report to identification by ‘radio intelligence’ of locations to which the headquarters of two divisions had moved, may have come from the de ciphering of messages, but were more likely based on direction-finding and intercepted operator chatter – orders to observe radio silence were easier to issue than to enforce. The references nevertheless show that interception of enemy radio traffic had now become an important tool of Soviet Intelligence, perhaps aided by the 35,000 radio transceivers and large quantities of cable supplied by the USA under Lend-Lease.
On the evening of 12 April, after receiving the views of Rokossovsky and Vatutin, and three days before Hitler issued the Order for Operation ‘Citadel’, Stalin held a meeting with Zhukov, Vasilevsky and Deputy Chief of General Staff Antonov. They agreed that ‘the most probable aim of a German summer offensive would be to encircle and destroy the main forces of Central and Voronezh Fronts in the Kursk salient’, but did not exclude the possibility that success in that area would be followed by thrusts in east and north-east directions, including towards Moscow. Shtemenko noted that ‘on this matter Stalin displayed particular uneasiness’. However, he accepted Zhukov’s plan, and ordered both Fronts to prepare solid defences. The troops were to dig themselves in; no fewer than eight defence lines, one behind the other, were to be constructed, and an entire army group (first entitled Reserve Front, then Steppe Military District, and finally Steppe Front), with seven armies and eight tank or mechanised corps, would be positioned behind the two Fronts in the salient, to be used in the counter-offensive if the defensive battle went well, or to block any German advance if it did not.
Intriguing evidence suggesting Stalin knew about German intentions even earlier than mid-April is provided in the memoirs of Anastas Mikoyan, who was as much Stalin’s ace troubleshooter on supplying the army as Zhukov was on using it to fight, and to whom he entrusted the establishment of this huge new force. When he sent for Mikoyan he told him ‘according to data from our Intelligence the Hitlerites are concentrating major forces in the area of the Kursk salient’, and ‘a strong Reserve Front must be established urgently, capable of being brought into combat at the most acute and decisive moment of the battle, and for further transition to the counter-offensive’. It was to be formed of units that had fought in recent battles and were now in reserve for making up to strength in manpower and equipment. ‘You…must take on the organising of this Reserve Front yourself, because all the material resources are concentrated in your hands. The General Staff will engage as usual in choosing the commanders, but everything else is up to you.’
The intriguing element in Stalin’s remarks is that Mikoyan says the meeting at which he made them took place at 2 a.m. on 27 March, and, unlike with some other memoirists’ recollections of dates of long-past events, there is substantial confirmation that Mikoyan’s were correct. The task involved concentrating, equipping and supplying the largest reserve force Russia or the Soviet Union had ever yet put into the field and he set to work at once. First, on 29 March he met Colonel-General Shchadenko, head of the General Staff Directorate responsible for forming and manning units, and secured his agreement to constituting the new Front from units based in Moscow Military District. In those days it covered a large part of the European USSR and the conscripts it provided, one-third of the USSR’s total, had mostly received good general or technical education, which made them especially suitable for service in the mechanised forces that would bulk large in the new Front. Then Mikoyan directed every armed service chief to submit plans for providing the armies of the new Front with all they would need, and timetables for delivering everything on time to eight principal locations. An example of the pace he imposed is that only six days after Stalin had first set him his task, he received the first report from an arm of service on 1 April, when Major-General Kalyagin, head of Engineer Troops, reported that three-quarters of the Reserve Front’s needs for engineer equipment could be met from central resources, and the rest issued after deployment, from stocks held locally in Front or army depots.
Mikoyan decreed that the reinforcement and supply of the new Front’s armies were to be completed between 15 April and 10 May. On 30 March he met the arm of service heads: Khrulyov (logistics), Karponosov (organisation), Yakovlev (artillery), Fedorenko (tank and mechanised forces), Peresypkin (signals), and Drachev (chief quartermaster). Transport presented particular problems, since much of the new Front’s deployment area had been occupied until recently by the Germans, who had destroyed as much as they could of the rail and road infrastructure before leaving. In consequence transport of troops and equipment on the hastily and sketchily restored railways was frequently interrupted, and road transport could not be substituted for it because of the state of the roads and shortages of vehicles. Mikoyan dealt with this by frequent telephone calls to People’s Commissar for Railways Kaganovich, the heads of the two most involved railways, local military commanders and Communist Party officials. Despite the difficulties the timetable was fulfilled; between 1 April and 24 May the railways shifted 2,640 trainloads, totalling 178,900 wagons, to the Kursk area, half of them carrying reinforcements and supplies for units of the Central and Voronezh Fronts already deployed in the salient, the other half bringing the new Reserve Front’s forces and equipment to their positions directly behind it.
While well-educated young Muscovites were being trained to operate complex equipment in the Reserve Front, the mainly peasant infantrymen and civilian populations within the Kursk salient were preoccupied with the simpler but no less important task of digging. This was a mammoth undertaking in itself. Realisation of the superiority of the German tanks, while for the time being ending disputes between tankers and gunners as to whether the best antidote to a tank is another tank or an anti-tank gun, and concluding both would be needed, had brought on an acute awareness that success in the oncoming conflict would need maximum coordination between tanks, aircraft, artillery, engineers and infantry, and best use of terrain, exploiting natural and creating artificial obstacles. The new tanks were the main threat, so anti-tank defence must be the focus of the entire system. This must use guns, mortars, tanks, obstacles artificial (ditches and minefields) and natural (gullies, ravines, rivers, hills), and air support, all linked by a fire control and communications system capable of switching guns and aircraft quickly between different sectors. Trenches must be deep enough for troops to move without being exposed to enemy machine-gunners or snipers, machine-gun and artillery positions camouflaged to prevent the enemy picking them off by aimed fire or bombing, and anti-tank ditches be dug so wide and deep that no tank falling into one could climb out under its own unaided power. The combination of defensive measures would include infantry in foxholes, armed with anti-tank rifles to fire at tank tracks, bottles of explosive mixture (‘Molotov cocktails’) to throw onto the rear deck over the engine compartment, and anti-tank mines to be pushed under immobilised tanks and set off by throwing hand grenades at them.
