Scorched Earth in the East I

All through July and August 1943, the continual hammer blows by the numerically superior enemy had put the German army on the defensive and threatened a breakthrough along the entire front. By late September, it had become clear that the hopes of the spring had been dashed: the great offensive had been shattered; the U-boats proved unable to block the flow of American troops and materiel to Europe; the resource discrepancy between the warring sides continued to grow; the defection of its alliance partners left Germany isolated; and both troop and civilian morale had plummeted. Faced with such realities, the German leadership was forced to concede that “ultimate defeat was now likely unavoidable.” “With the fate of the German people at stake,” the only option left was to seek an armistice and immediate peace negotiations. The leader who voiced that sentiment, as Bernd Wegner has noted, was not Adolf Hitler in 1943 but Erich Ludendorff in 1918. Now, precisely twenty-five years later, thoughts turned back to the events of that fateful autumn. Although British intelligence analysts optimistically expected a repeat of the 1918 scenario, American assessments were more skeptical, seeing a German collapse as highly unlikely. In contrast to 1918, the Americans argued, the Nazi regime had at its disposal better material and agricultural reserves, suffered no debilitating morale crisis, and faced an Allied demand of unconditional surrender.

In Germany, too, thoughts of 1918 were not far from the surface. Although SD reports indicated that some circles in Germany yearned for just such a compromise peace, the obstacles were formidable. In practice, the unconditional surrender doctrine meant an end to his regime and, thus, gave Hitler an incentive to fight on, especially since, in conscious rejection of 1918, the Western allies explicitly refused any negotiations. Moreover, although Germany could no longer win the war, it might be able to stalemate it long enough to split the brittle Allied coalition. In any case, Hitler had long vowed, and continued to insist, that another November 1918 would never again happen. Finally, and perhaps of decisive importance, the realistic American report also stressed a key, but often overlooked, point: Germany had much more reason to fear Allied retribution than in 1918. Genocide now loomed as the ultimate barrier to any negotiated peace.

The Führer had long proclaimed that this was an ideological war, a “life and death struggle,” a view confirmed as more than mere bombast by his merciless war of annihilation against Jewish-Bolshevism. “On the Jewish question, especially,” Goebbels had noted already in early March 1943, “we are in it so deeply that there is no getting out any longer. And that is a good thing. Experience teaches that a movement and a people who have burned their bridges fight with much greater determination and fewer constraints than those that still have a chance of retreat.” The Nazis had, indeed, burned their bridges. As Christopher Browning has noted, the great majority of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust, some 75–80 percent, were murdered in an extraordinary spasm of killing lasting roughly from spring 1942 to the early summer of 1943. Moreover, if the victims of Einsatzgruppen shootings in 1941 are included, the percentages move even higher. By the time military events turned decisively against them, then, the Nazis were well on their way to accomplishing their murderous goal. Given such facts, Hitler understood that the logic of events in 1943 pointed in only one direction: further radicalization of the war.

Nor was the principal target of this radicalization in doubt. After all, in his total war speech, Goebbels had already raised the specter of “Jewish liquidation squads” overrunning Germany in the event of defeat. All Jews under Nazi control, without exception, thus had to be killed, a point made explicitly by Hitler in an early February 1943 speech to Reichsleiter (Reich leaders) and Gauleiter. All through the spring of 1943, in fact, Hitler seemed even more than usually obsessed with the Jews. On the German Memorial Day, 21 March, he again raised his extermination prophecy and demanded its fulfillment, while, in mid-April, Goebbels noted, “The Führer issues instructions to set the Jewish question once more at the forefront of our propaganda, in the strongest possible way.” Central to this renewed emphasis was the discovery in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk of a mass grave containing the remains of thousands of Polish army officers murdered by the Soviet Security Police in 1940. The Nazi press claimed that “Jewish commissars” had carried out the murders, further proof, it alleged, that “the extermination of the peoples of Europe” was a “Jewish war aim.”

Back in Berlin for the early May funeral of SA chief Viktor Lutze, Hitler exhorted the assembled faithful to “set anti-Semitism again at the core of the ideological struggle,” while, in mid-May, Goebbels recorded the Führer’s extensive musings on the Jewish threat. The Jews, Hitler asserted, were the same all over the world and simply followed a basic racial instinct for destruction. They had unleashed the war, with all its devastation, but were now on the verge of a catastrophe, their own annihilation: “That is our historic mission, which cannot be held up, but only accelerated by the war.” On 16 May, just a few days after this conversation, Hitler received the news of the eradication of the Warsaw ghetto following a month of fierce fighting. His satisfaction at this triumph was mingled with anger at Jewish resistance and a fear of Jewish subversive activity; just a month later, he told Himmler that the destruction of the Jews had to be carried through to its radical conclusion.

Needing little prompting, the Reichsführer-SS worked strenuously to complete the destruction of the Jews of Poland. By the autumn, with the conclusion of “Aktion Reinhard,” some 1.5 million Jews had been killed at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, while the remaining Jews in the Lublin district had been murdered as part of Operation Harvest Festival (Erntefest). In all, 3–3.5 million Jews had perished in the six death camps, with roughly 750,000 killed by various murder squads. Speaking frankly to SS leaders on 4 October at Posen, Himmler boasted that “the Jewish evacuation program, the extermination of the Jews,” was “a glorious page in our history,” although one that “can never be written.” Then, connecting the alleged Jewish threat to the war, both present and previous, he asserted: “For we know how difficult we would have made it for ourselves if, on top of the bombing raids, the burdens and deprivations of the war, we still had Jews in every town as secret saboteurs, agitators, and troublemakers. We would now probably have reached the 1916–1917 stage.” “We had the moral right . . . , the duty to our people,” he insisted, “to destroy this people which wanted to destroy us.” Two days later, Himmler pushed the same theme in the same hall in an address before the Reichsleiter and Gauleiter, stressing that all Jews, including women and children, had to be killed in order to prevent a generation of “avengers” from growing up. In both addresses, and in a further series of speeches before Wehrmacht officers from December 1943 through June 1944, the Reichsführer not only justified the Final Solution with reference to self-defense but also emphasized the joint responsibility of all in attendance. They were all complicit in genocide and, thus, had no choice but to fight to the end. As the official communiqué put it, “The entire German people know that it is a matter of whether they exist or do not exist. The bridges have been destroyed behind them. Only the way forward remains.”

Through the winter of 1943 and into the spring of 1944, SS leaders turned their attention to the acceleration of the Final Solution in all areas of the Nazi Empire, pressing for the evacuation of Danish, Slovak, Greek, Italian, Rumanian, and, especially, Hungarian Jews. Although long allied with Nazi Germany, Hungary had under the leadership of Admiral Horthy effectively become a sanctuary for the Jews, with nearly a million in the country by early 1944. This situation was increasingly intolerable to Hitler, sensitive as he was to alleged Jewish subversion. His fears were seemingly confirmed when German intelligence supplied evidence that Horthy was negotiating with the Allies to take his country out of the war, which would endanger the German position in the Balkans. Faced with such open treachery, Hitler resolved in mid-March on a German occupation of the country. Initially unable in a tempestuous meeting on 18 March to browbeat the aged admiral into acquiescing in this action, the Führer simply stepped up the pressure until Horthy agreed to install a puppet regime. The next day, 19 March, German troops occupied the country.

At one stroke, not only had Hitler secured vital raw materials and labor for the German war effort, but also, as he told Goebbels two weeks later, the Jewish question could now be solved in Hungary. Eichmann’s men entered the country with the German troops and within days began organizing the roundup, ghettoization, and deportation of Jews. At the end of April, the first train left for Auschwitz, with full-scale deportations from the Hungarian provinces, at a rate of 12,000–14,000 deportees a day, commencing on 14 May. The crush of victims was so great that the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz worked around the clock; one crematorium even broke down under the strain. Urged by the new Hungarian prime minister in early June to stop the deportations, Hitler responded with a tirade. The Jews, he screamed, were responsible for the death of tens of thousands of German civilians in Allied bombing raids. As a result, “nobody could demand of him that he should have the least pity for this global plague,” for he was only applying “the old Jewish saying, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ ” By the time the deportations stopped on 9 July, almost 438,000 Jews had been sent to the death camps, with roughly 394,000 exterminated immediately. Of those selected for work, few would survive the war. In Budapest, perhaps 250,000 Jews clung tenuously to life, still awaiting their fate. Though the military events of 1943 had put the Germans on the defensive, Harvest Festival and the closing of the Operation Reinhard camps showed that Hitler had gone a long way toward winning his other war, that against the Jews. The stubborn prosecution of what had become an unwinnable war—both Goebbels and Ribbentrop suggested in September 1943 that peace feelers be put out to Stalin and the British—thus offered the Führer the chance to complete his “historic task.” To Hitler, the trauma of 1918 had been the work of the Jews; by destroying this threat once and for all, he would ensure that this “shame” would not recur.

That the Reich could continue the war at all was largely due to an unexpected upward turn in military production in late 1943. Despite the setback to armaments output caused by the Allied bombing raids of the summer, by the autumn the gloom had lifted a bit. Instead of remaining focused on industrial targets in western Germany, RAF Bomber Command shifted to an ultimately fruitless effort to create another “Hamburg” in Berlin. For its part, the U.S. Eighth Air Force continued to hammer at industrial facilities, but improvements in German technology and defense tactics resulted in such a heavy toll of bombers that, in October, the Americans were forced temporarily to halt operations. By the end of the year, the sense of crisis had passed as the Allied bombers had clearly not crippled German production. After months of stagnation, in fact, all indices of armaments production began to shoot upward in February 1944, with spectacular increases in the output of aircraft, ammunition, and weapons.

Nor had the feared collapse of morale occurred, even though Fortress Europe seemed to many Germans a fortress without a roof. In 1943, the Allies dropped on Germany more than double the tonnage of bombs as had fallen in the previous three years combined, a figure that would be dwarfed by the 1944 and 1945 numbers, yet the German civilian population stubbornly adapted. Despite Speer’s concerns about the difficulties posed by bombed-out workers and Goebbels’s frustration at Hitler’s unwillingness to visit the afflicted cities, the “terror bombing,” as the propaganda minister astutely realized, brought the Volksgemeinschaft closer together. The bombed out, the “proletarians of the aerial war,” Goebbels thought, received valuable lessons in National Socialism through the activities of the NSV and other agencies that provided aid. In addition, the experiences of “terror from the air,” he believed, made average Germans tougher and more unyielding.

Further increases in production, however, depended not only on the morale of the civilian population but also on larger numbers of workers and an enhanced work rate. The size of the German labor force, however, had actually shrunk because of conscription of men into the military, with much of the shortfall made up by foreign workers. As part of planned withdrawal actions in the east in the autumn of 1943, German authorities once again envisioned the forced conscription of civilian labor to the Reich. As German troops abandoned their often long-held positions, they took as many as 1.5 million men and women capable of work with them, leaving the remainder—the sick, elderly, and young—to an uncertain fate. Although this brutal evacuation of civilians aimed at a substantial increase in workers for the German war effort, the local demand for labor to construct defensive fortifications (an estimated 500,000 workers, e.g., were needed to construct the Ostwall) as well as to perform support duties often meant that relatively few of these people were sent back to Germany, thus forcing officials to search elsewhere for workers.

Already in the summer of 1942, as we have seen, Himmler had sought to build his SS empire through the use of slave labor; by 1944, almost 500,000 concentration camp prisoners were regarded as fit to work, although Jews, considered the arch racial threat, had been explicitly excluded from such labor. The frantic search for new workers now took an ironic twist, one that offered some Jews a glimmer of hope of survival. Within weeks of the German occupation of Hungary, the possibility of using Hungarian Jews in the aircraft industry was being openly discussed at the Führer’s headquarters, with Hitler deciding, in early April, that he would “personally contact the Reichsführer SS [Himmler] and ask him to supply . . . 100,000 men . . . by making available contingents of Jews.” Himmler himself acknowledged in late May 1944 the paradoxical nature of the situation, remarking to a group of generals: “At this time—it is one of those things peculiar to this war—we are taking 100,000 male Jews from Hungary to the concentration camps to build underground factories, and will later take another 100,000.” Amazingly, then, just eighteen months after his decision to make Germany Judenrein (free [lit., cleansed] of Jews), Hitler now decided to bring Jewish workers back to Germany, albeit under draconian circumstances. The working and living conditions of the workers varied substantially according to the type of job, the attitude of the management, foremen, and guards at the individual firms, and the reaction of the local population, many of whom regarded the Jews with fear, suspicion, and hostility, often urging that harsh measures be taken against them. Still, perhaps 120,000 Jews survived the war as forced laborers, although those engaged in armaments production had a far better chance of survival than those forced to carve the tunnels for rocket production.

The period on the eastern front from the autumn of 1943 to the summer of 1944 has, with considerable justification, been termed the forgotten year of the war, a time of debilitating German retreats and equally inglorious Soviet victories bought at horrendous cost. Despite his stubborn determination to hold the line in the east, Hitler found his hand forced by events as now began what seemed an endless series of grinding defensive battles, punctuated by brief pauses, that continued until the end of the war. The summer fighting had left the Wehrmacht an organization clearly in decline. Its panzer and air fleets had been greatly reduced, while its infantry was in desperately poor condition, with few troops, inadequate antitank defenses, and declining mobility. This latter, in turn, constantly left the choice of two evils: either stand and fight, and face destruction, or withdraw prematurely in order to save heavy equipment and artillery. Army Groups North and Center, forced to transfer units to Army Group South, were in an especially acute situation, dangerously undermanned, with many of their divisions reduced to regimental strength, and with virtually no tanks or air support. Even the spurt in industrial production at the end of the year could do little but patch a broken machine. Moreover, constant Soviet pressure meant that the Germans had to throw their newly raised infantry and tank units into battle before they were fully prepared, resulting in abnormally large casualties among the inexperienced troops. These losses then forced commanders to call in the next wave of reinforcements prematurely, thus starting a vicious cycle. For its part, the Soviet leadership, with a decisive numerical and material superiority, made ambitious plans for offensive actions and breakthrough operations. In the event, these tended to be poorly executed, with the Red Army, unable to pull off decisive encirclement operations, reverting primarily to bloody frontal assaults with masses of men and tanks. The Germans were able (barely) to fend off these assaults with nimble tactics, but the sheer weight of the enemy onslaught forced them inexorably back.

Despite Hitler’s outward show of optimism and repeated vow to hold out with an iron will, the defeats of the summer on all fronts meant that Germany had finally, definitively, lost any freedom of action. The surest indication of this was Hitler’s newfound willingness to sanction the construction of the so-called Ostwall, a line of fortifications running from Melitopol on the Sea of Azov along the Dnieper and Desna Rivers to Chernigov, then almost due north to Narva on the Baltic. Although he had categorically rejected the idea earlier in the year, on 12 August he issued Führer Order No. 10, which belatedly ordered work to begin on this defense system. There was less to this decision, however, than met the eye, for Hitler still struggled with the implications of building a defensive barrier. Not only did he fear that the construction of the Ostwall would encourage a “withdrawal psychosis” among his troops, which perhaps explains why the system was quickly renamed the Panther position (or the Wotan position in the extreme south). More importantly, he continued to insist that German forces could not evacuate the Donets Basin for strategic-economic reasons, a position supported by other powerful voices in the regime. Luftwaffe officials stressed the loss of key airfields that would hinder the German ability to strike at Soviet industrial areas while putting eastern German war production within range of Soviet bombers. At the same time, some segments of the armaments industry feared the consequences of the loss of foodstuffs and the coal resources of Ukraine. This, they argued, would have an immediate negative impact on food supplies for the troops, the operation of the railroads, and iron and steel production, which, in turn, would undermine armaments output. Although Speer evidently had already discounted the resources of the Donets Basin in his calculations, Hitler certainly regarded them as of key economic importance, a point he used to chide his military advisers. “My generals,” he remarked with open contempt to Zeitzler that summer, “think only of military matters and withdrawals. They never think of economic matters. They therefore have absolutely no understanding. If we give up the Donets area, then we lack coal. We need it for our armaments industry.”

Compounding the tension in the German leadership was the fact that, although he still proclaimed the east to be the “decisive front,” after the defeat at Kursk Hitler was clearly losing interest in the Ostkrieg as his concern grew about an Anglo-American invasion in the west. At best, in strategic terms, he could aim to defeat the second front in France and, perhaps, prolong the war in the hope that their divergent interests would lead to a falling out among his opponents (although, curiously, he did little to exploit these tensions). In any case, the need to build a Fortress Europe in the west meant that the Führer had little choice but to transfer units from east to west, thus further thinning the already dangerously overstretched German lines. This was confirmed by Führer Directive No. 51, issued on 3 November 1943, which, for the first time since the invasion of the Soviet Union, gave precedence to the war in the west. Despite the continued significance of the struggle against Bolshevism in the east, Hitler now declared that a greater immediate danger had arisen in the west: the threat of an Anglo-American invasion. “In the most extreme instance,” he said, Germany could still sacrifice territory in the east, but in the west any breakthrough would have ruinous consequences “in a short time.”

