The Panzer Thrust to Capture Moscow October-November 1941
By the Autumn of 1940, the nations of Europe’s western seaboard had been defeated by Germany, leaving only the British Isles unconquered and defiant, although weak. Knowing that Britain posed no real threat Hitler decided to wage war against the Soviet Union on the pretext that the eastern provinces of Germany had to be beyond the range of Red Air Force bombers. When that war was concluded and the Reich held an area of western Russia running from the Volga to Archangel, not only would eastern Germany be safe from air attack, but Russia’s bread basket, the Ukraine, would be within the German cordon sanitaire as would the Don basin’s industrial complexes. The remnant of the defeated Red Army would be on the eastern side of the Volga and Germany’s supremacy would be unchallengeable.
In September, Hitler briefed the leaders of the German Armed Forces and of the Army High Command (OKW and OKH). Those officers must have been surprised that the Führer did not name a point of maximum effort or Schwerpunkt, the strategic objective to be gained. Instead he named three targets, allocating one to each of the Army Groups which were to fight the war: Leningrad for Army Group North, the Ukraine for Army Group South, and for Army Group Center, Moscow—but only after the northern and southern goals had been gained. Hitler declared Moscow to be a geographical term with no military significance. His decision broke with the German Army’s basic precept that Field armies march separately but strike together. In Russia his Army Groups would march separately and would also strike separately. Such a policy might have been a recipe for disaster but, by a fateful paradox, the flawed strategy of the command hierarchy of the Red Army, the Supreme Stavka, saved Hitler from the consequences of this dilettante folly.
On 22 June 1941, the German armed forces attacked the Soviet Union. The opening operations were everywhere successful and the course of the campaign in the first months was marked by the encirclement of huge numbers of Red Army formations by fast-moving panzer forces. The scale of the Soviet losses in those first encirclements, together with the far greater casualties inflicted in the encirclements that followed in quick succession, convinced the German High Command that the Red Army had been defeated west of the Dnieper, as Hitler had planned. If there was any doubt felt at OKH it was that the advance of Germany’s armies was still being contested, and by previously unidentified Soviet military formations. These were, undeniably, fresh troops but were discounted by the High Command as Stalin’s last reserves. The war on the Eastern Front was as good as over.
The Führer Designs a Revolutionary Battle Plan
During the middle week of August 1941, OKH sent Hitler a memorandum urging that the German Army’s principal aim should be the capture of Moscow by Army Group Center. The Führer rejected that recommendation. He was working on Operation WOTAN, a revolutionary offensive, and saw from the dispositions on the map of the Eastern Front the strategy he would follow. Soviet main strength was concentrated to the west of the capital and could be easily reinforced, making frontal attacks to capture the city from the west both costly and time-consuming. The Führer recalled that during the Great War it became standard practice to infiltrate round the enemy’s flanks in order to attack an objective from the rear. His revolutionary battle plan would do just that. Faced by a strong defense west of Moscow he would withdraw the four Panzer Groups serving on the Eastern Front and concentrate them into a single Panzer Army Group. This he would unleash and send marching below Moscow and on an easterly bearing. At Tula it would change direction and thrust north-eastwards across the land bridge between the Don and Volga rivers before taking a new line and driving northwards to capture Gorki, some 400km east of the capital. After a short pause for regrouping, a coordinated attack by Army Group Center from the west and Panzer Army Group from the east would capture Moscow
Stavka would certainly react violently when the panzer hosts thundered across the steppes but the Führer would limit their ability to counter WOTAN. He would launch massive offensives using the infantry armies on the strength of the three Army Groups. These would tie down the Red armies and prevent Stavka from moving forces to challenge Panzer Army Group’s thundering charge.
The longer the Führer looked at the map the more confident he became that his plan could take Moscow well before winter. He knew that the terrain of the land bridge between the Don and Volga rivers was good going for armor. The roads in the area were few and poor but the General Staff handbook considered that the sandy soil of the land bridge allowed movement even by wheeled vehicles off main roads and across country. The one caveat was that short periods of wet weather could make off-road movement difficult and longer spells could make the terrain impassable. The presence of so many rivers might slow the pace of the advance but that difficulty could be overcome by augmenting the establishment of panzer bridging companies with extra pioneer units. A revolutionary battle plan demands a revolutionary supply system and Hitler was convinced that he had found one. Isolated even from his closest staff members he worked on the final details of Operation WOTAN.