Nor were the ‘osobisty’ (Special Sections of SMERSH, ‘Death to Spies’, of the NKVD) idle. Although morale had been raised by the winter’s victories, it was still by no means unshakeable; desertion and defection to the German side were still problems. At the end of June, when battle was known to be imminent, orders were issued to remove all Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians from combat units and send them to the rear. A few days later similar orders were issued concerning soldiers who had been prisoners until liberated by the winter counter-offensive. They were regarded with suspicion; it was well known that large numbers of captured soldiers were willingly serving in German units, and all liberated ones were suspected of having been indoctrinated while in captivity to serve as saboteurs or at least to infect their comrades with defeatism. An example of the action taken was an order issued by the headquarters of the 5th Guards Army of the Steppe Front on 8 July. The men affected, in all, were awakened and removed during the night of 9/10 July, immediately before the 5th Guards Army began moving to the salient.
Head of Red Army Artillery Voronov insisted that the barrage of gunfire against oncoming tanks must start early and maintain high rates of fire, but his attempt to include tank guns in the barrage was vetoed, officially not only as wasting ammunition but because it would create excessive wear on the gun barrels, and hence reduce accuracy. The real reason was, of course, the discovery in April that the tanks’ guns could penetrate the armour of the new German tanks only at close range, but to tell the crews that was not likely to improve their morale.
As to how these lines were to be manned and held, future Marshal of Artillery Kazakov wrote that ‘one day’ Voronov ordered his staff to do some hard thinking. He told them that the four SS motorised infantry divisions (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Das Reich, Totenkopf and Wiking) were being converted into panzer divisions. Most Tigers were assigned to Heavy Tank Battalions that were attached to other units for support as needed. There were 2 of these at Kursk, as well as 4 Companies that were permanently part of their Division, for a total of 146 Tigers, a very small proportion of overall German tank strength. The elite Grossdeutschland army division had also received a battalion of Tigers, and that all these formations, plus the 10th Panzer Brigade, equipped with Panthers, were being concentrated against the south face of the Kursk salient. The outcome of the deliberations was that the 6th Guards Army, on the expected main line of attack, was reinforced by 14 anti-tank artillery regiments, and reserves were deployed so as to be able to reinforce threatened sectors quickly to a density of at least 20 anti-tank guns per kilometre of front.
Guderian’s reservations about the premature use of the new tanks would be proved right as regards the Panther – some formations equipped with them did not get into action at all, because every one broke down en route. The mechanical faults would be corrected, making it one of the war’s best tanks, but that all took time, and the only time available in 1943 was the few weeks of postponement decreed by Hitler. However, Guderian’s strictures on the Ferdinand as ‘unsuitable for close combat’ because it did not have a machine gun and was therefore vulnerable to the Soviet infantry are not borne out by combat evidence. At Kursk Ferdinands were used only against the Central Front, and about 90 of them saw combat. Examination by Soviet artillery specialists on 15 July of 21 knocked-out Ferdinands showed 11 disabled by mines, 8 by gunfire, 1 by an aerial bomb, and only 1 by an infantry weapon – and that not an anti-tank rifle or grenade but a ‘Molotov cocktail’.
The Red Army used the weeks of postponement at least as well as the Germans, constructing defence systems that took advantage of the experience of two years’ fighting to combine the various arms of service more closely than before, behind minefields both larger and more densely sown with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines than previously possible. Increases in the two sides’ deployments between 10 April and 5 July were as shown below in the table of strength in men and weapons on both dates. The Soviet data are for the Central and Voronezh Fronts for both dates, and for 5 July also the Steppe Front. The German figures are Soviet estimates for Army Groups Centre and South.
German and Soviet build-ups for ‘Citadel’, 1 April–5 July 1943
As the table shows, the Soviets already outnumbered the Germans in all but aircraft before mid-April, then up to the launch date of Citadel their troop numbers more than doubled, guns and aircraft almost trebled, and tanks quadrupled. The German increases were far smaller, so that by the time ‘Citadel’ was launched the Soviets outnumbered the Germans by over 2 to 1 in manpower, 3 to 1 in guns, almost 2 to 1 in tanks, and 1.6 to 1 in aircraft. The disparities became even greater as the battle progressed; between 5 July and 23 August, i.e. in the period covering the defensive battle and the two counter-offensives (Operations ‘Kutuzov’ and ‘Rumyantsev’), additions from reserve totalled on the Soviet side 38 division-equivalents, with 658,000 troops, 18,200 guns, 3,300 tanks and 563 aircraft, while German reinforcements comprised only 2 panzer and 1 mechanised corps, totalling 55,000 men, 550 guns, about 200 tanks and 300 aircraft.