In issuing this directive, Hitler clearly sided with the OKW against the OKH, which had hoped to retain the resources necessary to at least stabilize the Ostfront. Although faced with a potential threat in the west, Hitler’s directive left the OKH to deal with an actual danger in the east with only limited resources, which had catastrophic consequences for the Ostheer. Although it continued to suffer the great majority of the Wehrmacht’s casualties (some 90 percent to the eve of the Normandy invasion), it now disposed of only 57 percent of German forces. With barely 2.6 million troops to defend against almost three times that number in the Red Army, each division of the Ostheer now defended a ten-mile stretch of front. On the western front twenty-five years earlier, by contrast, each German division covered only two miles; moreover, on a front four times longer, the Ostheer had fewer artillery. Nor did the material situation offer much comfort, for, despite the undeniable German gains in output, Soviet production, combined with Lend-Lease deliveries, added up to an overwhelming Russian superiority in tanks, artillery, aircraft, and motor vehicles. The constant wearing-away process on the eastern front, as well as the new demands in the west, also meant that the Ostheer could not maintain its strength despite increased armaments output. Moreover, in spite of his intimation that he would trade space for time in the east, in the event Hitler was not prepared to make the strategic withdrawals that would have significantly shortened the front and freed up precious manpower. Nor had Guderian been able to convince him, in view of the poor state of the infantry, to use the qualitative superiority of the new German tanks to build a mobile panzer reserve to backstop the infantry. In any case, given the vast preponderance of enemy strength, Guderian’s remedy of an operational reserve consisting of only eight panzer or panzergrenadier divisions supported by a few infantry divisions with tank sections, whose place in the line would be taken by security units or Rumanian and Latvian divisions of dubious quality, seems in retrospect naive at best.

Although there was a certain truth to Hitler’s complaint that his generals lacked faith in him, which left Goebbels to ponder Stalin’s solution—the shooting of his generals—with a greater appreciation, military contingencies had a way of simplifying the great strategic problems with which the Führer grappled, as he was rather unceremoniously reminded by Manstein. Although himself favoring a mobile defense, in a meeting with Hitler at Vinnitsa on 27 August, the field marshal pointed out that his troops had suffered 133,000 casualties but received only 33,000 replacements and that, without reinforcements, he could not possibly hold on to the Donets Basin. Perhaps most significantly from Hitler’s point of view, Manstein, with Kluge present and in support, proposed a unified command in the east under his, Manstein’s, direction, for the purpose of conducting an effective fighting retreat. The idea of ending the rivalry between the OKH and the OKW and instituting a single command structure certainly was sound but, as the two field marshals must have known, had little chance of approval. This step would not only deprive Hitler of day-to-day command in the east but also undermine his ability to play the OKH and the OKW off against each other, thus enhancing his authority. In the end, Hitler merely used the challenge to reinforce his control, ordering that, henceforth, all troop transfers between OKH and OKW areas be subject to his personal approval. Manstein’s effrontery, however, would not go unremarked as the field marshal’s suggestion was seen by the Führer not as a valid operational proposal but as a sign of defeatism and opposition. His star now began rapidly to wane.

At a meeting a week later at the Führer Headquarters, Manstein was even blunter in his implicit criticism of Hitler’s conduct of operations. “Mein Führer,” he told Hitler pointedly on 3 September, “you no longer have the decision as to whether the Donets area can be held or not. You only have the decision as to whether or not you will lose it along with an army group.” On the eighth, with a crisis brewing on the eastern front, and the same day Anglo-American forces invaded Italy, Hitler flew to Manstein’s headquarters at Zaporozhye, the last time he was to set foot on occupied Soviet territory. Although he once again forbade Manstein’s request for a speedy withdrawal of his threatened forces, events soon outpaced his will. On the fourteenth, in the face of Soviet breakthroughs, Manstein acted to avert catastrophe, summarily informing the OKH that, in order to avoid destruction, the next day his armies would begin retreating to the Panther position. Disturbed by this independent assertion of authority, Hitler on the fifteenth summoned both Manstein and Kluge to his headquarters. He was, however, again unable to counter Manstein’s blunt observation that it was no longer a matter of holding an economically important region but a question of “the fate of the eastern front.” With that, Hitler reluctantly approved a withdrawal behind the Dnieper but insisted that it be as gradual as possible.

Kluge, for his part, was not unsupportive of this decision since Army Group Center had been able since late August to hold its front largely intact while conducting a dogged fighting retreat. The basic problem, however, the law of numbers, was insoluble: the Germans were trying to stem the tide against an overwhelmingly superior enemy force. In hammering operations from Smolensk in the north to Chernigov in the southern sector of the front, the Soviets, although able to achieve breakthroughs along the line, proved unable to pull off a decisive success. In the process, moreover, the Red Army suffered striking losses. The three simultaneous offensives against Smolensk, Bryansk, and Chernigov cost the Soviets almost 225,000 permanent losses (dead, missing, and prisoners) and well over 2,000 tanks and assault guns. Although the corresponding German figures were a fraction of these losses, even these were unsustainable. On 10 September, for example, the Second Army reported that all its infantry divisions combined could muster fewer than 7,000 combat troops. The response of the OKH was to order it to attack to close a gap in its line.

From mid-September, however, the situation deteriorated rapidly as Kluge struggled to avert a catastrophe with only sixteen fully combat-ready divisions (eleven infantry, one panzer, and four Luftwaffe field divisions of dubious value). Soviet pressure forced him to evacuate Bryansk on the seventeenth, while Smolensk, the scene of such bitter fighting two years earlier, was lost virtually without a fight on the twenty-fifth after a series of Soviet penetrations. More worrisome, the inability of most of his units, equipped only with horse-drawn transport, to withdraw quickly meant that any race to the Dnieper was bound to be lost, especially since they had to herd over 500,000 civilians and 600,000 head of cattle to the rear. The extraordinary mobility of the Wehrmacht, which had proved so decisive in earlier triumphs, had vanished; most Landsers simply walked without stopping back to the Dnieper. Hitler’s faith in his panzer divisions to close gaps in the front through swift counterattacks also proved misplaced since they could not be moved from place to place quickly enough to plug the gaps. Not surprisingly, the Soviets won the race to the Dnieper, achieving the key breakthrough on 22 September when they pushed spearheads across the river at Chernobyl, north of Kiev. By 1 October, they had managed to seize the city and widen their bridgehead. Although a counterattack regained the city three days later, the Germans were unable to reduce the bridgehead itself, an “open wound” that stretched thirty-six miles along the Dnieper to a depth of eighteen miles, a sad testament to Hitler’s failure to authorize a timely withdrawal.

For all the drama in Army Group Center’s sector, the focus of the enemy offensive lay in the south as the Soviets sought to liberate, and Hitler desperately to retain, the valuable economic area of the Donets Basin and Ukraine. For the Battle of the Dnieper, the Soviets had massed 2.6 million troops, more than twenty-four hundred armored vehicles, and almost twenty-nine hundred aircraft, figures that represented 50 percent of the troops and aircraft and 70 percent of the tanks available to the Red Army. With such numerical superiority and the far greater mobility afforded by their stock of Lend-Lease trucks, the Soviets might have been expected to strike to the south to trap large numbers of the enemy east of the Dnieper. Instead, perhaps wary of previous German lessons in the art of counterattack, Stalin insisted on driving the Germans out of eastern Ukraine in a frontal push. The irony, as Karl-Heinz Frieser has noted, was that, early in the war, the Red Army engaged in all manner of risky adventures that overtaxed its operational abilities; now, with many German units barely capable of putting up resistance, the Soviet High Command had grown cautious.

On Army Group South’s southern flank, the initial Soviet attempt to cross the Donets River at Izyum had been successfully repulsed by the First Panzer Army in late July. Renewed enemy efforts beginning on 16 August also achieved little, despite concentrations of artillery fire described by the Germans as the heaviest yet seen in the war, but enemy breakthroughs to the south undermined the First Panzer Army’s efforts. On the eighteenth, the Red Army repeated its pattern of intense artillery bombardment on a narrow front, this time pushing through the depleted Sixth Army defenses on the Mius. Without a single tank, the Sixth Army stood little chance of resisting the onslaught of over eight hundred Soviet armored vehicles and could only watch helplessly as on the twenty-seventh enemy spearheads turned south to the Sea of Azov, temporarily trapping the Twenty-ninth Army Corps. Nor was the situation any better in the First Panzer Army’s sector. By 23 August, its strength at Izyum reduced to fewer than six thousand combat troops, the First could not even maintain a continuous line. Forced to give ground by the retreat of its neighbor to the south, it still put up a stubborn defense until 6 September, when an enemy breakthrough at Konstantinovka opened a gap between the two armies and resulted in the loss on 10 September of the key railroad junction at Sinelnikovo, just east of Dnepropetrovsk. Once more, however, the Red Army was forced to absorb a harsh lesson as German counterattacks at Sinelnikovo on 12 September pinched off and drubbed Soviet forward units.

Despite enemy progress in the south, the army group’s brittle northern flank posed the most serious concerns. The Eighth Army reported in early September that it could no longer hold a continuous line, opting instead to establish a system of strongpoints supported by patrols. One of its divisions reported a strength of only six officers and three hundred men, while among all the troops exhaustion and apathy had taken hold, with the “most severe measures” unable any longer to stiffen their resistance. If anything, the Fourth Panzer Army to the north was in even worse shape; the infantrymen, it reported at the end of August, were “completely exhausted and physically and psychologically at the end of their strength.” Although confronted with a yawning gap to its north as the Second Army retreated, it could create only a few islands of resistance in its open left flank, primarily around the key juncture of Nezhin, to the east of Kiev. Its loss on the fifteenth touched off a near panic at Führer Headquarters as Soviet units pushed toward the Dnieper at Chernobyl. By the middle of September, faced with the possibility that its entire front could be rolled up from the north, and with a defense east of the Dnieper clearly impossible, Army Group South also began a withdrawal to the Panther position. Still, the Soviet frontal assaults had proved as costly as they were inelegant, the Red Army losing in roughly four weeks of fighting nearly 170,000 dead and missing, along with 2,000 armored vehicles and 600 aircraft.

Welcome as it was, the decision to go behind the Dnieper posed enormous problems for Army Group South that tested its organizational skills and fighting abilities to the limit. Its three armies occupied a four-hundred-mile-wide front stretching from Chernobyl to Zaporozhye yet had only five major crossings of the Dnieper, itself at places over a mile wide. In practice, this meant that the armies not only had to disengage in the face of enemy forces pressing hard on their fronts but also then had to be funneled to the few major bridges over the river. Once across, the troops then had to fan out quickly behind the river before the Russians could get bridgeheads of their own on the undefended west bank. In addition, very little had been done to improve the crossings or to make available engineers and additional bridging equipment. As part of the withdrawal, moreover, some 200,000 wounded, along with medical personnel and field hospitals, over 500,000 civilians (technical specialists, forced laborers, Ukrainians fearful of the return of Soviet authorities, and ethnic Germans, with their motley possessions), along with thousands of head of cattle, embarked on a trek westward. Large quantities of goods were also sent west, causing even further congestion at the crossing points. Further complicating matters, Hitler insisted at the last moment that the First Panzer Army should defend a bridgehead east of the river at Zaporozhye in order to protect the nearby manganese mines at Nikopol, a decision that forced Manstein to move precious reserves that could have been better used plugging the numerous gaps in his front into a tactically worthless position. Finally, all this was accompanied by the systematic destruction of Soviet infrastructure, villages, and anything of economic value to a depth of twenty miles along the east bank of the river.

By the end of the month, Army Group South had withdrawn the last of its troops across the Dnieper, an action that marked the end of a two-month period in which Army Groups Center and South had been forced back an average of 150 miles along a roughly 650-mile front. In the process, they had lost the economically most valuable territory they had conquered. In an effort to deny the enemy any advantage from the reconquest of this area, Hitler ordered a scorched-earth policy to destroy anything of potential economic value. Using as a precedent the similar Soviet action in the summer of 1941, the Germans, in a characteristic mix of professional ability, military necessity, individual rage, and an ideological will to destruction, proceeded to lay waste to large areas. The troops were instructed not only to evacuate or destroy potentially useful industrial equipment but also to blow up or burn buildings, villages, individual dwellings, bridges, wells—anything that could be of use to the enemy. In addition, all men between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five were to be taken along by the troops as labor for the construction of field fortifications, while able-bodied women were to be sent back to Germany as forced labor.

What followed, in many areas, was an orgy of destruction, as the Germans left behind only smoking ruins and heaps of rubble. “Orel,” wrote a Landser to his fiancée in mid-August, had been “leveled to the ground,” its inhabitants “driven to the rear areas.” Six weeks later, the same soldier noted, “The Russians will find only the rubble from blown up buildings and bridges. . . . People and animals from an enormous area . . . are streaming to the west. The Russians will find only an empty, barren land.” “Everything has been burning fiercely for days,” confirmed another Landser to his wife from the Dnieper, “for . . . all the towns and villages in the areas that we are now evacuating are being set ablaze, even the smallest house in the village must go. All the large buildings are being blown up. The Russians are to find nothing but a field of rubble. . . . It is a terribly beautiful picture.” In a similar vein, Helmut Pabst enthused during the retreat toward Kiev, “The villages burned. They burned with raging power. . . . Long before evening the sun was already red, as it hung sick and thirsty over the march of destruction. . . . It unfurled war in all its terrible splendor.” More prosaically, but perhaps more honestly, another Landser stressed the spontaneous, personal nature of scorched earth: “In the event we just go into the houses and simply take what is there.” Agreed another, “Better that we have it [food] in our bellies than the Russians.”

Although justified by Hitler on military grounds, this extraordinary effort at scorched earth in fact raised a number of problems. From a purely tactical viewpoint, burning buildings and blowing up installations signaled only too clearly to the enemy the German intention to withdraw, thus complicating the effort to disengage in good order. Moreover, the work of destruction, combined with the effort to evacuate civilians and goods, wasted considerable time and energy, further burdening troops already exhausted by nightly retreats, the hasty construction of trenches in the mornings, and daily skirmishes with the hard-pressing enemy. Under this strain, some troops chose simply to retreat on their own, without waiting for orders, when the situation began to look critical. Nor, for all the effort, did the Germans accomplish anything decisive. At the end of September, Army Group Center reported that it had succeeded in evacuating only 20–30 percent of the economic goods in its areas, while Army Group South almost certainly did worse. Many power plants, factories, railroads, and bridges had, in fact, been destroyed, but many had never been fully restored following the Soviet retreat of 1941. By the same token, the lack of personnel meant that the Germans never came close to stripping the evacuated areas bare of grain and livestock; in the event, they were forced to leave behind far larger quantities than they were able to carry off. As a result, the Soviets quickly exploited the newly liberated areas both for grain resources and for replacements for the Red Army.

Caught in the middle, as always, was the long-suffering civilian population of the affected areas. The exploitation, plundering, evacuation, and conscription of the local peoples formed an integral part of scorched earth, for human as well as material resources had to be denied the enemy. Combined, the four German army groups forced over 2 million civilians out of the territory east of the Panther line; at the same time, tens of thousands of superfluous eaters—the elderly, the sick, mothers with young children—were either left behind amid the vast desolation or driven into “bandit areas.” Those capable of work—men between fifteen and sixty-five and women from fifteen to forty-five—were then divided, with the women often sent to Germany for compulsory labor service and the men dispatched to work camps to build field fortifications and perform support duties. Those caught in the roundup were treated as prisoners of war, which meant that anyone attempting to resist or escape was liable to be shot. In most areas, as well, the luckless civilians became part of a larger tug-of-war as local commanders often ignored orders to send them back to Germany in order to put them to work—twelve hours a day, seven days a week—at backbreaking construction tasks at the front.

For the troops, scorched earth contributed to a further radicalizing process, resulting in growing indiscipline, brutalization, and a sharp increase in violence and the will to destruction. For many Landsers, the initial actions came as a rude shock; after all, fighting an armed enemy was one thing, but driving the sick, elderly, and young children into the wild was something else again. In addition, while the troops were exhorted (and ordered) to destroy anything of value as they retreated, there was a very thin line between denying the enemy valuable resources and plundering, burning, and murdering out of a destructive lust. As the retreat, in places, threatened to become a rout, company and battalion commanders struggled to retain discipline over their men, reminding them constantly that only things of military or economic value were to be destroyed. In practice, however, this meant virtually everything, with many Landsers falling victim to the temptation. “We also moved through the villages and shot pistol flares in the dry straw roofs,” admitted one participant after the war. “In this way we were able in a very short time to burn down entire villages.” The similarity between the methods used in combating the partisan war and scorched earth often enabled soldiers to rationalize their actions, although that hardly helped officers in restraining the destructive rage. Even as many tried to preserve discipline, however, they were instructed that “the complete removal of the labor resources [of these areas] is essential to the conduct of this war. How much more cruel and brutal would be the mayhem directed at the German people by the Soviets if they entered our country because we had neglected, out of a cheap humanitarian sentiment, to organize all labor resources to enforce the final victory.” Whoever failed to carry out these measures, it was warned, would be regarded, and treated, as a “traitor to the German people.” Littler wonder, then, that the average Landser came to believe that the scorched-earth policy gave him a “free zone” in which anything could be justified by considerations of military expediency.