Kesselring Becomes Commander of the Panzer Army Group
A telex sent on the morning of 23 August brought Field Marshal Kesselring to Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters. The commander of Second Air Fleet supposed he had been summoned to brief the Führer on the progress of air operations on the central sector, but Hitler’s first words astonished him.
“I have decided to mount an all-out offensive for which all four Panzer Groups on the Eastern Front will be concentrated into a huge armored fist—a Panzer Army Group. This you will command.”
To Kesselring’s protests that he was no expert in armored warfare the Führer replied that he did not want one. Such men were always too far forward and out of touch—Rommel in the desert was a typical example of the panzer commander. No, he needed an efficient administrator and he, Kesselring, was the best in the German Services.
The Luftwaffe commander then asked how the Panzer Army Group was to be supplied and was told “by air-bridge.” The entire strength of the Luftwaffe’s Ju-52 transport fleet, all 800 machines, would be committed, and each machine would not only carry two tons of fuel, ammunition or food but would also tow a DFS glider loaded with a further ton of supplies. Thus 2400 tons would be flown in in a single “lift.” Hitler maintained that each flight would be so short that the Ju pilots could fly three missions in the course of a single day and this would raise the total of supplies to 7200 tons daily; more than enough to nourish the Panzer Army Group in its advance.
“There will be losses. Aircraft will crash, others will be shot down …”
“And those losses will be made good.”
Hitler then went on to explain that in the event of a sudden emergency requiring even more supplies, every motor-powered Luftwaffe machine would be put into service as would also the giant gliders which had been built for the invasion of Britain. Supplies would be dropped by parachute or air-landed from the Ju transports. Hitler’s remarkable memory recalled that ammunition boxes could be thrown from slow-flying transports at a height of four meters without damage but warned Kesselring that there was a high breakage rate—one in five—among the 250 liter petrol containers, unless these were specially packed. Once the panzer advance was rolling the Ju’s would no longer need to para-drop or air-drop the supplies but would land and take off from the salient which the Panzer Army Group had created. As the salient area expanded lorried convoys would be re-introduced. Aware of the vast amount of fuel that would be needed for the forthcoming operation, Kesselring asked what Germany’s strategic fuel reserves were and was told that these were sufficient for two to three months, including the requirements of WOTAN.
Hitler’s hands, moving across the map on the table, demonstrated where the break-through would occur and then illustrated the drive towards Gorki. The momentum of the attack must be maintained by a pragmatic approach to problems and Kesselring was to ensure the closest liaison between the flight-controllers of both Services so that the pilots had no difficulty in finding the landing zones. It was the duty of the Luftwaffe to give total support to the Army by dominating the skies above the battlefield and ensuring that the ground units were protected from attack at all times.
Hitler assured the Luftwaffe commander that the weather forecast was for hot, sunny weather which meant that ground conditions would be excellent. Operation WOTAN should last no more than eight weeks so that the offensive would be in its last stages before the onset of the autumn rains, and would be concluded before winter set in. Long-range meteorological forecasts predicted that the present dry weather would continue until late in October.
The Führer explained that Supreme Stavka had moved the bulk of its forces to counter the blow which they anticipated would be made by von Rundstedt’s Army Group South.
“We shall fox Stavka by maintaining pressure in the south but using mainly infantry forces. Stalin will have to reinforce that sector, whereupon Army Groups North and Center will each open a strong offensive. While the Soviets are rushing troops from one flank to another your Panzer Army Group will open Operation WOTAN, will fight its way through the crust of Red Army Divisions and reach the open hinterland. From there the exploitation phase of the battle will begin and from that point you should encounter diminishing opposition. Of course, your advance will be contested but the presence of so great a force of armor behind the left flank of Westfront will unsettle the enemy. But the Russians, both at troop and at Supreme Command level, react slowly … so make ground quickly before they realize the danger you represent.”
Hitler then declared that once he had briefed the other senior commanders, planning for WOTAN could begin. Because the individual Panzer Groups were at present committed to battle they could not be withdrawn and concentrated in toto. X-Day for each Panzer Group would depend upon how quickly it could be removed and regrouped but he thought that they should all be ready to begin WOTAN by 9 September. In answer to Kesselring’s concern that the infantry armies would bear the brunt of battle without panzer support Hitler stressed that a number of armored battalions and, possibly, some independent regiments would still be with the three Army Groups. He did agree that those panzer formations would have to act as “firemen,” rushing from one threatened sector to another.