For the Soviets to outnumber the Germans in weaponry was no novelty, but it had previously proved no guarantee of success. As mentioned earlier, in 1941 they had had numerical superiority of 3 to 1 in tanks, 2 to 1 in combat aircraft and about 5 to 4 in guns and mortars, but nevertheless suffered a series of disasters on a scale unparallelled in the previous history of warfare. The difference in 1943 was that the weapons-users and the generals who directed them had learned from the defeats, and had begun to match or even outdo the Germans in how they used their assets. On the most important sectors the five main and three intermediate defence lines in the salient stretched back to 190 kilometres (almost 120 miles) behind the front. During April–June troops and local civilians in the Central Front’s area alone dug 5,000 kilometres (about 3,125 miles) of trenches, laid 400,000 mines and over 200 kilometres (125 miles) of barbed wire, a few kilometres of it even electrified. These extensive preparations could not be concealed from the Germans, but the General Staff and NKVD utilised Agent Max and operatives sent to him who had been captured and ‘turned’, to inform the Abwehr that the Red Army intended to fight only a defensive battle, and credibility was added by making day and night rail deliveries of large quantities of cement, barbed wire, wood and metal beams on open flat trucks, while weapons and ammunition were moved in only at night and in covered wagons.
Against the 55 German divisions deployed in ‘Citadel’, the Central and Voronezh Fronts had between them 77 infantry divisions, 9 tank or mechanised corps, 14 brigades and 3 ‘fortified zones’ (garrison troops in fixed defences), the corps and brigades raising the total to about 110 division-equivalents, with 1,272,700 combat troops. The Steppe Front, behind both, had one tank army (5th Guards), plus six tank and two mechanised corps, and six armies of infantry. It was meant as a reserve for the counter offensive, but when the Germans appeared on the verge of breaking through the Voronezh Front, Stavka representative Vasilevsky on 9 July commandeered two of its armies (5th Guards and 5th Guards Tank) and parts of three others, totalling 19 divisions and one brigade of infantry, five tank and one mechanised corps. Manpower figures for them are not given, but they amounted to at least 30 additional division-equivalents, bringing the total to about 140, and the total Soviet manpower in the defensive battle to over 1.5 million. Granted that Soviet formations were smaller than their German counterparts, and that many of them were under strength, the defenders outnumbered the attackers in manpower by about 1.7 to 1. In equipment, numbers favoured the Soviet side even more, by 1.8 to 1 in guns and mortars, 2.3 to 1 in combat aircraft, and 1.6 to 1 in tanks and self-propelled guns. Compared to the defensive campaign at Stalingrad (37 divisions, 3 tank corps, 22 brigades, 547,000 men), the manpower and resources defending the Kursk salient had considerably more than doubled. Germany’s manpower, on the other hand, had fallen, and the contribution from its allies had dropped almost to nothing. The winter campaign of 1942/43 had involved Romanian, Hungarian and Italian as well as German armies, but at Kursk only German units saw action, though a Soviet listing of forces present included the two Hungarian divisions. Clearly the strategic balance had tilted substantially away from Germany even in the few months since Manstein’s February counter-offensive. Whether the tilt was decisive was still to be seen.
Both Zhukov and Vasilevsky later wrote that they (correctly) regarded the threat posed to the Voronezh Front as greater than that facing the Central Front,294 but the distribution of forces suggests the opposite; the Central Front had 738,000 troops, versus the Voronezh Front’s 534,000. This meant that for each mile of front line on the sectors where the main German thrusts were expected, the Central Front had 7,200 men, 72 tanks and 166 guns, the Voronezh Front only 4,000 men, 67 tanks and 94 guns. The discrepancy was never explained; it was partly due to Rokossovsky’s being more successful in identifying the main German lines of attack and concentrating his forces there by stripping less threatened sectors, whereas Vatutin had to distribute them more evenly; but the principal reason for giving Rokossovsky substantially more resources in the first place must have been the continued preoccupation with possible threats to Moscow mentioned in Vatutin’s April report and the ‘particular uneasiness’ in respect of it that Shtemenko mentioned Stalin as displaying at the meeting on the 12th. If such a threat were posed, it would obviously be posed by Army Group Centre, after destroying the Central Front on the salient’s northern face, not by the much more distant Army Group South.
The scene was now set for the biggest trial of strength yet seen.
While it is commonly known among war bird enthusiasts that the Soviet Union received large numbers of P-39 Airacobras and P-40 Warhawks, planes that many American pilots deemed to be inferior to the P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs that were flown over the Western Front, the VVS also received approximately 200 Republic P-47 Thunderbolts- heavy duty fighters armed with eight 50 caliber machine guns that were capable of flying more than 440 miles per hour at 29,000 feet. With a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine complete with a supercharger, the Thunderbolt was an extremely effective escort fighter and very capable of taking on any German aircraft both at high-altitude and low-altitude. Indeed, the USAAF’s top two aces in Europe, Francis “Gabby”Gabreski and Robert Johnson, flew P-47s.
In which role did the VVS use the P-47? Why weren’t more delivered? Unfortunately, very little is known about the Thunderbolts that arrived in the Soviet Union. Most of them were delivered to the 255th IAP of the Northern Fleet, where they were put into the high-altitude air defense role. While the Thunderbolt pilots of the US 8th Air Force did not have to look too hard to find a high-altitude dogfight, the aerial action over the entire Eastern Front was fought at a significantly lower altitude.