This desperate retreat behind the Dnieper, during which the Germans had fended off repeated, reckless Soviet frontal assaults that invariably cost the Red Army many times the losses of the Germans—but losses that were made good within a dishearteningly short time—inevitably raised doubts about the possibility of victory in the minds of many Landsers. What, then, kept German soldiers doggedly fighting, not only in the autumn of 1943, but to the end of the war? This is not an easy question to answer, for, as in any large organization, there was a complex mix of motives among the men and often within individual soldiers as well. Loyalty to Germany, support for Hitler or National Socialism, racist and anti-Semitic attitudes, primary group attachments, patriotism, fear of Bolshevik revenge, brutalization, and the embrace of a destructive passion—all these and more played a role. The very cheapness with which the enemy evidently regarded his own life seemed to confirm Nazi racialist arguments. Political education and indoctrination also played a role, as one Landser revealed in March 1942: “This is a matter of two great world views. Either us or the Jews.” “The Jews,” wrote another in May 1943, “must actually be behind all those that want to destroy us,” then a few weeks later noted incredulously, “It surely cannot be that the Jews will win and rule.” “We will win because we must win,” Jodl put it with a characteristic mixture of pathos, credulity, and ideology in November 1943, “for otherwise world history has lost its meaning.” As the front moved closer to Germany, a note of fear also crept in, infusing racialist beliefs with a sense of desperation to defend the homeland from the Jewish-Bolshevik Asiatic hordes. If Germany was defeated, warned one Landser in August 1944, “the Jews will then fall on us and exterminate everything that is German, there will be a cruel and terrible slaughter.”

Scorched Earth in the East II

The fighting spirit of the younger soldiers, those in their mid- to late twenties who made up the bulk of frontline combat troops, seems to have been sustained primarily through an intermingling of Nazi ideas with traditional nationalism, leavened by a good dose of primary group loyalty. As Christoph Rass has shown for the 253rd Infantry Division, findings that can be applied across the army, the institutional setting in which ordinary soldiers found themselves was surprisingly stable for most of the war. By forming divisions from common geographic regions, raising replacements from these same areas, returning convalescents to their old units, and mixing experienced troops with young recruits, the German army created a relatively cohesive and stable setting within which primary group loyalties and a strong sense of camaraderie could develop. The savage fighting and high losses of the war in Russia certainly damaged these bonds of loyalty, but Rass has shown convincingly that these disruptive effects were mitigated by a number of factors. Until late in the war, for example, units were rotated out of combat regularly and, thus, managed to retain a core group of comrades. While units were in reserve, recruits from the same region arrived and mingled with convalescents sent back to their old units, a fact that contributed to relatively homogenous regiments in which the men quickly bonded. Finally, the insistence, again until late in the war, that replacements be trained thoroughly before being thrown into battle, ensured a high level of combat effectiveness.

To this essentially primary group argument, however, Rass has added an intriguing mixture of ideology and nationalism. While most of the soldiers would likely have seen themselves as fighting for Germany, their conception of the nation had often been decisively altered by Nazi ideology and indoctrination. Depending on year of birth, anywhere from 60 to 85 percent of the men in combat units would have spent time in one or another (and some in all) of various Nazi organizations ranging from the Hitler Youth to the Reich Labor Service to the prewar army. In addition to the general dose of propaganda supplied by Goebbels’s mass media, the men would have been trained not just to be soldiers but more subtly (and effectively) to see themselves as a new kind of man, a racial comrade who fought to protect and, if necessary, was willing to sacrifice himself for the racial community. This emphasis on the Volksgemeinschaft, the racial and organic national community the Nazis had promoted with such emotion and fanfare in the 1930s, now appeared to many Landsers as not merely a superior new society in creation but an everyday reality affirmed by their staunch camaraderie and mutual support in adversity. In this sense, as Richard Evans has argued, it was not the destruction of such primary groups but their very persistence that led to the brutalization of war in the east as these tough cells, sustained by experienced veterans and Nazified young men, turned their aggressive sense of community outward against a Soviet population seen as racially inferior, indeed, as barely human.

To stiffen German morale even further, Keitel had, from the autumn of 1943, urged the intensification of National Socialist education for all German troops. They must understand, emphasized the head of the OKW, that in this ongoing “struggle of ideologies” the only option was “victory or ruin,” meaning that every soldier had to become “a political-ideological fighter” with a “fanatical devotion to the National Socialist idea.” Responding to Keitel’s initiative, Hitler in late December 1943 ordered the establishment of the National Socialist Leadership Corps, a Nazi equivalent of the political commissars in the Red Army. Through lectures, special courses, and the distribution of ideological leaflets, the men at the front were to be strengthened in their resolve by belief in the Nazi idea. In response, officers’ orders and actions became more overtly National Socialist in an attempt to infuse their men with an urgent will to resist. Although it is difficult to determine with any precision how many men were inspired to fanatic resistance, certainly a good many were fortified by this bracing mixture of ideology and sense of beleaguered front community.

In addition, Goebbels added to the ideological brew by seeking to change the perception of the war from one of conquest of Lebensraum to one of defense of European civilization against the onslaught of the Jewish-Bolshevik hordes. For many observers both inside and outside Germany, this depiction acquired a greater plausibility as the Wehrmacht was forced onto the defensive and the “Red danger” crept ever closer to Central Europe. In this new formulation, Germany was now the “protective power” working to mobilize “all the strength of the European continent against Jewish-Bolshevism,” a task that, if necessary, required the utmost ruthlessness. This barely concealed threat applied not only to the occupied areas but also to the Wehrmacht itself, whose members were now exposed to the harshest punishments. Increasingly in the last year and a half of the war, the men would be kept fighting, if necessary, through fear and terror. Any hint of a failure of will—from defeatist utterances to self-mutilation to desertion—now fell under the vague category of Wehrkraftzersetzung (undermining the conduct of the war), the penalty for which often proved swift execution. Military courts-martial were used to impose discipline and the will to fight by showing Landsers the consequences if they flagged: some thirty thousand soldiers were sentenced to death, with perhaps twenty thousand of those executed, most in the last year or so of the war, as against forty-eight executed in all the German armed forces during World War I. If National Socialist ideas failed to inspire a will to resist, then Nazi terror would be used instead. For the average soldier, the war had become, in the most concrete sense, a battle for survival.

With the Germans driven back across the Dnieper, the Red Army had attained the original goal of its summer offensive but now moved to exploit the fruits of its victory. Drawing on the local population for replacements—some eighty thousand men were drafted from the liberated areas and thrown into the battle—and concerned that, if given time, the Germans would take advantage of the river line to stalemate the war, the Soviets bounced the river in a number of places and established bridgeheads on the west bank as launching pads for future operations. Although the Dnieper, with its broad channel, high bluffs on the western side, and swampy eastern bank, afforded the strongest natural defensive line in western Russia, Hitler’s stubborn insistence on holding out east of the river had deprived the Germans of most of its advantages. Not only had their strength been sapped, but work on constructing defenses along the river had also lagged. Many Landsers, encouraged by the talk of an Ostwall, were dismayed to find on crossing the river that little had been built and they were left in the open. “We had expected,” wrote one, “to find the Ostwall behind the Dnieper. Not even trenches were there.”

This shock to the morale of the exhausted German forces was compounded by the awareness of the vast mismatch in strength between the opposing sides. Although on paper Manstein had sixty divisions at his disposal, in reality most had the strength only of a regiment and some not even of a Kampfgruppe (battle group). In early October, Army Group South had only about one thousand combat troops per division, fewer than three hundred operational tanks and assault guns, and not quite six hundred aircraft for itself and Army Group A to its south. Manstein himself admitted gloomily at the end of October that the combat strength of his troops, exhausted by ceaseless battle for months, had “sunk so low . . . that as a result of our insufficient manpower in the front lines the enemy can punch through anywhere he assembles sufficient forces.” Instead of organizing a defense along the river line, however, he had to try, with inadequate forces, to eliminate or contain the numerous Soviet bridgeheads, even as the enemy sought to exploit its vast numerical preponderance by launching several attacks simultaneously along the front.

Of these bridgeheads, the ones ultimately most dangerous were north of Kiev at Liutezh and Chernobyl. The Red Army had originally hoped, in a daring blow using massed armor and airborne troops, to burst out of the Bukrin bridgehead to the south of the Ukrainian capital in late September and seize the city in a sweeping move to the west and north. Although this had resulted in a fiasco, Vatutin skillfully moved his troops, under cover of effective camouflage measures, to the northern bridgeheads. Following a massive artillery barrage, Soviet forces on 3 November assaulted the thin German defenses at Liutezh, at the same time breaking out of the bridgehead near Chernobyl. Within two days, the Fourth Panzer Army front had been shattered, and, lacking reserves of any kind, it was helpless to slow the enemy advance. By the sixth, Kiev had fallen, and Soviet forces were pushing westward almost unhindered. Troops of the First Ukrainian Front, storming out of the Chernobyl bridgehead, raced toward the city of Korosten at the border of Army Groups Center and South, having blasted a sixty-mile-wide gap between the two army groups just south of the Pripet Marshes, a no-man’s-land that the Germans could cover only with reconnaissance troops and patrols. Although the giant swamps of the Pripet offered the Second Army to the north some flank protection, it was primarily controlled by partisan bands, which left the danger that the Soviets might be able to roll up the soft underbelly of the Second Army from the south. Fortunately for the Germans, the various Soviet, Ukrainian, and Polish partisans operating in the Pripet fought each other as much as the German occupier, so an immediate threat failed to materialize, but the situation remained unstable.

More pressing was the danger from Red Army troops driving out of Liutezh on the key railroad junction of Fastov, thirty miles southwest of Kiev, which controlled the lines supplying Army Group South’s central sector. Its fall on the seventh raised the possibility that the army group might be enveloped, especially since the southern wing of the front had been under assault since early October. With his efforts to repair the situation on the northern end of his sector frustrated by Hitler’s insistence on defending the great bend of the Dnieper to the south, Manstein flew to Führer Headquarters on the ninth to demand its evacuation, a move that would shorten the front considerably and free units for use in the north. To Manstein, there seemed little operational point to holding on to the Dnieper bend, especially since Zaporozhye and Dnepropetrovsk had already been lost in mid-October. In addition, Soviet troops had shattered the front of the Sixth Army (Army Group A) at Melitopol on 23 October and reached the Black Sea in early November, trapping the Seventeenth Army in the Crimea. As always, however, Hitler insisted that the manganese ore mines near Nikopol could not be given up without great harm to the armaments effort, nor could the Crimea be abandoned since it would provide the Soviets airfields from which to attack the vital Rumanian oil fields. Ironically, the Führer’s intransigence had been reinforced late in October by Manstein himself. In expectation of receiving five fresh panzer divisions from the west, the OKW having decided that the danger of an Allied invasion had passed, he proposed an attack, reminiscent of his Kharkov success, to cut off the exposed Soviet forces. By now, however, the urgent danger in the north had pushed aside all thoughts of such an operation, but neither the field marshal nor Gehlen, who warned of a “collapse of the eastern front,” proved able to change Hitler’s mind. It was, he said, a risk that would have to be taken, although he did allow Manstein to use some of the newly arrived panzer divisions in the area of the Fourth Panzer Army.

One of these was the newly raised Twenty-fifth Panzer Division, just arrived from France after a series of misadventures that had seen it originally sent to the right flank of the army group before being hurried north, with the result that its equipment was scattered over hundreds of miles. Although not trained for fighting on the eastern front, and lacking much of its heavy weapons—it was, as one author noted ironically, a panzer division without panzers—it was the only unit available to slow the Soviet advance at Fastov. Against Guderian’s vehement objections, the Twenty-fifth Panzer, with as much strength as it could muster, was thrown on the seventh into a counterattack at Fastov in an attempt to regain the rail juncture. By the time its full complement of armored vehicles arrived two days later, it had already suffered such losses that it was unable to retake the city, an outcome that sent Hitler into a rage. More importantly, in throwing into battle a unit clearly unready for combat, the German leadership had departed from its key principle. In contrast to the Soviets, who had squandered many newly formed divisions by throwing them prematurely into combat, the Germans had allowed units to train behind the front to gain experience before being sent into battle. Still, despite being sacrificed, the Twenty-fifth Panzer had performed a vital task: it had slowed the Soviet advance at Fastov and gave Manstein time to organize a counterattack.

Launched on 15 November, the counterstrike was carried out by General Hermann Balck’s Forty-eighth Panzer Corps, which had assembled almost three hundred armored vehicles. Typically at this stage, since the Germans had not yet completely abandoned the idea of regaining the initiative, it aimed at not just pinching off the Soviet advance but ultimately recapturing Kiev. By the twenty-third, Balck’s forces had retaken both Brusilov and Zhitomir, while, to the north, German troops had beaten off an enemy attack at Korosten, regaining the city on the twenty-seventh. Manstein now planned a strike directly east toward Kiev, but several days of steady rain turned the roads into muddy quagmires, forcing a halt to the operation. After the ground had frozen, the Germans renewed their assault on 6 December, with the two hundred armored vehicles of the Forty-eighth Panzer Corps assailing nine Soviet armies, among them two full tank armies and a tank corps. Amazingly, in view of the overwhelming enemy superiority, Balck’s men achieved a few local victories, recapturing Radomsyl on the sixteenth, and generally spreading anxiety and consternation in the Soviet rear. Still, these local triumphs only confirmed the larger German dilemma. Although they proved time and again tactically superior to the Soviets, the Germans could not convert these local victories into an operational breakthrough because at the crucial moment they lacked the necessary strength. Thus, although between August and December in all operations against Army Group South alone the Soviets suffered the staggering total of 417,323 permanent losses, as against 287,000 German dead on the entire eastern front, they were now so numerically superior that they could strike in all areas simultaneously, straining German resources to the breaking point. While, in many sectors, the Germans could not keep a front line completely manned, Manstein estimated that, with the forces available to it, the Red Army could at any time launch a full-scale winter offensive that would leave Army Group South helpless to resist.

Constant enemy pressure and the inability to concentrate meager resources meant that Army Group Center faced the same wearing-away process as its counterpart to the south. Although forced to transfer units to both its hard-pressed neighbors, Army Group Center was still the strongest German force on the eastern front. With the Schwerpunkt of the Soviet offensive clearly in the south, it had been able to withdraw in good order to the Panther position as well as maintain a large slice of land some 190 miles long and 30–40 miles wide east of the Dnieper. Stretching from Loyev (just north of Chernobyl) in the south to east of Orsha in the north, this extended bridgehead was seen by both sides as an opportunity. For Hitler, it represented a launching pad for a future offensive back into Ukraine, while the Soviets saw it as an ideal place from which to destroy much of Army Group Center and liberate Belorussia. Consequently, in the autumn of 1943, they conceived the ambitious plan of launching a pincer attack from Vitebsk in the north and Gomel in the south that would converge on Minsk, trapping sizable German forces in a huge pocket. Although Kluge had throughout October alerted Hitler to the danger from the army group’s exposed position, the Führer had brushed aside his warnings. Then, on the twenty-eighth, Kluge suffered serious injuries in an automobile accident and was replaced by Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch, who, although regarded as a capable commander, had little tactical frontline experience and, thus, tended to defer to Hitler’s judgment.

With little more than two hundred armored vehicles and 450,000 combat troops to defend a line that had swelled to six hundred miles against an enemy force of 1.6 million men and almost twelve hundred tanks and assault guns as well as an estimated 150,000 extremely active partisans operating in his rear, Busch faced a daunting task. Throughout November and December, Soviet forces hammered persistently at Army Group Center on both flanks, but, despite pushing German forces back across the Dnieper in the southern sector, they proved unable to capture the key city of Bobruisk. In the north, the Red Army had even less to show for its battering efforts. Dismissive of losses, the Soviets time and again threw waves of troops against the German defenses. “A Russian infantry attack was a terrifying spectacle,” acknowledged one German officer. “They tramped up in long gray lines emitting wild screams so that the defenders had to have nerves of steel.” “The Russians didn’t think much,” said another. “They were usually being driven by their officers.” A Red Army attack, with waves of men and tanks abreast, awed even the most hardened German soldiers. “You couldn’t believe the way they kept coming—their infantry simply charging . . . , running and shouting. Sometimes our infantry seemed paralyzed by the spectacle. One thought, ‘How can we ever stop such people?’ ” Still, despite surrounding Vitebsk, the gateway to the Baltic, and pounding away at German defenses well into February 1944, the Soviets nonetheless failed to take the city. Nor, in the center of the front at Orsha, in similar mass attacks on the key highway, or Rollbahn, leading to Minsk that lasted until the end of March 1944, was the enemy able to convert his massive numerical and material superiority into any sort of breakthrough.