In farewell, Hitler grasped Kesselring’s hands in his own, gave him the piercing look mentioned by so many of those who met the Führer and told him that Operation WOTAN offered the armies in the East the chance of total victory within a few months, but only if each officer and man was prepared to give of his utmost for the duration of the offensive. National Socialist fanaticism, the Führer concluded, would produce the victory that was within the Field Marshal’s grasp.
“Remember, Kesselring. The last battalion will decide the issue.”
On 24 August, in the Warsaw headquarters of Second Air Fleet, Kesselring addressed the leaders of the formations he was to command and told them that for the opening assault Panzer Groups Guderian, Hoth and Hoepner were to attack shoulder to shoulder in order to create the widest possible breach. That break-through would be succeeded by the pursuit and exploitation phase which would produce a salient running up to Gorki.
“To create that salient,” said Kesselring, “Guderian and Hoth will form the assault wave, Hoepner and Kleist will line the salient walls, and in addition to that task will also defeat enemy attacks made against those walls and will replace losses suffered by the spearhead groups.”
“Each Division has Luftwaffe liaison officers but at Panzer Group and Panzer Army Group level there will be a Luftwaffe Signals Staff unit to ensure total success in the matter of locating and supplying your units.
“I need not tell you how to fight your battles. You have grown up with the blitzkrieg concept, so any words of mine would be superfluous. We know our tasks. Let us to them and achieve the Führer’s aim: victory in the East before winter.”
Hitler Briefs the OKH Staff
On Friday, 29 August, Hitler addressed the OKH staff. A summary of his briefing reads:
“The successes of the three Army groups now make Moscow the principal objective … Operation WOTAN will open on 9 September and will consist of separate offensives by the infantry Armies of each Army Group as well as by a Panzer Army Group working towards the capture of the Soviet capital … The Panzer Groups will concentrate into the Panzer Army Group as they conclude present operations …
“Speed is vital … no pitched battles … strong enemy resistance is to be bypassed and left to the infantry and the Stukas to overcome. Panzer Divisions will consist of fighting echelons only … No second echelon soft-skin vehicle supply columns … Troops to live off the land as far as possible. Once the first issues of petrol, rations, ammunition and spares are run down, subsequent supplies will be air-landed or air-dropped. The infantry formations serving with the Panzer Groups will foot march unless the railways can be put into operation to ‘lift’ them.”
The first withdrawals to thin out the panzer formations so that WOTAN could open on 9 September were halted abruptly on the 8th, when the armies of Marshals Timoshenko and Budyenny opened “spoiling” offensives. These were incompetently handled and were defeated so thoroughly that only weeks later Budyenny’s South West Front had been destroyed around Kiev with a loss to the Russians of 665,000 prisoners. That defeat was followed by others at Vyasma and Briansk. The intensity of the fighting and the vast distances over which military operations were conducted during those encirclements tied up the Panzer Groups so completely that OKH’s intention to thin them out could not begin again until mid-September. As a result concentration could not be completed simultaneously by all the Groups, and each went into what had now become the second stage of WOTAN on various dates. Those Panzer Groups, urged on by a jubilant Hitler, were unrested, unconcentrated, under strength and driving vehicles that needed complete overhaul but each advanced towards its start lines. It was Friday, 28 September, and it was fine and sunny.
Operation WOTAN Begins
On X-Day Panzer Group 1 was in action on the southern side of the encircling ring around Kiev; Guderian’s Group 2, leaving XXXXVIII Corps at Priluki, had disengaged from the encirclement’s northern side and had concentrated around Glukhov; while Panzer Groups 3 and 4 were still deeply committed to the battles at Briansk and Vyasma. The long advance to battle which they would have to undertake meant that they would enter late into the second stage of WOTAN. Guderian, impatient to march, decided that if the other groups were not in position by X-Day then he would open the operation without them. His formations moved forward, and at dawn on the misty morning of 30 September, the order came: “Panzer marsch.” Guderian named as his Group’s first objective the road and rail communications center of Orel. General Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Panzer Corps, with 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions in the line, advanced up the Orel road, while Lemelsen’s XXXXVII Panzer Corps, fielding 17th and 18th Panzer Divisions, flooded across the lightly undulating terrain to the north of the highway.