Whereas British and American bombers engaged in high-altitude bombing runs against German cities and industrial targets, requiring fighter escorts equipped with superchargers (P-47, P-51, P-38), the VVS focused more on low-level close air support, integrating the movements of their ground attack aircraft (IL-2 Sturmoviks) with ground forces. Consequently, while escorting the IL-2 “flying tanks”, Soviet escorts rarely found themselves in situations in which they would have to engage the enemy at high altitudes.
The Luftwaffe similarly used the Ju-87 and Ju-88 in close air support roles on the Eastern Front, meaning the VVS had little use for high-altitude interceptors.
Information from the archives of the General Staff of the Air Force of the Soviet Army does not differ much – 190 P-47 fighters were received in 1944 and five – in 1945. Apparently, the Soviet archive did not take into account one more aircraft – P-47D-10-RE Serial number 42-75202 Purchased with funds raised by US Senators, this aircraft received its own name “Knight of Pythias”. It was he who was tested in mid-1944 at the Air Force Research Institute and LII.
“Thunderbolt” disappointed Soviet test pilots. One of the best flight engineers at LII, Mark Lazarevich Gallay, recalled the flight on the P-47 this way:
– Already in the first minutes of the flight, I realized that this is not a fighter! Stable, with a comfortable spacious cockpit, comfortable, but not a fighter. “Thunderbolt” had unsatisfactory maneuverability in the horizontal and especially in the vertical plane. The plane accelerated slowly – the inertia of the heavy machine affected. The Thunderbolt was perfect for a simple en-route flight without harsh maneuvers. This is not enough for a fighter.
The opinion of the Soviet aviation engineers about the Thunderbolt was not much different from the pilots. Despite the sleek shape of the fuselage and the apparent perfection of aerodynamics, the Thunderbolt’s Cx coefficient turned out to be less than that of the main German Bf.109G and Fw-190A fighters. Interest was not aroused by the aircraft itself, but by the turbocharger (first of all!), the engine, and aviation equipment. The plane was disassembled to pieces and carefully examined at the Bureau of New Technology of the People’s Commissariat of the Aviation Industry (BNT NKAP). BNT specialists have published a complete technical description of the P-47 fighter in Russian. Engineers also drew conclusions regarding the quality and manufacturing methods of components and assemblies of the American fighter, noting that in terms of technology, the Soviet aviation industry lags behind the American one.
Combat pilots of the Red Army Air Force also did not appreciate the overseas miracle. The Soviet Union did not have the slightest need to escort heavy bombers in 1944 – the front-line aviation bore the entire burden of the war. Air battles on the Soviet-German front were fought at altitudes below 6,000 m, exactly at those altitudes where the Thunderbolt most resembled a flying target. At low altitudes, the P-47 lost in all respect to any Soviet or German fighter of the 1944 models. An interesting fact is that it is possible that the Americans tried to improve the maneuverability of the “Soviet” Thunderbolts by supplying them with removed external machine guns. In fact, the Thunderbolt repeated the story of the Soviet MiG-3 fighter – an excellent air fighter at high altitude and clumsy at the ground. Such an aircraft in the Red Army Air Force during the war years turned out to be unclaimed. Of course, it should be borne in mind that the opinion of Soviet pilots and engineers was formed on the basis of assessments of the P-47D-10-RE fighter. Under Lend-Lease, the P-47D-22-RE and P-47D-27-RE aircraft equipped with more powerful R-2800-59 engines were supplied.
In the West, it is widely believed that the Russians simply tested the wrong car, and the P-47D-22 and P-47D-27 arrived too late. That is unlikely. The entire course of the air war on the Eastern Front suggests that heavy high-altitude fighters did not take root here. Even the Fw-190, a fighter that was famous for its maneuverability on the Western front, turned out to be heavy and awkward. In the Red Army, all high-altitude fighters were “floated” into the air defense regiments. First, such a fate befell the MiG-3, then the Lend-Lease Spitfires, and finally the Thunderbolts. The only place where they appeared a year earlier, “Thunderbolts” could still show themselves, was in the aviation arm of the navy. Most of the Thunderbolts arrived in the Soviet Union via a 26,000 km southern route (the journey took 42 days) from New York to the Persian port of Abadan. In Abadan, the planes were assembled under the supervision of military representatives of the Red Army Air Force, then flew around, after which the pilots of the 6th Ferry Fighter Aviation Regiment drove Thunderbolts along the Abadan-Tehran-Kirovobad route. In Kirovabad, the 11th reserve bomber aviation regiment took over the aircraft. On the 1,450 km route, the pilots had to overcome two mountain ranges. With a stopover in Tehran, the length of the non-stop flight to Kirovobad from Iran was reduced to 754 km.
The first Thunderbolt fighters arrived at the airfield of the 11th ZBAP on August 24, 1944. On this day, the regiment received Order No. 30, which noted the adoption of the P-47D fighters equipped with R-2800-59 engines. -22-RE with serial numbers 42-25611 and 42-26633. Large-scale deliveries began a little later. According to orders No. 36, 38 and 39 of December 22, 1944, the unit entered service with P-47D-22-RE aircraft with serial numbers 42-25541, 543-7, 552, 553, 555, 557, 559, 560- 564, 566-568, 570, 574, 576-580, 582, 583, 586, 591, 594, 595,600-610, 612,614-617, 619-628, 631, 634, 636-638 – 62 aircraft in total. At the same time, 47 P-47D-27-RE fighters with serial numbers 42-27015, 018, 019, 021, 0222, 025-029, 031-033, 037, 038, 042-044, 050, 052-055 were adopted, 058, 061, 116, 117, 123, 129, 130-132, 134, 140, 141, 144, 149, 150, 154, 156, 157, 159, 160, 162 and 163. Thus, the 11th ZBAP received 111 Thunderbolts.