For all the extraordinary bravery, or stoicism, of the average Russian soldier, the Soviets paid an enormous price for this persistent attempt to break through German defenses. In total, the battles at Gomel, Vitebsk, and Orsha cost the Soviets nearly a million casualties, a quarter of whom died, yet only in the south along the edge of the Pripet Marshes had they made any serious inroads. On 19 March, Soviet forces surrounded the road junction of Kovel, at the southwest end of the 240-mile-long swamp, the loss of which would expose Army Group Center to encirclement from the south. Even here, however, after Hitler had declared Kovel a “fortified city” that had to be held at all cost, some four thousand surrounded defenders, supplied from the air until a relief column punched through at the end of the month, managed to stabilize the situation until the spring rasputitsa ended all operations. In a mid-April 1944 report to Stalin, the Red Army command admitted the utter failure of these winter operations, ironically ascribing their lack of success to material deficiencies. Hitler, however, drew another, and equally unrealistic, lesson, albeit one with more serious long-term consequences. The meager gains bought at excessive cost confirmed the Führer in his low opinion of Soviet operational capabilities as well as furthering his belief that the enemy must be approaching the limit of his strength. As a result, he thought, a bit more determination and will, holding on to other key cities as “fortified places,” would stem the Red tide. Rather than recognize the exposed and dangerous position in which Army Group Center had been left by the winter battles, Hitler was more convinced than ever of the value of a static, stubborn, unyielding defense.

On the extreme left flank of the front, Army Group North of necessity had to follow Hitler’s preference for static defense. Since it had been in a relatively stable situation through 1942 and the first half of 1943, no formation had been more burdened by unit transfers than Field Marshal Küchler’s army group. In July 1943, it possessed barely 360,000 front troops, with a mere forty tanks and assault guns, a figure that was reduced on 15 September to only seven serviceable tanks. Luftflotte 1 was in an even more dire condition: on 20 July, it disposed of a mere six fighter aircraft to maintain the siege of Leningrad and cover up to five hundred miles of front. With a serious deficiency in motor vehicles and towing machines, Army Group North typified, in an extreme form, what had happened to the entire Ostheer: it had effectively been demotorized and reduced to the status of a World War I outfit, dependent on horses for whatever mobility it possessed. Unable any longer to outmaneuver the enemy, German units had little choice but to resist as long as possible in prepared positions since any retreat threatened to turn into a rout.

Compounding its difficulties, the withdrawal of Army Group Center to the Panther line in the autumn had not only left its neighbor to the north in an exposed position but also forced it to extend its line fifty miles to the south to encompass the important road and rail centers of Nevel and Novosokolniki. By late September, all indications pointed to an enemy offensive in the area of the boundary line between the two army groups. That partisan-infested area, crisscrossed with forests, lakes, swamps, and notoriously poor roads, had long been one of the weakest points on the eastern front; at the time, the Germans had only about twelve hundred men to defend an eleven-mile sector. When the Soviet attack came early on 6 October, it caught the defenders by surprise, largely because they had lost track of Russian troop movements owing to poor weather over the previous days. Before the Germans could react, Red Army forces had stormed into Nevel, seized the city, and punched a hole in the German line at the boundary between the two army groups. Although his forces were badly outmanned, Hitler nonetheless responded in typical fashion: he ordered the flanks of the break-in held and counterattacks to close the gap between the army groups. In addition, and in a gratuitous bit of condescension, he pointed out to his generals that, as was their habit, the Soviets had attacked at unit boundaries, implying that they were both ignorant of this fact and unwilling to cooperate to stop it. This rebuke was the more offensive since German commanders had long been aware of this unimaginative Soviet tactic but were unable effectively to combat it. Nor could much comfort be found in the fact that the Soviets succeeded less from their own skill and more because of the condition of the German forces. With their front lines undermanned and stretched thin, and with few reserves, German commanders were of necessity forced to wait to see which direction the Soviets would turn after a breakthrough before reacting. In this case, Hitler’s insistence on holding the flanks proved decisive, for, despite continual attacks until the end of the year, the Soviets failed, at very high cost, to exploit their initial breakthrough.

By now, the crippling German deficiencies in manpower had become apparent to all, except perhaps the Führer. In September, for the first time in the war, army strength on the eastern front (not including Luftwaffe field units or the Waffen-SS) had fallen below 2.5 million, with permanent losses since the invasion of the Soviet Union totaling almost a million men. Moreover, it was proving difficult to dredge up new recruits, while the quality of many of the replacements at the front, as Kluge unsuccessfully tried to convince Hitler in October, was such that they could not withstand a determined enemy attack. The quality of many German infantry units had dropped so alarmingly, in fact, that in October Guderian, in his capacity as inspector-general of the army, proposed creating mobile tank reserves to backstop the infantry. His idea foundered as always on Hitler’s resistance to sacrificing any ground to free troops. That the situation was near catastrophic was shown by Army Group North, which, in the last six months of 1943 alone, lost 40 percent of its front divisions to other sectors of the front and now had to make do with a motley collection of understrength infantry units and Luftwaffe field divisions of dubious value, with no panzer or Panzergrenadier divisions of its own. Nor could the report of Foreign Armies East in late March 1944 provide much comfort. The Soviets, Gehlen’s unit calculated, had lost 1.2 million men (killed and taken prisoner) just in the last four months of 1943, as against 243,743 Germans, but the frontline and reserve strength of the Red Army had grown to 5.5 million troops. In addition, annual Soviet drafts produced three times more recruits than the Germans were able to, while the Soviet Union had gained (and Germany lost) some 600,000 men in the recovered territories. Finally, in an ominous sign of the growing interconnection of the various strategic fronts, Gehlen estimated that Germany had to divert at least 30 percent, and usually more, of its total strength to OKW theaters, while the Soviet Union diverted only 7 percent to its Far East sector.

Even as Army Group North accelerated preparations of its portion of the Panther line, running behind natural obstacles such as the Narva River, Lake Peipus, and Lake Pskov, Küchler was under no illusions. Like Manstein to the south, he was precariously holding one sector, around Leningrad, primarily for prestige reasons and another, near Nevel, to stave off possible disaster but unlikely in the event of a Soviet offensive to be able to hold either. Hitler, however, believed that the Soviets had lost so many men fighting in Ukraine that an attack in the north was unlikely until spring. Unable to secure Hitler’s permission to retire in good order behind the Panther line, Küchler could only wait uneasily for the blow to fall. By mid-January, even as he was forced to transfer two of his best divisions to Army Group South, Küchler faced an enemy force numbering 1.25 million men and sixteen hundred tanks with a front strength of barely 250,000 men. The blow, when it fell on 14 January, was designed by the Soviets to exploit this vast superiority with simultaneous assaults against the Eighteenth Army at Leningrad and Novgorod. Much to the surprise of the Germans, the Stavka’s aim was not merely to liberate Leningrad but to drive to the borders of the Baltic states. Despite their vast inferiority, the Germans were able to resist the enemy onslaught until the seventeenth, when Soviet forces achieved a breakthrough in the north between Krasnoe Selo and Pushkin.

On the eighteenth, with the front west of Leningrad collapsing and the Soviets beginning to encircle Novgorod, Army Group North faced a life-and-death crisis. Hitler, as usual, refused to authorize a withdrawal, but, with virtually no reserves to stabilize the situation, Küchler on his own authority ordered a retreat. By the nineteenth, Novgorod had been surrounded, and the Führer reluctantly allowed German troops to break out; the next day, the city fell to the Soviets. Under unrelenting pressure, German troops continued to fall back, with the result that, by 26 January, the Red Army was able to seize the main rail line to Moscow, effectively ending the siege of Leningrad after almost nine hundred days and the loss of between 1.6 and 2 million lives (an amount four to five times greater than all American deaths in World War II). The next day, with Küchler and the other army group and army commanders attending a National Socialist leadership conference at Königsberg, at which Hitler exhorted them on faith as the key to victory, the Soviets celebrated the capture of Leningrad with a powerful artillery salute.

Given the danger that Russian partisans might cut off his ability to withdraw to the Panther line, Küchler had already on 20 January requested permission to retire immediately to this position, a request Hitler rejected with a tirade against his generals. Army Group North, in particular, Hitler claimed, had grown flabby. “I am against all withdrawals,” he stressed. “We will have crises wherever we are. There is no guarantee we will not be broken through on the Panther line. . . . [The Russian] must bleed himself white on the way. The battle must be fought as far as possible from the German border.” The Führer also mustered his customary economic and strategic arguments in favor of holding fast. The Baltic coast, he emphasized, had to be held in order to guarantee vital iron ore deliveries from Sweden as well as to ensure control of the Baltic Sea for development and trials of new U-boats. By 27 January, however, with the Eighteenth Army having lost fifty-two thousand men, with its effective infantry strength down to seventeen thousand men, and faced with encirclement, even Hitler could no longer ignore the obvious. On 29 January, with the Eighteenth Army now splintered into three parts, Küchler again on his own authority ordered it to retreat in order to prevent its complete destruction. Although Hitler had little choice but to accept this decision, he nonetheless summoned Küchler to his HQ, where he summarily fired the field marshal on the thirty-first, replacing him with Model.

Although regarded as a defensive specialist and brilliant improviser, Model faced a situation that taxed even his legendary energy and toughness. His first moves, in fact, were more psychological than tactical: decreeing not a single step back without his approval and forbidding any reference to the Panther line on the ground that it induced a withdrawal psychosis. More concretely, Model profited from the fact that Hitler tended to give new appointees, particularly his favorites, a bit more leeway as well as from a rather dilatory Soviet advance. Taking full advantage of a new brainchild of the Führer’s that allowed withdrawals as long as counterstrikes were planned to regain the lost ground, Model initiated controlled retreats to the Panther line to parry Soviet advances. That he ever intended to thrust was doubtful, for the field marshal was under no illusions about the reality of the situation. Still, the fact that the Germans were able to build a stable front had less to do with Model’s formidable skills than the Soviet failure to take advantage of the superior mobility accorded them by extensive American Lend-Lease deliveries of trucks and motor vehicles. Instead of bold encirclement operations, Soviet commanders now preferred methodical frontal assaults that ground the Germans down but failed to annihilate them. As a result, Model’s forces not only succeeded in retiring to the Panther line in relatively good order, but also, from mid-February, deflected all Soviet attempts to burst through the narrow neck of land between Lake Peipus and the Gulf of Finland. By 1 March, German troops were behind the Panther line and able, despite continued costly Soviet attempts to take Narva and Pskov, to hold their positions.

The liberation of Leningrad after its long ordeal was greeted with understandable joy in the Soviet Union, but this success had been achieved at a very high price. From July 1943 to the end of the year, the Red Army in the north had lost over 260,000 men, among them 67,000 killed and missing. Then, despite a five-to-one manpower advantage and an incredible thirteen-to-one superiority in tanks and assault guns, the fighting between mid-January and 1 March cost the Soviets another 314,000 troops (77,000 dead and missing), with the attempt to breach the Panther line in March and April resulting in the further loss of 200,000 men. From July 1943 through April 1944, then, the Red Army suffered casualties of almost 775,000 men, a figure equivalent to the total strength of Army Group North. Despite inflicting savage losses on the enemy, Hitler’s determination to hold out in front of the Panther position rather than allow an orderly withdrawal to a more defensible line had cost German forces dearly as well. From 10 January to 1 March, Army Group North lost almost 100,000 men, of whom 29,000 were dead and missing, casualties that, given the Germans’ catastrophic manpower situation, they could not sustain. The apparent German success in stabilizing the front again allowed Hitler to continue in the illusion that his strategy of holding fast at all costs was working. The Führer, however, was no longer all that interested in the fate of Army Group North, for the situation in the south, the Schwerpunkt of Soviet operations, had once again grown critical.

As in the other sectors, the relentless Soviet attacks had reduced the strength of Army Group South to the point that Manstein could not adequately man the entire front. The problem was not just a lack of troops, or the fact that almost all his men were “apathetic . . . [and] completely indifferent whether they were shot dead by their own officers or the Russians,” but the very course of the front line itself. On its northern flank, German forces had been pressed back (where a dangerous gap of sixty miles separated Army Groups South and Center), while, in the south, as always, Hitler insisted on clinging to as much of the great bend of the Dnieper as possible (and refused to evacuate the Crimea). Since the Eighth Army still held a front of some twenty-five miles along the Dnieper in the center (which Hitler hoped to use as the launch pad for a new offensive), this meant that Soviet forces at Korosten in the north were already some three hundred miles to the west of the dangerously exposed German troops at Nikopol and, thus, in a position to strike south toward the Carpathian Mountains and Black Sea and completely envelop Army Group South. Manstein was fully aware of this peril and implored Hitler to allow a withdrawal in the Dnieper bend as well as the Crimea in order to free troops to stabilize the northern flank, but the dictator time and again refused this request.

Until now, the Germans had been lucky that Vatutin, the commander of the First Ukrainian Front, had not tried to exploit the gaps in their lines. Their luck ran out on 24 December, when the Soviets launched their strongest offensive to date in the direction of Zhitomir and Berdichev. Despite the pounding the Soviets had taken in reaching the Dnieper and the poor weather conditions that hampered all movement, Vatutin had assembled over 2 million men and two thousand tanks (supplemented by thousands more during the operation) for this assault. Given their marked superiority, the Soviets splintered German defenses and achieved a breakthrough in a very short period. In some sectors of the front, German forces were so thin that the men could not see their neighbor in the next foxhole, while the elite Grossdeutschland Division reported that in one area sixty-five men had to hold a position of almost one and a half miles. As Manstein also feared, Vatutin aimed to reach the Carpathians and block the line of retreat of the German forces to the south. After the first week, this appeared very likely since Soviet forces had driven sixty miles west, while, on 3 January 1944, they reached the prewar Polish border at Gorodnitsa, northwest of Zhitomir. German forces were now so depleted that, on 4 January, the Thirteenth Corps reported that its divisions had a frontline infantry strength of only 150–300 men and that the entire corps had the infantry strength of only one regiment.

As the gap in the north along the Pripet Marshes between the army groups grew even wider and the situation developed in a very precarious fashion, Manstein saw the only solution in giving up his positions on the lower Dnieper in order to free troops for a counterattack. His plan, similar to the one that had achieved such success a year earlier at Kharkov, was to blunt the enemy advance by striking him in the flanks and destroying a considerable portion of his exposed forces. Manstein’s first mention of this idea, in late December, provoked only a furious outburst in Hitler, who claimed that the field marshal had lost his nerve and wanted only to run away. On 4 January, Manstein flew to Hitler’s headquarters to make a personal attempt to persuade the Führer to sanction a withdrawal in the south. Although Hitler likely understood the need for thoroughgoing measures, he again refused even to consider, allegedly for economic and political reasons, giving up the Dnieper bend. Moreover, he now invoked the threat of an Allied invasion in the west to resist any transfer of troops to the east, effectively leaving Manstein to his own resources to deal with the situation. Since by 9 January the Soviet breakthrough in the north had reached truly alarming proportions, with advance units within twenty miles of Uman and threatening his former headquarters at Vinnitsa, Manstein did just that, acting decisively to deal with the crisis. Having already ordered the First Panzer Army to disengage at Nikopol and move north, with its positions to be covered by the newly obtained Sixth Army (from Army Group A), he now resolved to conduct the defensive battle in the north by offensive means. Striking into its flanks and rear, his forces were able to destroy a good portion of the Soviet Fortieth Army, on 15 January even managing at Zvenigorodka and Uman to sever its connections to the rear. Only the lack of infantry prevented a complete exploitation of this triumph. To the north, another counterattack launched on the twenty-fourth led, four days later, to the destruction of further enemy forces at Oratov. In all, some seven hundred Soviet tanks had been destroyed or captured, but, to Manstein’s great frustration, the lack of German strength meant that these operations served only to avert catastrophe, not as a springboard for a new offensive.

This basic dilemma was illustrated with great clarity in the center of his front where, on the twenty-fourth, despite the German success in stemming the enemy breakthrough just to the north, Soviet forces launched an attack aimed at cutting off the German salient on the Dnieper at its base. By the twenty-eighth, enemy troops had closed the encirclement, ironically at Zvenigorodka, trapping two German corps, some fifty-six thousand men plus five thousand Soviet Hiwi’s, in a pocket roughly forty miles wide and 150 miles in circumference. In all, six weak divisions had been surrounded, the strongest of which was the Fifth SS Viking Division. Manstein’s concern now was whether the Soviets would strike deeply into the German rear, as the Wehrmacht had done in 1941, or content themselves with destroying German troops in the Kessel. Perhaps mindful of their ongoing difficulties just to the north as well as Manstein’s habit of pulling off painful surprises, the Soviets chose the latter option. In opting for caution, the Red Army leadership seems also to have vastly overestimated German strength in the pocket, claiming that over 130,000 men and 230 armored vehicles were trapped when, in reality, the Germans had less than half that number of men and only twenty-six operational tanks and fourteen assault guns. The weather might also have played a role in the Soviet decision since the unusually warm winter and frequent downpours of rain had turned all roads into muddy quagmires, ensuring that the Germans could not react swiftly, but also slowing Russian advances.