Guderian’s soldiers were confident. On the eve of the offensive Heini Gross, serving in one of the panzer battalions of 4th Division, wrote “Last evening the Corps Commander visited us. There were several speeches and then we all sang the ‘Panzerlied.’ Very, very moving. Tomorrow at 05:30 we open the attack which will win the war.”
Guderian’s first blows smashed the left wing of Yeremenko’s Front and within a day had crushed Thirteenth Red Army. Soviet counterattacks launched by two Cavalry Divisions and two Tank Brigades were flung back in disarray by 4th Panzer Division. Through the gap which had been created XXIV Corps struck for Sevsk, captured it and drove on towards Orel while XXXXVII Corps swung north-eastwards for Karachev and Briansk. To the north of Guderian, von Weichs’ Second Infantry Army brought about the collapse of Yeremenko’s right wing when it split asunder the Forty-third and Fiftieth Red Armies. Within two days Panzer Group 2 had driven 130km through the Soviet battle line against minimal opposition. A breach had been made between Orel and Kursk and Kesselring directed the other Panzer Groups to reach and pass through “Guderian’s Gap,” in order to begin the exploitation phase of WOTAN. That order drove Kleist’s Panzer Group 1 northwards from the Kiev ring and was to send Groups 3 and 4 southwards once the main part of their forces had been withdrawn from the Vyasma encirclement battles.
On 2 October, the first air drop was made to Guderian’s Group. Friedrich Huber in a Flak battery recalled, “Fighter aircraft circled above us to drive off any Russian machines. Then the Ju-52s flew in, approaching from the west at a great height, descended lower and circled. They roared low above our heads, the yellow identification stripe [carried by aircraft on the Eastern Front] glowing in the sunlight. A cascade of boxes and the first flight climbed, circled and flew back westwards. In less than ten minutes forty Ju’s had supplied us. Another flight of forty came in, delivered and flew off to be followed by a third wave. This is an idea of the Führer, of course. Simple and effective, swift and efficient …”
Stavka’s reaction to the 2nd Panzer Group attack was sluggish and the weak tank attacks against XXIV Corps were repulsed with heavy loss. Guderian’s Group gained ground at such pace that it was confidently believed the hard crust of the Soviet defense must have been cracked. But it had not. Supreme Stavka ordered that Tula, on the southern approaches to Moscow, was to be held to the last, and the fanatical Soviet defense of the area between that city and Mtsensk brought the first check to 2nd Panzer Group’s drive.
Kesselring, who had been elated at the fall of Orel on 3 October, intended to capitalize on that success by changing WOTAN’s thrust line. Hitler had ordered this to be north-easterly: Dankov-Kasimov-Gorki. That original direction Kesselring now changed so that it marched northwards from Orel, via Mtsensk and Tula, to attack Moscow from due south.
Guderian’s Panzer Group Checked at Mtsensk
It was Colonel Katukov’s armor positioned south of Mtsensk that checked Guderian. A post-battle report, by the staff of XXIV Panzer Corps described the first two days of battle:
“The unit confronting us on the Tula road was 4th Tank Brigade equipped with T34s fresh from the factory. We had met this tank type before but never in such numbers. It is indisputable that the T-34 is superior to our panzers. We overcame them by calling for Stuka strikes and by setting up lines of our 88mm anti-aircraft guns and employing these in a ground role.”
Kesselring’s disobedience of Hitler’s order forbidding Panzer Army Group to become involved in pitched battles had resulted in Guderian’s drive faltering. To retrieve the situation OKH moved Second Infantry Army from 2nd Panzer Group’s left flank to its right and gave the infantry force the task of capturing Tula. Guderian’s Group, relieved on 7 October, then raced for its next objective, Yelets to the north-west of Voronezh and some 160km distant. Its advance was still unsupported. The other Panzer Groups had still not yet reached the breached area.
Hitler had correctly forecast that Stavka’s slow reaction to WOTAN would allow the Panzer Army Group to gain ground swiftly and Guderian met little organized opposition en route to Yelets. It was principally ill-trained local garrisons reinforced by untrained factory militias who came out to contest the German advance. Lacking adequate training they were slaughtered.