In 1945, the Thunderbolts arrived at the location of the 11th ZBAP in two batches, on April 21 – two P-47D-27s produced at the Fairmigdale plant (serial numbers 42-27136 and 42-27146) and on April 27 – four more similar fighters (serial numbers 42-25S51, 587, 590 and 593).
All stories about the delivery of “Thunderbolts” to the Soviet Union by northern convoys through Murmansk or along the Alaska-Siberia highway are pure fiction. The P-47 fighters arrived in the USSR only by the southern route through Iran. The technical specialists of the Red Army Air Force modified (or even changed) the Thunderbolt radio equipment to match the frequencies used in Soviet aviation; transponders of the “friend or foe” radar identification system were removed as unnecessary. The identification marks on the P-47D-22-RE were repainted in the Soviet Union – red stars with a white-red border were applied. On the P-47D-27-RE intended for delivery to the USSR, red stars were applied directly at the Ripablik plant. As a rule, they were applied in the same dreams and the same sizes as the US Air Force insignia, often a red star was painted in a white circle. The 11th ZBAP consisted of four squadrons – on the basis of the 1st and 2nd, training of bomber crews was conducted, on the basis of the 3rd and 4th – training of fighter pilots, mainly for P-39N / Q aircraft. In the official documentation of the 11th ZBAP, the P-47 fighter is called “Thunderbolt”. The number of pilots trained in the regiment for flights on “Thunderbolt” is small: 12 pilots in 1944 and 15 in 1945. In addition to the high-altitude air defense role, it has also been suggested that the Soviets used P-47s as reconnaissance aircraft, due to their range that was far superior to other aircraft available to the VVS.
While undoubtedly one of the finest American aircraft of World War Two, the P-47 simply did not fit into the conditions of the Eastern Front.
Germany’s winter campaign of 1941–1942 has commonly been seen as the “first defeat” of the Wehrmacht in the Second World War. Indeed, two of the most recent books about the fighting near Moscow by Robert Forczyk (2006) and Michael Jones (2009) both share the subtitle Hitler’s First Defeat. The most thorough and comprehensive study of the period is actually an earlier work by Klaus Reinhardt, whose pioneering study has remained the standard work in spite of being first published in 1972. Rejecting the accepted view, which saw Stalingrad or Kursk as the classic turning points of Germany’s war, Reinhardt was among the first to argue that the battle of Moscow, especially in the winter of 1941–1942, constituted the decisive event of the war, which represented, as his subtitle claimed, “the failure of Hitler’s strategy.”
For those not familiar with my former studies of German operations in the east, the fighting at Moscow will not be portrayed in this book as Hitler’s “first defeat,” nor even the turning point of the war, because I argue that both already took place in the summer of 1941. Such a proposition may strike some as counterintuitive given that, at the most basic level, the story of Germany’s summer campaign is typically characterized by fast-moving panzer groups, calamitous cauldron battles, and staggering sums of Red Army losses. Perhaps even more conclusive is the fact that, at the end of it all, Hitler’s armies stood deep inside the Soviet Union, ultimately threatening Leningrad, Moscow, and Sevastopol. The logic here appears simple: Germany’s first defeat, whenever that might have been, certainly could not have come before the first winter of the war.
The problem with this logic is that it separates German operations from their strategic context. Battles do not exist in a vacuum, and they should not be seen as ends in themselves. The sheer accumulation of battlefield “victories” in 1941 clearly did not suffice to knock the Soviet Union out of the war, and it was this failure that ultimately proved so ruinous to Germany’s prospects. Heavily restricted access to raw materials, critical production bottlenecks, and bitter policy debates governing the allocation of resources to the armed forces were fundamental to the outcome of a large-scale industrialized war. Indeed, it was Germany’s grim long-term economic prospects that first directed Hitler’s attention toward an eastern campaign, but embarking on it came with huge risks. Either Hitler would secure his long-prophesied Lebensraum (living space) in the east and ensure limitless access to almost any resource Germany might require in its war against Great Britain, or the Wehrmacht’s air and sea war in the west would be disastrously undercut by a parallel, high-intensity land war in the east. Thus, it was absolutely essential for Germany to end any prospective war against the Soviet Union as quickly and as decisively as possible—there was simply no economic or military contingency for anything else. Under these circumstances, some authors have attempted to argue Germany’s dominance by pointing to the far greater problems in the Red Army during the summer campaign. Yet the contexts for the two forces were entirely different; the Wehrmacht had to win outright at all costs, while the Red Army had only to survive as a force in being.
What made German operations in the course of 1941 so important to the war’s ultimate outcome was not just their failure to secure Hitler’s all-important victory, but the cost of so many battles to the Wehrmacht’s panzer groups. In its ruthless pursuit of victory, the German Ostheer (eastern army) became a very blunt instrument, and there was simply no way of reconstituting this offensive power without a very long period of inactivity that the unrelenting warfare in the east would never permit. As the chief of the Army General Staff, Colonel-General Franz Halder, acknowledged in his diary on November 23: “An army, like that of June 1941, will henceforth no longer be available to us.” Accordingly, the summer and fall of 1941 saw the Wehrmacht achieve stunning successes, but from a strategic point of view it failed to do the one thing that really mattered—defeat the Soviet Union before its vital panzer groups were blunted. Once Operation Barbarossa (the code name for the German invasion of the Soviet Union) passed from being a blitzkrieg to a slogging war of matériel, which was already the case by the end of the summer, large-scale economic deficiencies spelled eventual doom for the Nazi state.