Hitler reacted to this development in typical fashion. Not only did he refuse to allow a breakout, declaring the Cherkassy-Korsun pocket a “fortress on the Dnieper” that had to be held at all cost; he also ordered a wide-ranging operation that went far beyond the relief of the troops in the pocket. Instead, he hoped first, in an attack from the south, to encircle the encirclers and then to exploit the momentum of this presumed success with a further attack in the direction of Kiev to trap enemy forces west of the Dnieper, thus reversing, with this one bold stroke, his fortunes in the east. Manstein protested against this “utopian” plan from the lost world of 1941 but himself conceived a relief operation that was too clever and ambitious. While the Forty-seventh Panzer Corps of the Eighth Army would spearhead a relief assault from the southeast to make contact with the Kessel, the Third Panzer Corps of the First Panzer Army had the task of driving north through Medvin before turning east to the pocket, thus encircling a portion of the enemy force to the south. Because of Soviet pressure elsewhere that tied down German units earmarked for the relief attack, when it began on 1 February the Forty-seventh Panzer Corps could spare only two units, the Eleventh and Thirteenth Panzer Divisions, which between them could muster only thirty-six operational AFVs. In the following days, the Third and Fourteenth Panzer Divisions, with a mere twenty-two AFVs, joined the assault but made little progress against enemy resistance and the unpredictable weather, with its bouts of freezing, thawing, rain, and snow that turned the countryside into a vast mud bog. The hopes placed in the powerful Twenty-fourth Panzer Division, which had been sent north from Nikopol, also came to naught, for en route it had been ordered by Hitler back to its old positions because of a Soviet attack on the lower Dnieper. Because of the miserable weather and mud, however, it arrived back in the Nikopol region too late to participate in the battle there, with the result that one of the strongest units in Army Group South had been of no use anywhere.

Similarly, the main relief force belonging to the Third Panzer Corps, the heavy Panzer Regiment Bäke, with thirty-four Tiger and forty-six Panther tanks, also found itself helpless in the face of the unseasonably warm weather. On the night of 1–2 February, warm air and rain left a mucky morass that caused the heavy tanks to sink in the mud, consuming enormous quantities of fuel as they tried to churn forward. Even as civilians were commandeered as porters to move fuel and supplies forward, low-flying Ju-52s dropped gas canisters to the tanks below. To add further misery, in the following nights the temperatures again plunged below freezing, with the result that the entombed tanks now had to be hacked out of the frozen ground. The infantry also struggled forward through knee-deep mud, in soaked uniforms, with little food or water, tired, dirty, and hungry. By 4 February, when the attack finally commenced, only the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Panzer Divisions as well as a portion of Panzer Regiment Bäke, with eighty-five total AFVs, were available. Although it achieved an initial breakthrough, the attack bogged down over the next few days as a result of mud and furious Soviet counterattacks. Although the Germans destroyed a large number of enemy tanks, the Russians achieved their goal of delaying the attack.

By now, Manstein realized that his overly ambitious plan had failed and, thus, resolved on a straightforward relief operation from the southwest over Lisjanka. The units for this, however, could not be assembled before 11 February, and, in the meantime, the forces within the pocket, which were never particularly strong to begin with, had been progressively weakened by steady Soviet attacks. Despite the example of Stalingrad, Hitler still clung to the belief that pockets could be supplied from the air, but, given the weather conditions and the enemy defenses, this had never been likely. The Kessel needed 150 tons of supplies daily but received an average of only half that. Unable at times to use the nonasphalted runway at Korsun, the Luftwaffe resorted to dropping supplies, with many lost to the enemy. Having wasted seven days on a fruitless attempt to mitigate defeat, Manstein also recognized that it was now pointless to try to defend the Kessel and, thus, prepared plans for a breakout of the trapped troops.

By 15 February, German troops had fought their way into Lisjanka, slowed as much by the weather as the enemy, but because of a lack of fuel could not take Hill 239, a key enemy position barely more than a mile from the pocket. Ironically, Stalin’s impatience at Zhukov’s failure to reduce the Kessel quickly enough now offered the Germans an opportunity for escape. Angry that Zhukov had not properly planned joint action between Vatutin and Konev, on 12 February Stalin had given overall command of the encirclement to Konev. This resulted not only in a distinct humiliation for Zhukov but also a redisposition of Soviet forces that left a gap precisely at Lisjanka. Manstein now ordered the remaining forty-six thousand Germans in the pocket to break out on the night of 16–17 February. Commencing at 11:00 P.M. without an artillery barrage, the attack achieved initial surprise, but the first troops out had to pass by Hill 239, which was still in Russian hands. A bloodbath ensued, with many Germans machine-gunned to death or trampled into the ground by Soviet tanks.

The second wave followed ten minutes later, then, at a slower pace, the tanks, assault guns, prime movers, and horse-drawn wagons. As they piled up against the ridges flanking Hill 239 or simply got stuck in the mud, a huge traffic jam ensued that slowed the breakout. Further compounding the confusion, General Stemmermann, the commander in the pocket, was killed at 4:00 A.M. on the seventeenth. All semblance of order now disappeared as the Germans desperately sought to break out while the Russians, finally recognizing what was up, brought them under withering artillery, mortar, and tank attack. Because of the heavy fire from Hill 239, the fleeing Germans passed to its south, which led them to the swampy bottomland and icy cold waters of the Gniloy Tikich River, swollen to more than fifty feet by the recent rain. Even as Germans on the opposite shore watched, many of their comrades perished in the attempt to swim to safety. By midmorning of the seventeenth, however, Bäke’s tanks, now supplied with fuel, seized Hill 239, and later units had a relatively undramatic escape from the pocket.

By the eighteenth, with the last units extracted, an estimated thirty-six thousand men had been brought out, which, combined with the over four thousand wounded flown out earlier, meant that some forty thousand troops had been rescued, a figure that Manstein regarded with some satisfaction (although Hitler grumbled at the loss of equipment). The psychological state of those saved, however, was shocking. The relatively good physical condition of those coming out of the pocket surprised the troops of the heavy tank regiment, themselves in constant combat and without a hot meal for a week, but the latter were appalled that those rescued refused to stay and help their lagging comrades. On the seventeenth, fearing for their “inner substance,” Manstein decided to send all the survivors back to Poland to rest and recuperate. This was to be no “Stalingrad on the Dnieper,” but the Germans nonetheless suffered sizable losses of AFVs: 156 tanks and assault guns, with most disabled by mines and unable to be towed to safety. Similarly, Panzer Regiment Bäke lost twenty-three Panthers and seven Tigers, although only four of the former and one of the latter to enemy fire. Although Stalin celebrated a great triumph and claimed much higher German losses than there were in actuality, the Red Army had again lost disproportionate numbers of men and equipment, with over 80,000 casualties, of whom over 24,000 were killed or missing, and 728 tanks and assault guns destroyed. By contrast, total German casualties numbered less than 20,000, of whom roughly 14,000 could be counted permanent losses. Though heartened by their ability to rescue the majority of those trapped, the German commanders nevertheless faced the sobering realization that this should not have happened in the first place and that the Soviets were now in a position to fight an encirclement battle in addition to keeping pressure on in other areas of the front.

Scorched Earth in the East III

This was shown both by the enemy thrust toward Kovel at the southwestern edge of the Pripet Marshes and by a drive westward from Yampol at the boundary of the Fourth and First Panzer Armies. If successful, this latter thrust would not only shatter the northern wing of Army Group South but also cut the vital rail line running from Lvov to Odessa, thus opening the way through the Carpathians to Hungary and, most worrisome, the oil fields of Rumania. The continuous fighting over the previous months had left the Fourth Panzer Army in an extraordinarily critical situation. On 5 March 1944, after losing the units on its right flank to the First Panzer Army, it had a strength well below 100,000 men, with only thirty AFVs. Convinced that the Russians had to stop attacking eventually, Hitler refused any shortening of the line in order to gather sufficient forces to contest effectively the decisive points on the front. Contrary to the Führer’s expectations, however, the Soviets steadily pressed their advantage. The attack from Yampol on 4 March by the First Ukrainian Front had the immediate consequence of ripping a gap between the two panzer armies, although Manstein’s determined effort to hold the flanks kept the damage somewhat limited. Nonetheless, by the twenty-third, yet another German force had been encircled in a Kessel, this time at Tarnopol.

Although the force trapped at Tarnopol was much smaller than that at Cherkassy-Korsun, the episode illustrates clearly the direction of Hitler’s thinking. On 8 March, in Führer Order No. 11, he declared a new policy of festen Plätze (fortified places), the object of which was to deny the enemy key cities and junctions, tie down his forces, and blunt the momentum of his offensive, but which in reality merely preordained encirclements. As at Kovel, on 10 March, Tarnopol was declared a “festen Platz that was to be held to the last man” even though it had no fortifications or airfield, not to mention insufficient troops and supplies to defend against an aggressive Soviet attack. Although the city was not surrounded until the twenty-third, the Germans made few preparations for its supply. Not until the twenty-fifth was a relief attack mounted to bring a convoy of supplies into the besieged city, and even this quickly degenerated into a farce. Despite the fact that the supply trucks never arrived from Lvov and the roughly forty-six hundred men inside the city had not been given permission to break out, the battle group was, nonetheless, ordered to launch its attack. It encountered heavily mined roads, fierce antitank defenses, flank attacks from Soviet tanks, and aerial assaults that forced the Germans to give up the attempt. Since Tarnopol had no airfield, the Luftwaffe tried supplying the pocket by air drops, with the result that most of the supplies fell into enemy hands. The next relief attempt was not made until 11 April, when the Ninth SS Panzer set out in a driving rain and deep mud. Hitler at first refused to allow the besieged men to break out, then relented the next day. By this time, however, the Kessel had been reduced to a few thousand yards, with the German defenders fighting desperately from room to room under massive Soviet artillery fire. Although the remaining troops, some fifteen hundred, attempted a breakout on the fifteenth, it was too late: only fifty-five men were able to make it successfully out of the pocket.

Despite the human tragedy at Tarnopol, a larger drama was playing out at the same time just to the south, where the Soviet breakthrough at Yampol had left the First Panzer Army in a potentially disastrous position, threatened with encirclement and destruction. Even as elements of the Fourth Panzer Army were trapped at Tarnopol, the main Soviet thrust was directed against its neighbor to the south. Here, both the First and the Second Ukrainian Fronts aimed at nothing less than a double envelopment of the most powerful formation in Army Group South that, if successful, would shatter the entire southern wing of the eastern front. The Stavka had assembled overwhelming power to strike the decisive blow: 1.5 million men, over two thousand AFVs, and more than one thousand combat aircraft against a force a fraction of this size. Although Hube’s army had a preponderance of the armored strength of Army Group South, he could muster only ninety-six battle tanks and sixty-four assault guns to bolster his 211,000 troops. Nor could this smaller force respond more nimbly to an enemy attack, for the demotorization of the army meant that horses had to fill the role of trucks, effectively limiting its mobility.

Since the Eighth Army to the south was still reeling from the ordeal at Cherkassy-Korsun and had only 152,000 men and virtually no tanks, it could not be expected to provide its neighbor any help in an emergency. In any case, Konev’s offensive pushed it back through Uman to the Bug River, effectively eliminating the Eighth Army as an anchor for the First Panzer Army’s right wing. The chronic German lack of strength had by now reached alarming proportions, with the result that, even though a large proportion of the enemy infantry was composed of so-called booty Ukrainians, poorly trained recruits scooped up as the Red Army advanced westward, the sheer weight of numbers was too much for the overstrained German divisions. Manstein complained, to no avail, that, although his army group had lost over 405,000 men between July 1943 and January 1944, it had received barely more than half that number in replacements and that even these were primarily young, hastily trained boys rushed to the front. Given the growing reality of a multifront war, however, there was little Manstein could do but chafe as his replacements went increasingly to Western Europe while the Red Army was steadily bolstered with Lend-Lease deliveries from its Western allies. With the hand he was dealt, then, Manstein had little chance to prevent the enemy from encircling areas of its choosing.

The powerful Soviet attack on 4 March thus succeeded in opening a gap between the beleaguered First and Fourth Panzer Armies that, despite their frantic efforts, could merely be contained, not closed. The dam finally broke on the twenty-first, when the three tank armies of Zhukov’s First Ukrainian Front burst through the left flank of the First Panzer Army and began racing to the south, pushing the remnants of the German line in front of them. By the twenty-fourth, they had crossed the Dniester into Rumania and five days later reached Cernovicy (Chernovtsy) on the Prut. In the meantime, the Soviet Fourth Tank Army turned eastward and, on the twenty-seventh, met spearheads of the Thirty-eighth Army at Kamenets-Podolsky, thus closing the pincers around the First Panzer Army at Kamenets-Podolsky. Soviet losses had been noticeably high—the Third Guards Tank Army lost 70 percent of its tanks, while the Fourth Tank Army had only sixty remaining—but, despite their skill at shooting up enemy tanks, the Germans could not prevent their own encirclement. On the last day of the month, the situation grew even grimmer as units from both the First and the Second Ukrainian Fronts, the latter having shattered the Eighth Army’s defenses, joined at Chotin. The First Panzer Army and elements of the Fourth Panzer Army (Group Mauss, consisting of the Seventh Panzer Division, the First SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, and the Sixty-eighth Infantry Division) were now enveloped both north and south of the Dniester. Worse, within this double envelopment, Hube’s forces were initially split into at least three separate pockets. In all, the Soviets had bagged 220,000 troops, lacking artillery, munitions, and fuel, and possessing fewer than one hundred AFVs. In preparation for a breakout, Hube directed his troops to begin destroying nonessential vehicles and requisitioning every panje wagon they could seize. As always, however, Hitler’s initial instinct ran in a different direction: he was determined to hold fast and, despite the lessons of Stalingrad and Cherkassy-Korsun, supply the Kessel from the air.

Manstein, realizing a catastrophe that would eclipse even Stalingrad was facing his army group, resolved on decisive action. Already on the twenty-third, even before the First Panzer Army had been fully encircled, he had demanded permission to order a breakout. In addition, he proposed that powerful forces be transferred from the west to plug the gap between the First and the Fourth Panzer Armies. At noon the next day, he went a step further, effectively presenting Hitler with an ultimatum: unless instructed otherwise, he would give the order to break out at 3:00 P.M. The answer from Führer Headquarters was both cryptic and cynical. Manstein received permission to allow the First Panzer Army to fight its way westward but was told that it was also to hold its present position. How to do this, given its lack of strength, was left unclear.

On the twenty-fifth, Manstein was summoned to meet Hitler at Berchtesgaden, although before he left the field marshal gave orders to prepare plans for a breakout. That afternoon at the Berghof, Hitler and Manstein engaged in a stormy discussion. Challenging Hitler directly, the field marshal insisted that the First Panzer Army had to break out immediately and demanded that he be given fresh troops to open a path from the west. Hitler brusquely rejected any idea of retreat while ridiculing notions of operational maneuver as merely a ruse for withdrawal. Manstein, he said, had squandered all the troops he had been given and wanted always to go back but never hold anywhere. For his part, Manstein then openly confronted the Führer with a litany of his failed decisions over the previous weeks, which caused a furious Hitler abruptly to break off the discussion. Disgusted, Manstein demanded that Hitler’s adjutant, Schmundt, tell the Führer that he saw no purpose to continuing to lead the army group if Hitler did not approve his demands. Much to his surprise, however, when discussions resumed at the evening conference, not only was Manstein treated with outward friendliness by Hitler, but he was also given permission for a breakout. More astonishing, the Führer also agreed that the Second SS Panzer Corps was to be transferred immediately from France, along with two infantry divisions from Hungary. This latter decision must have been especially painful for Hitler since it not only flew in the face of Führer Directive No. 51 to give priority to the west but also jeopardized this strategy just when the Anglo-American invasion appeared imminent. Manstein, apparently, had triumphed across the board, but at a personal price that would soon be apparent.

The field marshal now hurried back to his headquarters to prepare an operation that would not only save the First Panzer Army but also deal his old adversary, Zhukov, one final surprise. Believing that the fate of the First Panzer Army had already been decided, the Stavka on 22 March had changed its operational plans, ordering the bulk of the Second Ukrainian Front to turn southeast in order to destroy Army Group A north of the Black Sea. At the same time, Zhukov, assuming that German forces would attempt to break out to the south, had placed the bulk of his forces in that direction. Manstein, however, realized that any breakout to the south would have to cross a double line of enemy forces and, even if successful, would result in the First Panzer Army being pushed to the south against the Carpathians, thus opening a gigantic breach between itself and the Fourth Panzer Army. Instead, the field marshal proposed a breakout to the west that would be the shortest route to the German front, cut across enemy supply lines, and, perhaps most importantly, take the Russians completely by surprise. Against Hube’s vehement opposition, but armed with intelligence information that confirmed his suspicions about enemy dispositions, Manstein ordered the breakout to the west to begin on 28 March. As the operation began that morning in a blinding snowstorm that provided cover, it soon became apparent that the Germans had achieved complete surprise. Not only were enemy positions quickly overrun, but the next day Zhukov also continued dispatching units to the south, evidently unaware of Manstein’s intention. Not until 1 April did he recognize his mistake, but by then it was too late. On the second, as he belatedly tried to turn his units around and send them north, his frustration showed in a futile attempt to persuade the escaping Germans to surrender by threatening all who did not with death. That his offer was rejected was no surprise. The true shock that day, the announcement that Manstein was relinquishing his command, was the result of a decision hundreds of miles to the west.