The crossing of the Olym river might have delayed Guderian more than the Russian enemy, but Hitler’s insistence upon extra pioneer units to accompany the Panzer Groups had proved him right and six tank-bearing bridges were erected in a single day. On 11 October Guderian’s reconnaissance detachments entered the outskirts of Yelets and quickly captured the town. The leading elements pressed on: the next water barrier was the mighty Don where Panzer Group 2 could expect to meet serious resistance unless the river could be “bounced.” For the Don crossing Guderian demanded the strongest Stuka support. His Divisions moved towards the river ready to cross on 14 October.
At dawn on that day the Stukas, the Black Hussars of the air, flew over the battle area and systematically destroyed everything which moved on the Don’s eastern bank. Yelets came within the defense zone of Voronezh and was ringed by deep field fortifications and extensive mine fields. “We attacked under cover of a smoke screen across a vast, flat and open piece of ground towards the Don,” explained Hauptmann Heinrich Auer. “On our sector the bluffs were over 100 meters high but upstream where they were almost at water level the Pioneers constructed bridges. We motorized infantry crossed in assault boats, then scaled the bluffs to storm the bunkers and trenches. The Stukas had bombed the Ivans so thoroughly that they were ready to surrender …
“It is not true that the crossing was easy. It was not but at its end we had broken the Don river line. Our panzers crossed the first bridge at about 1400hrs and came up to support us. Together we fought all that night and most of the next day. By the afternoon of the 15th we had reached the confluence of the Don and the Sosna, to the west of Lipetsk, and dug in there. The panzers left us at that point and wheeled north towards Lebyedan …”
Shortly after taps on February 15, 1898, the United States battleship Maine blew up and sank in Havana Harbor, taking with it 266 American lives. While the war against Spain did not begin until two months later, this disaster provided the cause that rallied the American public in favor of war. People no longer asked whether war would come but rather when it would start.
Today, that war evokes images of Dewey’s Squadron sailing into Manila Bay and destroying the Spanish fleet or of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill in the face of determined Spanish sharpshooters. Yet these images belie the truth. At the beginning of 1898 the United States barely ranked as a third‑rate power and “unconventional wisdom” in Europe weighed the potential conflict in favor of Spain. Indeed, when examining the conduct of the war, had the Spanish been more determined to win, or luckier, the Americans might well have lost.
THE ROAD TO WAR
“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”
‑William Randolph Hearst to Frederick Remington
War with Spain resulted from a long series of provocations, both real and imagined. The source of trouble was the severity of Spain’s colonial administration, aggravated by her unwillingness to cede autonomy or grant basic political and economic freedoms. Cuba had not been as rebellious as the rest of Latin America, but in 1868 that changed. This rebellion was known as the Ten Years’ War. At its end in 1878 Spain promised reform and the end of slavery (finally abolished by 1886). The rebel leaders left Cuba, declared themselves the Cuban Revolutionary Party, and established a headquarters in New York.
Known as the “New York Junta” these professional agitators included Tomas Estrada Plama, Maximo Gomez, Claxito Garcia, and Jose Marti. In the summer of 1894, when the US Congress placed a customs duty on sugar (the Wilson‑Gorman tariff), the Junta’s chance came, for the sugar‑based Cuban economy would shortly collapse.
The new revolution began February 24, 1895. After initial enthusiasm, the revolution died down to sporadic guerilla clashes, mostly in the jungle interior of eastern Cuba. The rebels were led by Maximo Gomez, who had fought in the Ten Years’ War. Known as El Chino Viejo.(The Old Chinaman), Gomez presented an unmilitary appearance but proved shrewd and persistent. Realizing he could never win a pitched battle with the Spanish, he fought a hit‑and‑run campaign of calculated terrorism. By attacking the Cuban economy he could force the population to either join him or seek refuge in Spanish garrisoned towns.
This strategy baffled the Spanish commander‑in‑chief, Martinez Compos, victor of the Ten Years’ War, who found that his force of well over 100,000 regulars could not close for decisive combat. Compos pursued a passive defense policy by dividing the island into military zones behind a system of trochas (fortified lines) designed to restrict rebel movement. These lines instead destroyed his army’s morale by stifling initiative.