If Germany suffered its first and most significant setback in the summer of 1941, what then is the relevance of studying the 1941–1942 winter campaign? Is it simply one of the many stepping-stones in the long decline of Nazi Germany or is there something unique about this period? Indeed, if we no longer consider it Germany’s first defeat, then what kind of defeat was it? If battles need to be placed in a larger context to ascertain their significance, we should not assume that Germany’s winter retreat, any more than its summer advance, is the only indicator of “success,” or in this case “defeat.” If the war in the east was, since the end of the first summer, a battle of attrition, then the relative cost of German and Soviet operations determined their worth, and the outcome of any single encounter cannot be decided simply by asking who held the field at the end of the day. In the vast expanses of the east, ground mattered far less than resources, but both the Nazi and Soviet regimes struggled to understand this. Moreover, because of their shared obsession with prestige as well as their grandiloquent ideological worldviews, surrendering ground, even for a tactical/operational advantage, was consistently viewed as defeatist and cowardly. By the same token, offensive operations were consistently pursued by both sides to the detriment of the attacking forces, which were routinely overextended, lacked adequate supply, and became exposed to enemy counterattack.
By the beginning of December 1941 conditions at the front saw both armies suffering frightful shortages and living in desperate conditions across most of the line. Inevitably therefore the strategic calculus for the success of any operation was how much damage it could inflict upon the enemy and, by the same token, what the corresponding cost of that operation would necessitate. With armies stretched, resources typically inadequate, and mobility for most units limited, avoiding wasteful operations was more significant than the alternative of doing nothing at all. Yet for both the German and Soviet high commands there was little appreciation of this. Time and again positions were to be seized or defended “at any cost,” while success was measured by the acquisition of a set objective and not the sacrifices it entailed. While this remains a by-product of the inexorably ideological nature of the Nazi/Soviet view of war, it should not be accepted as our own standard for determining the value of events. Clearly, the ends did not always justify the means, so we should not simply assume that the most basic indicator of military success—seizing ground from the enemy—was in every instance vindicated.
In 1941 one of the central problems for the Red Army and the Wehrmacht was the lack of alignment between operational planning and strategic reality. Both sides were attempting far too much and expecting more of their forces than they could ever hope to deliver. During Operation Barbarossa, the Ostheer leadership pursued its advance with an almost obsessive determination, oblivious to the exhaustion of their men and the debilitating matériel losses within their mobile formations. This led directly to the dangerous position the Germans found themselves in near Moscow on December 5 when the first Soviet counterattacks began. Initially the Red Army’s offensive capitalized on the overextension of the central part of the German front, where multiple armies, under the direction of Army Group Center, were left dangerously exposed. Soviet success was also aided by the Wehrmacht’s unpreparedness for the cold, but each new Soviet advance encouraged ever more ambitious thinking until soon Stalin and the Stavka (the Soviet high command) were themselves undermining their own potential to strike a major blow.
Making matters worse, the Red Army on the offensive was in no way comparable to the Wehrmacht in 1941. Its hard-won professionalism, training, and experience enabled the German army to cope much better with excessive expectations than could the fledgling Red Army, whose ill-prepared officer corps was barely able to handle the more passive demands of defensive warfare, much less the skills required for a major offensive. Little experience in conducting forward operations and far too few qualified staff officers made functional command and control haphazard at best, leading in many instances to the infantry attacking in isolation without the support of heavy weapons or coordinated movements. A remarkable number of Soviet officers did not even attempt to “soften up” German positions and simply charged the enemy lines in senseless massed attacks. The German records are replete with such examples, and not surprisingly, soon after the offensive began, Soviet orders appeared expressly forbidding these kinds of wasteful charges.
On the other side, December 5 represented the exhaustion of Army Group Center’s own offensive and, at long last, the concentration of remaining resources on the much-neglected defense. While this counted for little in the immediate situation, over time remaining on the defensive wherever possible acted to conserve strength, while fieldworks such as bunkers or fortified villages acted as important force multipliers,7 which in a resource-poor environment greatly aided German forces. Where the front could no longer be held, retreat bought the German armies precious time and allowed them to fall back on their supply lines. This functioned remarkably well for the first two weeks of the offensive until Hitler’s halt order, which forbade any withdrawal unless approved by himself, came into effect. Hitler’s grasp of military principles was heavily colored by ideological precepts that undercut Germany’s defensive war just as Soviet forces were themselves being driven to excess. In this instance, the halt order was Hitler’s blanket solution that immensely complicated Army Group Center’s response.
Far from being the critical element that stiffened the backbone of the German army, Hitler’s halt order was a military disaster, which took no account of local circumstances and proved deeply unpopular among Army Group Center’s hard-pressed commanders. It assumed that the only requirement for holding a position was the requisite “will” to resist, which immediately cast doubt on any commander’s request for a retreat. Just how deeply the generals at the front resented the imposition of Hitler’s new order is one of the revelations of this study, which will demonstrate an orchestrated pattern of coordinated defiance that goes well beyond anything previously understood about the period. The oft-cited postwar claim, even by some former German officers, that the halt order somehow constituted “an immoveable barrier preventing … [the army] from pouring back in wild retreat” could not be further from the truth. From the commander of Army Group Center down, the halt order was typically viewed, like the Red Army, as something to be staunchly opposed and carefully outmaneuvered. Occasionally, this opposition was openly flaunted to the detriment of the protagonist, but more often than not it was carefully “managed” behind the scenes, so that the army high command and Hitler could not oppose what they did not know about—and there was a lot they did not know about.