On the thirtieth, Manstein, along with Kleist, the commander of Army Group A, who had also requested permission for his forces to pull back from the Black Sea to the Bug, had once more been summoned to the Berghof. Having on a number of occasions since January openly challenged Hitler’s military leadership in front of too many people, the field marshal had few doubts as to what was likely to transpire. Hitler had been fuming since the twenty-third, stung by Manstein’s criticisms, and resentful that concessions had been wrung from him. On his arrival, Manstein was told by Zeitzler that Goering, Himmler, and Keitel had been conspiring against him and that Zeitzler’s own offer to resign had been rejected. That evening, having indicated his desire to go in another direction, the Führer relieved Manstein and Kleist of their commands, replacing them with Model and Schörner, both tough generals and favorites of Hitler’s known for their tenacity and defensive prowess. They were not desk-bound leaders, what Goebbels scornfully termed “hemorrhoid generals,” but men who led from the front. Just as importantly, both were politically loyal. The time of operations, which he contemptuously regarded as a euphemism for retreat, Hitler clearly indicated, had come to an end. It was now time for rigorous measures to be taken and for the National Socialist fighting spirit to be instilled in the troops. More than just a change in operational styles was evident, for Hitler had never lost his aversion to the old military aristocracy, of whom Manstein and Kleist were prominent representatives. By contrast, Schörner, a convinced Nazi since the early 1930s, and Model, “a man with a National Socialist heart,” both had middle-class roots and were attuned to Nazi ideals. They, at least, could be trusted to do the Führer’s will, thus overcoming the crisis in confidence between Hitler and his army group commanders. The dismissal of Manstein and Kleist thus illustrated Hitler’s continuing makeover of the army into a National Socialist instrument.

Since Model’s arrival at Army Group South headquarters in Lvov was delayed by a snowstorm, the actual handover of power did not take place until 2 April. By then, Zhukov had responded with furious assaults in a futile attempt to stop the “wandering pocket” from moving westward toward German lines. His action, however, was too late. On the third, the Germans had thrown back the Soviet attacks, and, on the night of the fourth, ammunition and gasoline had been flown into the pocket, fortifying Hube’s forces. The next morning, the Ninth and Tenth SS Panzer Divisions of the Second SS Panzer Corps, which had been hurriedly dispatched from France, launched a powerful attack, supported by the two infantry divisions sent from Hungary, that resulted, the next day, in a linkup with the Sixth Panzer Division, the spearhead of the First Panzer Army. Not only was the enemy encirclement broken, but the First Panzer Army had also been able to bring out virtually all its tanks, artillery, heavy equipment, and wounded. Just as surprising, despite the hard fighting, its losses were not particularly high, with fewer than six thousand reported dead or missing. More importantly, it remained intact as an operational fighting formation. Indeed, in contrast with the units that emerged from the Cherkassy-Korsun pocket, the men of the First Panzer Army were sent immediately after their rescue back into the attack

Although Hitler had issued an operational order that same 2 April hopefully declaring that the Russian offensive was spent and that the front would soon be stabilized, the reality was different as fighting continued through April into early May. Hitler’s determination to hold the Crimea had also yielded to reality. On 10 April, Odessa, the great port on the Black Sea vital to supplying the Crimea, had fallen, with the entire peninsula lost by early May. Although furious at events in the Crimea and threatening courts-martial of the “defeatist” generals involved, Hitler was, nevertheless, forced, in another painful humiliation, to authorize the evacuation of Sevastopol by sea on the night of 8–9 May. The brilliant triumphs of two years earlier were now nothing but a distant memory. By the time the Soviet offensive against Army Group South—the longest and bloodiest of the war, lasting from late December 1943 to early May 1944—had come to an end, the Germans had been pushed back, in places, some six hundred miles, with the physical and materiel strength of the troops exhausted. Soviet success, however, had been bought at an astounding price. Over half the 2,230,000 Soviet troops thrown into the offensive, some 1,192,900, had been lost as casualties, of whom 288,600 were dead or missing. The actual toll was almost certainly higher, however, since, as it moved through Ukraine, the Red Army typically pressed men of the liberated areas into immediate service. Hastily trained, and regarded as little more than cannon fodder, these unfortunate men died in great numbers without being reported. Soviet materiel losses were also extraordinarily heavy, with 4,666 AFVs and 676 aircraft lost. By contrast, German losses were relatively light, with “only” 250,956 men reported as casualties (of whom 41,907 were reported dead and 51,161 missing). Given the virtually complete lack of German reserves, however, these losses were crippling, a situation obvious to all but the Führer, who even now, with the eastern front finally restored to some semblance of stability, was again planning new offensives after the repelling of the Allied invasion of France.

For the Germans, the grim test of an all-out two-front war had been inevitable since their failure at Stalingrad, a threat that increasingly influenced all major decisions. Indeed, the second front existed before it became a reality, for the very threat of an assault somewhere along the broad coast of Fortress Europe had compelled the Germans to split their forces, perhaps more severely than necessary, and divide their command to await an invasion that seemingly never came. The strain had taken its toll within the higher levels of the military and political command. Hitler increasingly demanded absolute loyalty from his generals, while a mood of resignation and nervous exhaustion had set in at the OKH. Speer thought that a shakeup in the command structure was necessary to revitalize the military leadership, while Guderian, convinced that, if used properly, his tanks could still turn the situation around, characterized Zeitzler and the OKH as a bunch of defeatists. By the spring of 1944, the tensions between the OKH and the OKW over the division of the armed forces had boiled over. “Fifty-three percent of the Army is fighting in Russia for the existence of the German people,” claimed one bitter witticism making the rounds at the OKH, “and the other forty-seven percent is sitting in Western Europe waiting for an invasion that doesn’t come.” Even more subversive, with its comparison to 1918, was the suggestion of decisive resources squandered, that “Germany had lost World War I because of the Navy in being and will lose this one because of the Army in being.” The sniping between the OKH and OKW reached such levels, in fact, that Hitler ordered Jodl to do a strategic survey to justify the dispositions based on the overall German situation.

The assessment, when completed, generally supported the OKW’s position, noting that, of the 341 operational units of the army and Waffen-SS, only 131 (or just 38 percent) were deployed outside the east or the home front. Of these, just forty-one divisions had the arms and equipment suitable for employment on the eastern front, but thirty-two of them were already engaged in fighting (in Italy, in Finland, or against the partisans) or were defending the most-threatened coastal areas (Normandy). With specific reference to infantry and armored divisions, the distribution was even more favorable to the Ostfront, with only 46 of 162 of the former (28 percent) and 11 of 34 of the latter (32 percent) not detailed to the east. Moreover, Jodl warned, an Allied landing in the west that was not immediately defeated would, because of the lack of available reserves, result in the rapid loss of the war.

Although these observations were true enough, they certainly must have been of scant comfort to those on the eastern front who, since Stalingrad, had been fighting a noticeably lopsided battle of men and materiel. A mere recitation of numbers of divisions did little to convey the reality facing the fought-out, understrength units of the Ostheer, whose thinning ranks led to a growing disparity with their Soviet counterparts. By late May 1944, German strength stood at nearly 2,243,000 men, while the Red Army numbered almost 6,100,000, meaning that the Soviet surplus of 3,857,000 troops was 1.7 times greater than the total number of Germans. Despite the threat of a second front, in the spring of 1944 the eastern front remained the most important European theater of war. While the Soviets deployed 383 large units in the east (not including reserves), the Western allies had a total of only 120 divisions, over 70 percent of which were either in England (54), in Iceland (2), or in Africa and the Middle East (30) and, thus, not involved in active fighting. Only the introduction of the Panther and Tiger tanks, with their superior striking power, had allowed the Germans to stabilize the front, although their impact was not as great as had been hoped since only about 30 percent were operational at any one time.

Still, with the apparent stabilization of the southern sector of the eastern front, ramshackle though it was, German leaders could breathe a bit more easily. Their forces in the center and north appeared to be holding fast, while the Red Army, at the closest, was almost six hundred miles from Berlin. Moreover, the Soviets themselves gave no indication of further imminent action, evidently contenting themselves with consolidating their gains and preparing their next step. As a result, despite the near disaster of the previous months, in the spring of 1944 the Ostfront lay in the shadow of anticipated events in the west. The invasion would come, Hitler expected, in May or June, but the atmosphere at the Berghof betrayed a deceptive calm, indeed, at times almost a strange euphoria. Hitler seemed fully confident that the invasion would be repulsed and anticipated with eagerness a mass assault on London with his new V-1 pilotless flying bombs, an onslaught that he believed would finish the English plutocracy. Even Rommel had, evidently, overcome his early doubts and professed his assurances. Not a few of Hitler’s military advisers asserted that, with the defeat of the invasion, the war would be won, while Goebbels talked confidently of a “second Dunkirk.” Even the German public, perhaps influenced by the propaganda minister’s latest efforts, invested great expectations in the impending invasion, seeing in it, not merely the resolution of a period of tension and uncertainty, but the possibility for a “quick decision of the war.”

For Hitler, as well, a defeat of the invasion was the great chance, the last opportunity to achieve a decisive turning point in the war. Germany, he believed (given the example of World War I), had no hope if it remained on the defensive. In order to win time and break the “unnatural alliance” of his enemies, itself an uneasy association of capitalists and Communists, Germany needed to break out of this “unfruitful defensive” and regain the initiative. This, above all, was a matter of fanatic will. Germany, Hitler asserted, needed to achieve a great victory in order to demonstrate to its enemies that they could not win the war. Just as the iron will of Stalin had saved Russia from collapse in the autumn of 1941, he argued, so now his will would transform the bleak situation. It was, he thought, reminiscent of the period of struggle in the 1920s, when a few determined individuals with a powerful belief in an idea created a movement with its own revolutionary dynamic that accomplished the seemingly impossible. Just as the street agitator had swept to power and achieved undreamed-of triumphs, so now, in the spring of 1944, a few key victories would tip the balance and unleash an unstoppable momentum. The Germans had lost World War I, Hitler believed, because the imperial leadership had given up too soon, a mistake he would not repeat. Always willing to stake everything on an all-or-nothing gamble, he conjured visions of a new “miracle of 1940,” of a decisive triumph in the west that would free Germany from the nightmare of a two-front war.

To dismiss Hitler’s vision as irrational or unrealistic would miss the mark. Typically, it was a curious mixture of clear-sighted realism and gross self-delusion, of a cogent understanding of Germany’s predicament and little sense of its limitations. In truth, at least for a flickering moment, the prospects for victory in the west, after all, appeared not unfavorable. Industrial output was rising, which meant that enough tanks and weapons were being produced to equip new divisions for the west and replace some of the losses in the east. Synthetic oil production had peaked, with stocks of aviation fuel at their highest since 1941. Under Speer’s guidance, fighter plane production rose spectacularly, with the result that the Luftwaffe strength in January 1944 of 5,585 planes was over 1,600 more than the year before. Moreover, in the autumn and winter of 1943–1944, the American strategic bombing campaign had been suspended as a result of unacceptable losses. Under Rommel’s energetic guidance, defensive preparations in the west along the Normandy coast had also accelerated. Hitler had high hopes for the technologically advanced V weapons as well as a new type of submarine that would enable the American supply line to Great Britain to be cut. In addition, Soviet manpower reserves were not inexhaustible, and the May pause seemed to indicate that the Red Army had passed its culmination point. Finally, the Allied invasion of France was a complicated operation that required months of preparation. If defeated, as Jodl noted, it could not simply be repeated any time soon, and a failure, Hitler anticipated, would result in a severe political crisis in Great Britain and provide Germany an opportunity again to seize the initiative.

These hopes, however, proved illusory. As far back as the autumn of 1943, Hitler had planned to stabilize the eastern front in order to transfer troops west to defeat the Allied invasion of France. Then, once that had been accomplished, he would transfer units back to the east in order to reconquer the vital Ukraine. With Führer Directive No. 51 of November 1943, he had even attempted to enact the first part of this scenario, which was, perhaps, the only strategic option he had left. The Soviets, however, had refused to cooperate and play their assigned role. Instead of sitting passively through the winter, the Red Army had launched a series of continuous offensives that had drained German resources and brought the Ostheer to the breaking point. Although the Second SS Panzer Corps, reluctantly dispatched from France back to the east, had finally brought a halt to the Soviet offensive, its absence in June was to play a key role in the success of the Normandy landing, a circumstance that Hitler complained of bitterly after the fact. Just as crucially, the provision of long-range fighter support allowed a resumption of the American strategic bombing campaign, with devastating consequences. As Allied bombers targeted oil production and synthetic fuel facilities, aircraft engine plants, and key rail yards, any hope the Nazis had of winning the aerial war over Germany was crushed. By mid-May, Speer later conceded, “a new era in the air war” had begun, one that meant “the end of German armaments production.” The technological war had been decided; new miracle weapons could no longer save Germany.

In any case, Hitler himself bore considerable responsibility for the failure of his strategy. In his unwillingness to sacrifice land for time, to allow his armies in the east to retreat to more defensible positions and preserve manpower, he had lost the former and gained none of the latter. Worse, in anticipating the decisive blow in the west, he had stripped the Ostheer of its reserves, leaving it exposed and vulnerable to Soviet attack. It would, its commanders realized, have to bear the brunt of the Red storm alone while hoping for a quick decision in the west that would free forces to be sent back to the Ostfront. Manstein’s feat in extricating the First Panzer Army and stabilizing the eastern front had averted catastrophe, but the bleak reality of a multifront war now awaited. Within two months, all Hitler’s remaining illusions would be shattered and Germany plunged into the abyss. His strategy of striking in the west and holding in the east would fail for the simple reason that the Ostheer was too weak to hold the line. From June 1944 to the end of the war, however, some 3 million Germans would lose their lives, while Germany would suffer its worst devastation since the Thirty Years’ War. Hitler’s determination not to preside over another November 1918 would, in fact, result in the very thing he had warned was the goal of the Jewish conspiracy: the extinction of Germany.

BTR-70

The BTR-70 first appeared during the November 1980 military parade in Moscow. The hull was of all-welded steel armour with improved protection over its front arc compared to the BTR-60. In addition the nose was wider and the front gave added protection to the front wheels. While the BTR-70 was fitted with the same turret as its predecessor, some were fitted with the BTR-80 turret. Initial models of the BTR-70 were fitted with the same wheels and tyres as the BTR-60.

The two GAZ-49B engines were replaced by two ZMZ-4905 petrol engines, which developed 120hp each compared to just 90hp each in the BTR-60. Both engines had their own transmission with the right engine supplying power to the first and third axles, while the left powered the second and fourth axles. This meant if one engine was out of action the vehicle could still move, albeit at a slower speed. The exhausts were less boxy than on the BTR-60. Whereas the BTR-60 could carry up to sixteen men, the BTR-70’s capacity was two crew and nine passengers. Again Romania produced its own version, dubbed the TAB-77.

Although the BTR-70 was an improvement over the earlier BTR-60, it still had its problems, not least the inadequate means of entry and exit for the troops and the two petrol engines which were inefficient and could catch fire. The Soviet Army first took delivery of the improved BTR-80 in 1984.

Soviet/Russian Variants

BTR-70: Basic APC version, as described.

  • BTR-70 obr. 1978: Initial version, publicly displayed in 1980.
  • BTR-70 obr. 1982: Improved model with 120 hp ZMZ-49-05 V-8 engines, instead of the original GAZ-49B 115 hp 6-cylinder engines.
  • BTR-70 obr. 1984: Slightly modified model with an additional TNPT-1 periscope on the turret roof.
  • BTR-70 obr. 1986: Improved version with a periscope on the left side of the turret and four firing ports in the hull roof.
  • BTR-70V: Late-production model fitted with the BPU-1 turret of the BTR-80, with an 1PZ-2 sight, but without the “Tucha” smoke grenade launchers.
  • BTR-70M: Modernized version with turret, diesel engine and rear hull section of the BTR-80. Users include Nicaragua, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia and Syria.[7]
  • BTR-70D: Diesel version, developed by Muromteplovoz and powered by a YaMZ-236D 180 hp diesel engine. Prototype only.

SPR-2 “Rtut-B” (stantsiya pomekh radiovzryvatelyam): Electronic warfare variant, designed to detonate artillery shells with proximity fuze detonators.

  • SPR-2M: Modified version with more compact equipment.

BTR-70K (komandnyj): Command vehicle with additional radios, several whip antennas, navigation device and a portable generator. BTR-70KShM (komandno-shtabnaya mashina): Command and control variant, designed to be used as a mobile command post. 2S14 Zhalo-S: tank hunter, armed with a 2A62 85 mm gun. Prototype only. SA-22 (spetsapparatnaya mashina): command vehicle. 15Ya56M MBP (mashina boyevogo posta): base security vehicle for Strategic Rocket units. The original turret has been replaced by a new type with an 1PN22M1 improved sight, loudspeakers, OU-3GA-2 IR search lights, additional TNPO-170 periscopes and an NSVT 12.7 mm machine gun.

Cold War BMP or BTR equipped Soviet Battalions

In 1970’s Soviets started to mount BTRs and BMPs in large numbers. Original TOE for both unit types was roughly same:

Battalion HQ -3 MR Companies -AT Platoon* -Mortar Battery

*AT Platoon has been mentioned as part of both BTR and BMP Battalion type but in most cases it has been mentioned as part of ONLY in BTR Battalion.

Each MR Company had 10 BMP/BTR. Each squad had one APC with three men in Company trained as Close-Range SAM gunners (and thus company had 3 SA-7 systems).

The AGS-17 grenade machinegun came into service in 1970’s and BTR equipped company should thus have two such systems carried amongst other men of company. Number of APCs is still supposedly ten although it should be VERY tight fit and thus I’d suggest changing it to 11 BTRs like in Early 1980’s TOEs. and/or playing it this way to depict life in Soviet army right when AGS-17 was introduced (and supposedly new vehicles had not yet been introduced).

The AT Platoon should have: -1 ATGW Squad (with 2 AT-3 systems).* -1 RCL Squad (with 2 SPG-9 systems).** *This could be replaced with AT-4 system when it becomes available. **Although it has not been mentioned, I personally believe that this can be replaced with 57mm AT Gun to depict very old equipment.

Mortar Battery has six 120mm Mortars that are towed with Gaz-66. Some sources say that in some Battalions (supposedly in BMP equipped Bns -while BTR battalions keep their Gaz-66- these are replaced with MT-LB. however, 1980’s TOEs I’ve seen do not support this change. Thus you should probably keep Gaz-66 truck as transport system and forget MT-LB.

In early 1980’s following changes were made: Number of soldiers in dismounted Squad dropped from 8 to 7.

BTR Battalion TOE was slightly tweaked into following: -Bn HQ -3 MR Companies -Mortar Battery -AT Platoon

BMP Battalion had now following TOE: -Bn HQ -3 MR Companies -Mortar Battery -AA Platoon -AGL Platoon

The differences are due following: BTR Company had 11 vehicles (with 1 new vehicle carrying two AGS-17 system). Company also kept the Close range SAM systems (3 SAM systems in company).

AT Platoon of BTR Battalion was reinforced as following: -2 ATGW Squad (each with 2 ATGW systems)* -1 RCL Squad (with 2 SPG-9 system) *ATGW was either AT-3 or AT-4. Platoon had 4 APCs to carry troops.

BMP Company kept 10 BMP structure and moved (or added?) SAM systems to AA Platoon and AGLs to AGL Platoon. Their organization was following:

AA Platoon 3xBMP 9xClose Range SAM System

AGL Platoon 3xBMP 6xAGS-17 AGL system.

Sources state that Mortar battery in both Battalions had 120mm Mortar (either old or the new one) and used Gaz-66 to move them. Thus I am rather skeptical of using MT-LB to move these mortars around.

Late 1980’s saw reorganization of BTR Battalions to roughly similar as BMP Battalions and some firepower increases in BMP Battalions:

BTR Battalion: -Bn HQ -3 MR Company -Mortar Battery -AT Platoon -AA Platoon -AGL Platoon

BMP Battalion was similar but it had no AT Platoon.

AT platoons retained fairly similar organization as their early 1980’s brethren with the difference that some high readiness units had now increased strength: AT Platoon: -2 ATGW Squads (each with 2 ATGW systems) -1 RCL Squad (with 2 SPG-9 system) Platoon had supposedly now 5 BTRs. Some high readiness units could have 6 AT-4 ATGW systems and three SPG-9 systems.

Mortar Battery for both battalion types had now 8 mortars. This could be either 120mm mortar or 82mm 2B9 automatic mortar.

Biggest change in BTR Battalion was introduction of two new support unit types: AA Platoon and AGL Platoon. These were created by removing these systems from companies. Following TOEs were in use:

AA Platoon -3 BTRs -9 Close range SAM systems

AGL Platoon -3 BTRs -6 AGS-17 AGL systems

MR Companies lost these assets that were replaced with more anti tank firepower and infantry support. Number of BTRs was increased to 12 (from 11) and new platoon (1+16) was built as Machinegun/AT Platoon. It had three ATGW teams (that used new AT-7 ATGW system) and three GPMG teams (that used the old PKM system). Russians do not seem to have issued tripods to these GPMG weapons and they appear to be employed in bipod role or as attached to APCs for added firepower on them.

BMP equipped MR companies had similar addition of infantry firepower. Machinegun Platoon (1+16) was added to TOE rising company’s MICV strength from 10 to 12. MG Platoon had 6 PKM GPMG teams to bolster firepower of company. They had no ATGWs added.

Both units started to field variety of LADs to individual soldiers during 1980’s. These are issued as rounds of ammo and do not appear on TOEs.

One interesting development in the Soviet units is that there does not appear to be single source of how they issued their small arms. Generally it appears that infantry squad had always one RPG as light AT weapon and either one or two light SAWs or one GPMG or one LMG. I have seen source touting PK as squad level support weapon and replacing old RPD in this role but this does not appear to be the final truth when considering popularity of SAWs like AKM-47 and AKM-74 too. 1970’s TOEs indicate they used PK as squad level support weapon replacing old RPD but 1980’s TOEs suggest they used either 1 or 2 of AKM series SAWs and delegated PKM to support role or kept on vehicle. I’d avoid using PKM as squad level weapon and keep RPD as squad weapon until replaced by AKM-47 and AKM-74 (in late 1970’s.

Regarding the BTRs:

In the late 1970s, the Soviet Ground Forces issued the BMP to the motorized rifle regiment of the tank divisions and to one motorized rifle regiment of the motorized rifle divisions. The other 2 motor rifle regiments in these divisions had BTRs. Here are the proportions of APCs/IFVs in European Russia in 1990 (earlier totals not available):

APCs

MTLB — 1300

BTR-50 — 7

BTR-60 — 4191

BTR-70 — 3936

BTR-80 — 1130

Total — 10,564

IFVs

BMP-1 — 8146

BMP-2 — 5996

BMP-3 — 33

BRM-1K* — 1363

Total — 15,538

*Recon variant of BMP-1 with no missile.

In the mid-1980s, I think a reasonable interpolation of this data would mean that 60% of APCs were BTR-60s; 40% were BTR-70s. And perhaps 80% BMP-1 and 20% BMP-2 (I’d guess that these would be in tank divisions).

Soviet Coastal MTBs

Soviet G5 Torpedo Boat

The majority of all Soviet high-speed motor torpedo boats of World War II were of this type, called G-5.

Interesting features of Type G-5 were the light aluminium hulls and the change to the more powerful 21 inch torpedo (earlier Soviet attempts to develop MTBs used the 18 inch torpedo). Type G-5 was built from 1930 to 1939 to various specifications as Series 7, 8, 9,10, and 11, with the last named series being produced in 1939, fitted with two GAM 34 BSF engines which called for more robust hulls, and one boat was reportedly able to attain a speed of 62 knots unladen.’

Some 329 boats were built to this design from 1934-1944, divided into five basic series. In 1942, following the successful use of home-made Katyusha 88mm rocket-launchers from boats of this type, the naval authorities ordered 82mm and 132mm army rocket-launchers to be adapted for naval use (242 had been ordered by 1945). Some of the G5-class boats completed from 1943 to 1944 had torpedo wells plated out, and missile-launchers mounted above the conning tower.

Vihuri was a Soviet G-5 type torpedo boat captured by the Finns— they captured three of them during the war, although they only made use of two (all had to be returned to the Soviets in 1944 as part of the armistice provisions.  The Finns would also eventually turn over to the Russians coast defense vessel Vainamoinen, the biggest ship in the Finnish Navy).  The metal-hulled G-5 boats (59 feet long, 17 tons), designed by the aircraft designer Tupolev, were extremely fast, capable of making 53 knots, and carried two 21-inch (533mm) torpedoes plus a 12.7mm machinegun.  Both the Russian G-5 and the Finnish Syoksy-class boats used an unusual torpedo launching system.  The torpedoes were not fired from tubes, nor suspended outboard and dropped, but mounted on rails aft, and were ejected tail-first behind the boat, which then had to get out of their way (a safety device ensured a delay before the torpedo started running, to give the boat a head start on evasive action).

Altogether 321 “G-5” boats were produced. They were actively used in all the theatres of war, except in the North.

“G-5” was one of the most high-speed boats in the world and was armed very well for her displacement. She was suited for daring attacks on the still water. Foreign boats of the same displacement were usually armed with less powerful torpedoes of 450 – 457-mm caliber. But the advantages of the boats were accompanied by disadvantages. The redan that allowed attaining high speed also was the reason for the high yawing and loss of speed on the waves. In heavy seas at full speed the boat was beaten by the waves. Heavy splashing hampered the work of the crew and observation. This in turn decreased the accuracy of torpedo and machine-gun firing.

SOVIET MTBs

Soviet Coastal MTBs in the Black Sea WWII

Two big motor boats were approaching Nazi-occupied Yalta amidst morning fog. Their appearance did not warn anybody either on watches, or on coastal artillery batteries on Cap Aytodor and Cap Massandra, or aboard the patrol boat cruising in the port approaches. As the German boat transmitted the light identification signal, her commander saw that on one of the intruders the lights also started blinking, but instantly ceased. Must have faulty lamp, thought sluggishly the commander and with increasing speed turned his ship to Aytodor. Meanwhile intruders at slow speed began entering Yalta harbour, while Nazi soldiers gathered on the breakwater gazed at them… Suddenly the roar of powerful engines tore the silence. Astonished Germans saw the boats sharply increasing their speed. One of them made a narrow circulation and fired torpedoes at the drifters and the submarine moored near-by. Meanwhile from the other boat rockets flung at materials stashed on the piers, and within seconds exploding torpedoes demolished fascist boats moored along the piers. Machine guns on the breakwater, and the artillery of German ships rattled after the boats going away into the open sea. Also the coastal batteries deployed in the port and on the caps opened fire. An enemy shell hit one of the boats; it damaged the engine and wounded several crewmen… And nevertheless the daredevil assault brought a real success. Professional skills and utter exploitation of the surprise factor decided about that success. On 20 June 1942 the Nazis felt in Yalta at home: the nearest base of the Soviet torpedo boats was in Novorossiysk – at a distance exceeding the range of the Soviet G-5 boats, which were also familiar to the Germans. But the enemy did not know that the Black Sea Fleet possessed two large torpedo boats developed by Soviet constructors at the eve of the war.

The necessity to have such ships was defined yet during the manoeuvres of the Pacific Fleet in 1935. Then the fleet commander M.V.Viktorov, when he commented on the operations of Tupolev’s small boats Sh-4 and G-5, had said: For open theatres, like the Pacific Ocean, we need boats of bigger displacement and range, capable to sail in at least force 5 waves. Indeed, the low seaworthiness of the small boats, especially the Sh-4’s, was no secret to anybody. Even moderated waves would flood them, and easily penetrate the very low, open atop, cockpit. Torpedo launch was guaranteed when the waves were no bigger than the force 1, and their sea running could be impaired already at the force 3 waves. Due to the low seaworthiness Sh-4’s and G-5’s rarely achieved their construction range, which depended no as much of the fuel as of the weather. All those and other deficiencies came out of the “aviation” heritage of the boats. Constructors based their project on the profile of a hydroplane float. Instead of the upper deck Sh-4 and G-5 had a steep curve surface. It provided a high mechanical resistance of the hull, but simultaneously created a lot of maintenance problems. It was difficult to hold atop even when the boat was motionless. Whereas the boat was at full speed, absolutely everything unattached would be swept away. This proved a very serious minus as far as combat operations are concerned: landing parties had to be accommodated in the torpedo gutters – there was no other space for them. Also due to the lack of flat deck Sh-4’s and G-5’s, despite of relatively good floating qualities, practically could not carry bigger cargo. Another “aviation” deficiency of the Tupolev’s boats was closed profiles: they proved too expensive and too inconvenient in shipbuilding production. Also the hull material was flawed. Corrosion literally “devoured” duralumin, and the ships had to be slipped virtually after every single sea going.

All that forced the navy to speed up definition of the requirements given to the shipbuilding industry, concerning development of bigger and more seaworthy torpedo boats for the Northern and Pacific fleets. In autumn 1935 a group of constructors started projects of torpedo boats with steel hulls SM-3 and SM-4 (stalnoy morekhodnyi – steel seaworthy), and with three and four engines. Another group started simultaneous works according to the same specifications on the boats D-2 and D-3 with wooden hulls. In the summer 1939 the “woodcarvers” showed experimental prototypes of their ships to Admiral Ivan Isakov, after which a commission was created to conduct tests in the Baltic. The chairman of the commission, Rear-Admiral B.V.Nikitin noted, that

it soon came clear, that the D-2 project does not fully satisfy navy’s requirements: it proved too crank, unstable on straight courses – yawing. Its displacement barely exceeded the well-known G-5. Whereas the tests of D-3 showed, that this boat had good agility and quite satisfactory seaworthiness. Having displacement of 40t and summary power of three engines GAM 3600hp it could achieve speed of 48 knots. The best foreign ships of comparable type did not achieve such speed until 15 years later. Moreover, D-3 had a big range (355 miles against G-5’s 220 miles) and therefore could be considered a long-range torpedo boat.

The test in the Black Sea confirmed the reliability and combat qualities of the D-3 boats, which were commissioned and handed over to the Black Sea Fleet. Simultaneously the People’s Commissariat for the Navy placed an order for several dozens of such boats with shipbuilding industry. In the spring 1940, when the production of D-3 boats already started in several shipyards, it occurred that the aviation industry was unable to deliver the extremely deficit engines GAM 1250hp. The navy had to content itself with 1000hp engines, which reduced the speed below 40 knots.

At the time when the navy received the first D-3’s the industry also finished building of the experimental prototype of SM-3. In February 1941 the state commission started testing the new boat. It was found already during the first sorties, that due to unsatisfactory hardness of the hull the planking around the foundations of the high-revolution engines vibrated excessively. It did not cause troubles until the boat underwent tests in the high seas. Then came the disaster, remembers Nikitin.

At 42-knot speed the hull, made of 4mm-thick steel cracked and the water poured inside. The crack was right in the middle of the engine compartment, from one board to the other, and menaced to break the boat in halves on force 4 waves. We had to reduce speed and take the homebound course. Fortunately, SM-3 managed to moor, and the flooding ceased. While the commission came to conclusion that the boat could not be commissioned for production, it simultaneously recommended strengthening of the hull with additional futtocks and stringers. Let the boat become heavier, decided commission members, let it be slower, but in return the Black Sea Fleet will receive a long range torpedo boat. Just several months later the ominous events of the Great Patriotic War confirmed specialists’ foresight and the wisdom of their decision.

In the end of December 1941, before the Kerch-Theodosian amphibious operation, SM-3 under command of Lieutenant I.Belousov disembarked a reconnaissance squad on Cap Chauda. Several days later the same boat twice sailed to Kerch to divert the fire of the Nazi artillery from the landing of the Soviet troops. And on 18 June 1942, when the air reconnaissance of the Black Sea Fleet spotted several ships and transports in the port of Yalta, the Soviet sailors remembered about D-3 and SM-3 – the only long range torpedo boats in the Black Sea. As a matter of fact the distance from Novorossiysk, where the boats were based, to Yalta exceeded the boats’ range, but the squadron leader Lieutenant K.Kochiyev calculated that additional petrol stashed on the decks in barrels would provide enough fuel to carry out the assault on Yalta and return home. It was also to the advantage of the Soviet sailors that the Germans, confirmed in the belief that Yalta was beyond the reach of the Soviet boats, in the morning fog would likely take them for own ships returning from patrol. After considering all the “pros” and “cons” the brigade command approved the operation. The group composed of D-3 under command of O.Chepik, and SM-3 under command of D.Karymov was led by K.Kochiyev. On 19 June evening, having loaded extra fuel, the boats left Novorossiysk, and after 7-hours journey they reached Yalta.

The fight, which happened after the daredevil assault of two tiny but heavily armed ships on Nazi-occupied Yalta, was already described. It reached its critical point: an artillery shell hit one of the retreating Soviet boats. It rendered the SM-3’s engines inoperable; the tiny ship rocked helpless on the waves of the Black Sea. One could say her hour had come. But the Russian navy has an unwritten rule: “dieth but rescueth thy mate”. The crew of D-3 immediately covered the damaged boat with dense smoke screen. While the wounded ship was towed after D-3, hidden from artillery fire, SM-3’s engineers managed to re-start engines, and soon the boat could develop 20-knot speed. They successfully evaded the pursuit of the enemy patrol boats, and towards the end of 20 June they returned to the base, having sunk a submarine and a torpedo boat, and damaged several other enemy torpedo boats. And several weeks after Soviet boats again distinguished themselves by sinking two fascist landing crafts near Theodosia.

At the outbreak of the war the Soviet navy, apart of the experimental prototype in the Black Sea, possessed two more D-3boats. Those were the only torpedo boats, with which the Northern Fleet went to the war. In August five more units were transported from Leningrad by train, and this small squadron fought till March 1943, when the Northern Fleet acquired boats of Higgins and Vosper type, delivered by the Allies. Vice-Admiral A.Kuzmin, who during the war commanded the torpedo boats brigade in the North, wrote:

We liked our domestic torpedo boats, particularly D-3, better than the foreign ones. Having installed newer engines, they achieved the same speed as the “Higgins” ones, and while they had displacement twice as less as the latter, they were superior in respect of agility. Low silhouette, low draught, and reliable mufflers made our D-3’s irreplaceable in the operations in the enemy littoral.