Such bold “initiative” at the front reflects the fact that the German army’s hallmark system of “mission-oriented tactics” (Auftragstaktik), which historians have previously determined ended, or at the very least was seriously curtailed, from the first winter of the war in the east, was in fact alive and well.9 Commanders operated on their own terms to preserve their forces (and sometimes their own lives) by taking steps that purposely defied Hitler. This was not an act of resistance toward Hitler or his regime; it was motivated by self-preservation and professional instinct, which acted in the service of Nazi Germany, not in opposition to it. The army’s unadulterated support for Hitler and his war aims in the east was never in question, even when the dictator openly spoke of the coming war requiring a ruthless “war of annihilation.”
The real crisis period of the German winter campaign extended from mid-December to mid-January, when Hitler finally relaxed his halt order and allowed three German armies a last-minute withdrawal. Yet even in this period of strategic crisis, the Red Army operated as an unwieldy, blunt instrument smashing itself relentlessly against the German lines. In places this saw German positions being overrun and tactical breakthroughs of the line, but these were the exceptions, not the rule, and the cost to the Red Army was staggering.
This study will consider all six of Army Group Center’s constituent armies (Ninth, Third Panzer, Fourth Panzer, Fourth, Second Panzer, and Second) to present a complete picture of events, rather than one that simply follows the crisis points in the line and offers no comparative context across hundreds of kilometers of front. The idea of a crisis in Army Group Center was more often than not a localized phenomenon: every army experienced one, but at different times and to different degrees, and never all of them at the same time. Ninth and Fourth Armies, for example, were relatively quiet sectors with few retreats for the first two weeks of the Soviet offensive, while later the situation reversed with the panzer armies, especially the Second and Third, generally considered secure.
One method of assessing the winter fighting is to consider its raw cost, and the most basic indicator here is casualties. Grigorii Fedotovich Krivosheev’s landmark study of Soviet casualties estimated that the Red Army’s aggregate daily losses for the initial period of the Moscow counteroffensive (December 5, 1941, to January 7, 1942) were more costly than the Moscow defensive operations (September 30 to December 5, 1941). The former cost 10,910 men (dead and wounded) each day, while the latter exacted a daily average of 9,823 casualties. Even if we compare the Moscow counteroffensive to the Kiev defensive operation (July 7 to September 26, 1941), the average daily losses of the latter came to 8,543, substantially fewer again. This does not mean that the total losses for the Moscow counteroffensive were higher overall because its operational period was shorter, but that the casualties were more concentrated between December 5 and January 7, 1942. More recently, Lev Lopukhovsky and Boris Kavalerchik have persuasively argued that Krivosheev’s figures, which were made up of reports submitted to the Soviet high command, excluded large numbers of losses resulting from German encirclements or other wartime circumstances where no reports could be made. This demonstrates that earlier periods of the war were in fact much more costly to the Red Army, but the evidence provided by Lopukhovsky and Kavalerchik also revises upward the Soviet winter losses. Their detailed analysis of the wartime records reveals as many as 552,000 casualties for the month of December, 558,000 for January and a further 528,000 in February, equaling a winter total of 1,638,000 Soviet losses. This is a figure that surely questions the extent of Stalin’s “victorious” winter campaign, especially when one considers that total German casualties for a slightly longer period (November 26, 1941, to February 28, 1942) came to just 262,524. Soviet losses were more than six times those of the Germans in the winter of 1941–1942, making the argument for Germany’s “defeat” much more relative. The result vindicates John Erickson’s characterization of Soviet infantry in this period as little more than a “mob of riflemen,” which he argued was “thus inviting heavy casualties” until they were supported by more heavy weaponry.
For all the dramatic depictions of Army Group Center’s frozen soldiers and the often-exaggerated parallels with Napoleon’s disastrous retreat, the actual number of German dead compares favorably to the earlier periods of the war. In fact, there were fewer German deaths in December 1941 (40,198) than in the preceding months of July (63,099), August (46,066), September (51,033), and October (41,099). Only in the months of June (25,000 in just nine days of combat) and November (36,000) were fewer German deaths recorded. January (48,164) and February (44,099) 1942 were somewhat higher, but nothing like the death toll resulting from real German disasters, such as that seen in January and February 1943 following the loss of Stalingrad and the German Sixth Army. Here the German death toll for the same two months reached a staggering 248,640.
Finally, the winter of 1941–1942 is unique because it is one of the only times in the war that Germany successfully matched its strategy to its operations. When Hitler issued War Directive 39 on December 8, ordering the Ostheer to “abandon immediately all major offensive operations and go over to the defensive,” the gap between Army Group Center’s means and ends closed to something barely achievable, which was more than could be said of preceding war directives that overestimated Germany’s offensive capabilities and confidently predicted “military mastery of the European continent after the overthrow of Russia.” Such hubris, however, was much less evident by early December as Hitler’s new war directive explained: “The way in which these defensive operations are to be carried out will be decided in accordance with the purpose which they are intended to serve, viz.: To hold areas which are of great operational or economic importance to the enemy.”
Army Group Center held a string of important Russian cities, which facilitated supply, offered shelter, assisted rear area organization, and functioned as valuable transportation nodes. They could also be counted upon as rough indicators of where local Soviet offensives would be directed and thus channeling their forces on the approaches and, if reached, forcing them to assault German strongpoints. These included Kursk, Orel, Briansk, Kaluga, Viaz’ma, Rzhev, Kalinin, and behind them all Smolensk, where Army Group Center had its headquarters. By January 1942 the Stavka’s general offensive sought to execute two major envelopments, a smaller one to close at Viaz’ma and a larger one at Smolensk. Yet neither of these two cities would fall to the Red Army, just as neither of the two encirclements would succeed. German defensive operations, while sometimes desperate, successfully defended all of their major strategic locations except for Kalinin (which was on the front line when the Soviet offensive began) and Kaluga.
The Soviet plan was not just looking to capture population centers, but to encircle and destroy major sections of Army Group Center. In fact, the destruction of the whole army group was sometimes called for in Soviet plans. Yet Germany not only successfully maintained its chain of strategic locations, the army group also endured intact without losing an army, a corps, or even a single division. Of course, some of these formations became so worn down by the fighting that they hardly functioned as corps or divisions, but in spite of being occasionally cut off and subjected to all manner of punishment, no major German formations were lost. The same cannot be said of the Red Army, which became so overextended that, at its worst, one and a half Soviet armies—some 60,000 Soviet troops—became cut off and were mostly destroyed.
German operations, therefore, not only sufficed to preserve their formations and defend their strategic objectives, but also, by doing so, frustrated the Soviet offensive plan and exacted a tremendous toll on the Red Army. It was something of a role reversal from the summer and autumn, when the Red Army had successfully foiled Germany’s strategic intentions, but as already observed, both regimes habitually pursued wildly overblown plans. In the winter, however, Germany proved dominant tactically, operationally, and even strategically. Army Group Center, while terribly battered by the winter fighting, was not destroyed by it, and would go on to maintain a remarkably strong position in the center of the Eastern Front for another two and a half years.
If the present study seeks to reassess one aspect of the winter period, it is to question who benefited the most—or lost the least—from the 1941–1942 winter campaign. Marshal Georgi Zhukov, who commanded the Soviet Western Front during the winter fighting, wrote in a draft of his memoirs (which only came to light much later):
The History of the Great Fatherland War still comes to a generally positive conclusion about the [first] winter offensive of our forces, despite the lack of success. We do not agree with this evaluation. The embellishment of history, one could say, is a sad attempt to paint over failure. If you consider our losses and what results were achieved, it will be clear that it was a Pyrrhic victory.
Identifying the winter period as a Soviet Pyrrhic victory does not ameliorate Germany’s own dire circumstances or exonerate the decisions of Hitler and the Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres—OKH) in precipitating the circumstances that led to Army Group Center’s winter crisis. Even many of the leading commanders in the field contributed significantly to the awful state of affairs Germany confronted by early December, although in their subsequent writings they would choose to pin all of their woes on higher authorities. Most important, whatever measure of success Germany’s winter campaign had, it did not change the fundamental point that Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist made after the war: “Everything was based on the hope of a decisive result by the autumn of 1941.” That was not changed by the winter campaign, nor could it ever have been. But Germany certainly lost far fewer men in the fighting, frustrated the Soviet strategic plan, and emerged in the spring unbroken and best placed to recapture the initiative for another major summer offensive.
The need to understand the centrality of the Nazi-Soviet conflict to the outcome of the Second World War cannot be overstated. It was not just one more front in the war against Hitler’s Germany, it was the front. The Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union with almost 150 divisions (over 3 million men), while in North Africa the Western allies engaged Rommel’s famous Afrikakorps with just three German divisions (45,000 men). Even after D-Day, almost three years from the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the Western allies would never face more than 25 percent of the German army in their campaigns across Western Europe. The German army was battered to death in one campaign after another on the Eastern Front. Yet the Wehrmacht’s path to destruction was by no means devoid of major reversals, while Soviet “successes” were often won at a staggering cost, which sometimes hindered rather than helped the Red Army’s final victory. The winter of 1941–1942 is a case in point and a caution against oversimplified conclusions based on a superficial analysis of what was achieved. Stalin’s counteroffensive constitutes one of the clearest examples of Soviet strategic overreach, which underestimated Germany’s enduring tactical and operational dominance and led to horrendous losses. In the final analysis Army Group Center was far from defeated in the winter fighting, Auftragstaktik did not disappear as a result of Hitler’s halt order, and the Wehrmacht’s response was much more offensive than has previously been understood. Moreover, the prevailing historical narrative dominated by Germany’s “crisis and retreat,” while not always incorrect, ignores the fact that Army Group Center’s withdrawals were often operationally successful and strategically necessary. The new line Army Group Center occupied defended valuable Russian cities in highly favorable battles of attrition. As one summative report from the 7th Infantry Division stated two weeks into the Soviet offensive: “In this struggle, there is no armistice, there is only victory or defeat. The task of the German Eastern Army is to force a German victory with all means and under all circumstances.” This task was almost universally understood, and whatever the cost to the German troops and the occupied Russian population, it was Hitler—not Stalin—who achieved his strategic goals for the winter.
By David Stahel from ‘Retreat from Moscow: A New History of Germany’s Winter Campaign, 1941-1942’