D-3 and SM-3 were not the only torpedo boats developed in the USSR at the eve of the war. At that time a group of constructors developed a small torpedo boat Komsomolets, which had almost the same displacement as G-5, improved torpedo tubes, and better anti-air and anti-submarine defence. Successful test of D-3 made experienced Soviet boaters B.Nikitin and N.Khavin to think about a project of a small submarine chaser and a torpedo boat built on the same universal hull, and as the basis for their project they wanted to take the hull of D-3. Authorities supported this idea, and the industry received an order for development of a wooden hull, which could become either a small chaser or a torpedo boat, depending of the armament it carried. The bureau of low tonnage constructions, a subsidiary of Baltsudoproyekt, in 1941 successfully completed the task: by 1942 a group of constructors led by L.Yermash designed the small chaser OD-200 and torpedo boat TD-200 on a universal wooden hull. The latter, as compared with D-3, had the board torpedo tubes replaced by torpedo launchers, which protected torpedoes of icing. The production line of the wooden hulls was established at one of the evacuated factories: they were assembled on a slip out of details manufactured in a workshop according to standard templates. Apart of the wooden hull, also a universal steel hull had been developed, which became the basis for the small chaser OM-200, and torpedo boat TM-200.

Although the war slowed down finishing works on the Komsomolets, the project was not all scrapped. Together with D-3, “Komsomolets” will become the standard torpedo boat, said the deputy people’s commissar for the Navy, Admiral Lev Galler, during one of the conferences in 1942; it is good both for the Baltic and the Black Sea. New boats had been commissioned for the navy since August 1944, and took part in the final battles in the Baltic. Nowadays in Severomorsk three machines, depicting the striking force of the Northern Fleet during the Great Patriotic War, have been turned into monuments. On the Gulf of Kola waterfront has been placed a famous “Katyusha” – the cruiser submarine K-21. In a gorge between two hills, on a concrete pillar, a navy torpedo bomber Il-4 soars in eternal flight. And in the centre of a downtown boulevard, while leaving behind a concrete wake sails from the past TKA-12 – a wooden boat of D-3 type. One of the two, with which the Northern Fleet met the Great Patriotic War.

Russian Project 1241.2 [Pauk]

The Pauk class is the NATO reporting name for a class of small patrol corvettes built for the Soviet Navy and export customers between 1977 and 1989. The Russian designation is “Project 1241.2” Molniya-2. These ships are designed for coastal patrol and inshore anti-submarine warfare. The design is the patrol version of the Tarantul class corvette which is designated “Project 1241.1” by the Russians, but is slightly longer and has diesel engines. The boats are fitted with a dipping sonar which is also used in Soviet helicopters.

The superstructure the Molniya is divided into 3 levels, 3 different types of radar installation.

First, the upper which has installed fire-control radar for anti-ship missile Garpun-Bal-E (in Project 1241 RE Tarantul, radar is located on the top of the mast), followed by the fire control radar MR-123 Vympel for gunboat AK-176 and rapid firing AK-630 guns, on top of the mast to install the target search radar MR 352 positiv-E (note ship missiles Project 1241 RE Tarantul does not have this type of radar ).

Masts of Project 1241 RE Tarantul circle at an angle to the rear has also mast vertical box Molniya and lower,  the second mast column has installed 2 electronic warfare systems.

Weapons of Molniya more powerful than Tarantul, Molniya is fitted to 16 subsonic anti-ship missile Kh-35 Uran-E (NATO name SS-N-25 Switchblade range of 130 km, which is arranged into four launched two sides clusters with 4 missiles each cluster.

Project 1241.8 Molniya gunboat is equipped with AK-176M 76.2 mm, two rapid fire guns AK-630M, low-to-air missiles, Igla-1M, (with Russian weapons, M is used for a variation undergoing modernization).

Power source system of the two ships are the same are used engine CODOG (combined diesel gas turbines). The displacement of Molniya is little more than a little than Tarantul due carrying more missiles (550 tonnes compared with 490 tonnes).

Overall, the combat capability of the Molniya is higher than with Tarantul.

Displacement, tons: 580 full load

Dimensions, feet (metres): 190.3 x 34.4 x 8.2 (58 x 10.5 x 25)

Main machinery: 4 M504 diesels, 16 000 hp, 2 shafts

Speed, knots; 28-34

Complement: 40

Missiles: SAM SA N-5quad launcher, manual aiming: IR homing to 10 km (5.5 nm) at 1.5 Mach, warhead 25 kg, 8 missiles Guns: 1-3 in (76 mm)/60, 85° elevation, 120 rounds/minute to 7 km (3.8 nm); weight of shell 16 kg

1 -30 mm/65, 6 barrels. 3 000 rounds/minute combined to 2 km

Torpedoes: 4-1 6 m (406 mm) tubes Type 40. anti-submarine; active/passive homing up to 15 km (8 nm) at up to 40 knots, warhead 100- 150 kg

A/S mortars: 2 RBU 1 200 5 tubed fixed, range 1 200 m, warhead 34 kg.

Depth charges: 2 racks (12)

Countermeasures: Decoys 2-1 6-barrelled Chaff launchers ESM Passive receivers

Radars: Air/surface search Peel Cone, E band

Surface search Spin Trough, I band

Fire control Bass Tilt, H/l band

Sonars: VDS (mounted on transom), active attack, high frequency

Programmes: First laid down in 1977 and completed in 1979 Replacement for “Poti” class. In series production Soviet type name is maly prottvolodochny korabl meaning small anti-submarine ship.

Second Siniavino Offensive, August 1942

  1. 27 August: at 0210hrs, the Soviet 8th Army begins its attack on the German XXVI AK in the Mga-Siniavino corridor. After an artillery preparation, the 6th Guards Rifle Corps crosses the Chemaya River and attacks near the junction of the 223. and 227. Infanterie- Divisionen boundaries. The 3rd Guards Rifle Division fails to capture the Kruglaya Grove from Oberst Wengler’s Grenadier-Regiment 366, but the 19th Guards Rifle Division manages to overrun Grenadier- Regiment 425’s forward defences and advances four kilometres. The 24th Guards Rifle Division captures Tortolovo.
  2. 27 August: the 128th Rifle Division launches supporting attacks on Lipki and Workers’ Settlement No. 8 (WS-8).
  3. 28 August: Oberst Wengler’s Grenadier-Regiment 366 is encircled in the Kruglaya Grove, but the 6th Guards Rifle Corps cannot eliminate this position.
  4. 28 August: Lindemann rushes up elements of the 28. Jager-, 5. Gebirgsjager- and 170. Infanterie-Divisionen to block the Soviet penetration.
  5. 30 August: the Soviet advance westwards has lost momentum, so Starikov commits the 4th Guards Rifle Corps to reinforce the main effort, but the German defence of the Siniavino Heights holds.
  6. 1/2 September: counterattacks by the 28. Jager- and 170. Infanterie- Divisionen stop the 8th Army advance five kilometres from the Neva River.
  7. 2 September: the 128th Rifle Division succeeds in capturing WS-8, but any further advance is blocked.
  8. 3 September: the Neva Operational Group tries to assist Starikov’s stalled advance by making another division-sized effort to cross the Neva River near Gorodok but it is easily repulsed.
  9. 27 August to 3 September: a regimental-sized Kampfgruppe from 12. Panzer-Division remains in reserve west of Siniavino, ready to counterattack any sudden Soviet breakthrough.

Despite the dilatory offensive preparations by Heeresgruppe Nord, the Stavka was aware of Operation Nordlicht from intelligence sources and Stalin was determined to break the siege of Leningrad before the Germans could make their move. After the disastrous Lyuban Offensive, Meretskov was ordered to rebuild 2nd Shock Army, using remnants that had escaped the pocket and new reinforcements. He also began planning for a new offensive to break the siege, using a simpler, more direct approach and a great mass of artillery. With the Stavka’s concurrence, Meretskov and Govorov agreed on a pincer attack, involving near-simultaneous assaults against the west and east sides of the narrowest portion of the German siege lines, around Siniavino. At this point, Meretskov’s forces were only 17km from Govorov’s forces on the Neva River and they calculated that they could attack and achieve a link-up before Kuchler could reinforce the sector.

The east side of the Siniavino sector, already dubbed ‘the corridor of death’ since it was under Soviet artillery fire from both sides, was held by General der Artillerie Albert Wodrig’s XXVI AK, with the 223. and 227. Infanterie-Divisionen. Wodrig had only seven infantry battalions defending a 15km front stretching from Lipki on Lake Ladoga to Mishkino, with five other battalions holding the Neva Line. Owing to the reduction of the infantry divisions from nine to six battalions, Wodrig persuaded Küchler to ‘loan’ him five battalions from the 207. and 285. Sicherungs- Divisionen, but he still had a very weak force to hold the most critical terrain in the siege lines around Leningrad. The XXVI AK front was protected by a combination of fortified strongpoints, minefields, pre-planned artillery barrages and extensive swamps. Wodrig built his defences upon the stoutly built workers’ settlements that had been built in this area before the war, with the key positions being Workers’ Settlement 8 (WS-8), the Kruglaya Grove and the dominant Siniavino Heights. On the west side of the salient, the very experienced SS-Polizei-Division also held part of the Neva River front. Although Wodrig had no reserves, part of Manstein’s AOK 11 was just arriving south of Leningrad for the upcoming Operation Nordlicht.

Once Soviet intelligence learned of the imminent arrival of Manstein’s forces, the Stavka pressed Meretskov and Govorov to launch their offensives immediately, to forestall any possible German success at Leningrad. Govorov dutifully kicked off his part of the offensive by attempting to seize two crossings over the Neva on 19 August, but the SS-Polizei repulsed these efforts with heavy losses. Unlike the winter months, where the Soviets could send tanks and infantry across the frozen Neva, a cross-river attack in the summer was relatively easy for the Germans to defend against. However, Wodrig’s corps was less well prepared for Meretskov’s offensive, which began at 0210hrs on 27 August.

Meretskov’s main effort was launched by General-Major Filipp N. Starikov’s 8th Army in the Gaitolovo sector, near the boundary of the 223. and 227. Infanterie-Divisionen. Starikov’s initial shock group consisted of three divisions of General-Major Sergei T. Biiakov’s 6th Guards Rifle Corps, with the second echelon formed by General-Major Nikolai A. Gagen’s 4th Guards Rifle Corps. Meretskov played by the book: he achieved a 4:1 advantage in infantry in a narrow five-kilometre-wide sector, and provided over 580 army-level howitzers, 120mm mortars and multiple rocket launchers to support the assault. Despite the superior mass and firepower, the 6th Guards Rifle Corps failed to capture the heavily defended Kruglaya Grove, but the 19th Guards Rifle Division was able to push its way three kilometres into the forwards defences of Grenadier- Regiment 425. As usual, by massing a rifle division against a single German battalion, the Soviets made a narrow breach, but the supporting attacks on the flanks were less successful. Starikov was limited to a narrow penetration battle – just as had happened to the 2nd Shock Army in the Lyuban Offensive. Furthermore, Küchler began to commit reserves more quickly than Meretskov had anticipated and Starikov’s advance slowed to a crawl in successive days. Elements of the 5. Gebirgsjager-Division and 28. Jager-Division began to arrive on 28 August, followed by the 170. Infanterie-Division and four Tiger tanks of s.Pz.Abt. 502. Rather than cracking under the Soviet sledgehammer, German resistance was increasing. Even though two German battalions under Oberst Wengler were encircled in the Kruglaya Grove, Starikov’s rifle units had great difficulty reducing this position.

Although the Soviets enjoyed a considerable superiority in artillery, the tactical execution of the offensive was seriously flawed. Rifle units were fed into battle piecemeal and the artillery was unable to identify and destroy the German main line of resistance, concealed in the heavily wooded terrain. Most Soviet artillery barrages were area fires, hindered by morning fog and inexperienced forward observers. Starikov ignored the terrain and sent his 124th Tank Brigade into swamps where 24 of its 27 tanks became mired and were then destroyed by German Panzerjdger. Furthermore, Meretskov failed to provide adequate engineer support to breach minefields and build corduroy roads over swamps, so Starikov’s forces were limited to advancing along a single, narrow axis.

In frustration, Meretskov ordered Starikov to commit the 4th Guards Rifle Corps into the fight, and then gradually committed the 2nd Shock Army piecemeal to keep the advance going. Govorov finally managed to get some infantry across the Neva on 26 August, re-occupying the former ‘five-kopeck bridgehead’ lost in April, but could not advance any further. By 31 August, the 8th Army reached the south-east edge of the Siniavino Heights but was rapidly running out of steam. Counterattacks by the 28. Jager-Division and 170. Infanterie-Division on 1/2 September stopped Starikov’s spearheads five kilometres short of the link-up with the Nevskaya Dubrovka bridgehead. Once again, Meretskov stood to eliminate an entire German corps if he could only complete the encirclement, but Govorov’s forces were unable to break out of their tiny bridgehead and Starikov no longer had the strength to advance. The Soviet offensive had stalled.

Manstein’s counteroffensive, September 1942

At his forward headquarters at Vinnitsa in the Ukraine, Hitler was concerned that the Soviet Siniavino Offensive would succeed in disrupting the execution of Nordlicht, even though it was already apparent that it had failed to raise the siege of Leningrad. Hitler ordered Manstein to take over the battle around Siniavino and crush the Soviet penetration as rapidly as possible. In a rather awkward command arrangement, AOK 11 was put in charge of all German forces already around Siniavino, as well as the reinforcements just arriving from the Crimea, which temporarily reduced Lindemann’s AOK 18 to a rump formation. In his haste to resolve the Soviet penetration quickly, Manstein’s initial improvised effort to cut off the base of the salient was repulsed on 10 September. Manstein decided to wait until all his forces were in place and then launched a powerful pincer attack with four divisions from XXVI and XXX AK on 21 September, which succeeded in linking up near Gaitolovo within four days. The German counterattack succeeded in trapping the bulk of the Soviet 8th Army and part of the 2nd Shock Army in the pocket. Just after Starikov’s forces were encircled, the 55th Army managed to get elements of two rifle divisions across the Neva River on 26 September, but it was too late. Manstein ordered the 12. Panzer-Division, which had 40 tanks, to counterattack and within days the Soviets had lost two of their three bridgeheads. Shortly thereafter, the 55th Army forces withdrew back across the Neva.

Manstein set about methodically reducing the pocket in late September although mopping-up operations in the swamps continued until mid-October At least 12,300 prisoners were taken and Meretskov’s forces had taken another battering for no territorial gains. All told, the Leningrad and Volkhov fronts suffered 113,674 casualties in the offensive – about 59 per cent of their committed forces. Heeresgruppe Nord suffered 25,936 casualties during August-September 1942 and Manstein requested 10,500 replacements before his forces would be ready to execute Nordlicht. Some of the best units slated for Nordlicht were particularly hard hit, such as 5. Gebirgsjager-Division which suffered 2,183 casualties and lost one-quarter of its horses. Although the OKH kept Nordlicht as an option for some time, it was effectively cancelled when Manstein and his AOK 11 staff were sent south to form Heeresgruppe Don in response to the Stalingrad crisis in November. While there is no doubt that the German defence of the Siniavino Heights was a major tactical success, the Soviets succeeded in pre-empting Operation Nordlicht and thereby saved Leningrad.

German Vehicles in Soviet Service

Large items such as tanks, cannons or artillery pieces, equipment can be lost when they are immobilized through vehicle breakdowns or minor damages. In general, a retreating force tends to lose a lot of heavy equipment regardless of actual combat losses. The heavy maintenance demands of armored fighting vehicles are both a cause of loss and an obstacle to re-use. For example, after the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, several hundred German Panzer III tanks and similar StuG III assault guns/tank destroyers were captured. So many were available that a significant effort was made to repair and re-use them. More than 201 were rebuilt as the SU-76i self-propelled gun, with some even serving as Soviet SG-122 self-propelled howitzer vehicle prototypes. Besides Panzer IIIs and StuG IIIs, the Soviets also used about a hundred ex-German Panzer IV medium tanks and (at least) some Panther tanks. Tiger I and II tanks seized by the Soviets were only largely used for testing rather than fighting on the frontline (no photographic evidence of any serving on the front). Artillery pieces can also be lost during retreats, when battery positions are overrun (often easily once the frontlines are punctured) or when they are immobilized during hindered road movements or maneuvers.

Use of captured equipment has obvious benefits and less-obvious drawbacks. When Axis tanks were captured and could be repaired for use, they were often used in deception operations. A common tactic was for a Soviet tank unit to approach a German position using one or two captured German tanks in the lead. The hope was that the German defenders, recognizing a “friendly” tank, would not fire, or would delay their fire long enough for the Soviet unit to make a close approach.

Axis tanks and other AFVs were also re-marked and sometimes re-armed with Soviet weapons. One such example is the SU-76i assault gun based on captured Panzer III. Evidence also exists of German Panzer I-based command vehicles re-armed with Soviet 20mm ShVAK cannons. Usually, however, the vehicles were neither modified nor re-marked.

The drawbacks to using enemy equipment are significant. First, the captured vehicles are very often mistaken as enemy and thus are subject to friendly fire. Second, it is difficult to repair or maintain them; the simple act of obtaining ammunition or minor engine parts can be insurmountable. Third, equipment such as radios may not be compatible with other friendly equipment. Fourth, troops may not understand the maintenance requirements of the unfamiliar enemy equipment.

With the exception of the Panzer III tank, most of the vehicles listed below were captured in very small numbers and never contributed significantly to Red Army strength in any operation.