Eventually, he was replaced by the more ruthless Gen. Valeriano Wyler y Nicolau.
With such a dirty but colorful little war right on America’s doorstep, the curious did not lack for news. It was the perfect opportunity for every foreign correspondent to make his mark in the field. Many newspapers and periodicals sent reporters, even providing some with chartered yachts for use as private dispatch boats. With competition so stiff, not a few resorted to concocting stories of Spanish “brutalities.” Indeed, such were the hottest items back home, particularly when spiced up with Cuban “eyewitness accounts” or the “indisputable evidence” provided by rebels.
This was competition at its fiercest with the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers as the leading contenders. The only concern was to sell more newspapers and this bias, vulgarity, and sensationalism gave us what today we call “yellow journalism.” (The actual term came from the Hearst newspaper coverage of the sensational Yellow Fellow Transcontinental Bicycle Relay of Aug.-Sept. 1896.) The Yellow Press was directly responsible for aligning public opinion in favor of war to liberate Cuba. Yet the fame of certain writers and correspondents rose above yellow journalism. These individuals include Richard Harding Davis, who also covered the Boer and Russo‑Japanese Wars; Stephan Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage; and painter and illustrator Frederic Remington.
Unfortunately for Spain, Gen. Wyler’s anti‑insurgency policies inflamed American public opinion. Arriving in Cuba in February 1896, Wyler found the economy in chaos and the military situation out of control. Immediately he imposed martial law and the summary execution of terrorists. Already carrying the sobriquet “Butcher”, Wyler did not have to order many executions before the US Senate debated recognition of the Cuban belligerents. Though this debate eventually waned, Wyler was never entirely out of the public view. Indeed, that autumn Wyler nearly became a political issue in the 1896 presidential election when he declared the policy of “reconcentrado” (reconcentration). Wyler intended to relocate the rural population into towns garrisoned by his own troops thus separating loyalists from rebels while expanding the system of trochas. The result was a disaster.
Like Campos, Wyler had negated his great numerical superiority by spreading his forces everywhere. Since the loyal peasants could not produce enough food, the already shaky economy of “the Pearl of the Indies” became a shambles, and the financial drain on Spain was enormous. Worse, the Wyler’s strategy surrendered the initiative to the rebels at the very time the Spanish should have aggressively pursued each rebel band. Antonio Maceo, one of Gomez’s ablest lieutenants, underscored this failure by marching his brigade from one end of Cuba to the other. Although he died in an ambush while leading a new raid (Dec. 1896), Maceo achieved victory despite his defeat in nearly every engagement. By carrying the war to the relatively quiet western Cuba, he forced all Cubans to chose Spain or rebellion.
The general trend of world economic events also worked against Spain. A new industrial colonization had developed. The growing maturity of European markets and coincident rise in productivity impelled the nations of Europe to seek foreign markets. Spain could not equal their expansion with her limited industrial base, and soon found her colonies providing the raw materials for foreign economic development. Cuba produced much sugar, tobacco, and various minerals, but 75% of its exports went to the United States. In the severe world financial panic of 1893, the price of sugar plummeted and trade barriers rose. In the United States, both political parties pursued an active tariff policy which could only bring economic ruin to Cuba. The public had no pressing political interest in Cuba during the presidential election of 1896 and never developed an economic concern. Indeed, Cuba was of only small economic interest to the US.
While the heat of political rhetoric made war with Spain more likely, the recently elected President McKinley shrank from the idea of using force. He sent the Spanish various proposals for avoiding war. These remained unanswered, although Gen. Wyler was replaced in October 1897. With Wyler’s replacement McKinley had his best opportunity to solve the Cuba question. To his credit, he did allow Spain enough time to find a solution, but he was perhaps pressed too hard by jingoists and newspapers to allow Spain to save her honor.
While McKinley maintained a public posture of peace, the newspapers worked for war by keeping conditions in Cuba before the public. The stories they created caused riots in Havana. On January 12, 1898, a mob led by Spanish military officers attacked Havana newspaper offices. While there were no threats to US property, Consul‑General Fitzhugh Lee, who favored war with Spain, requested that a US man-of‑war be sent to Havana. On January 25th Maine arrived with flags flying and the crew at battle stations.
Upon the destruction of the Maine on February 15, McKinley realized that the rush to war was inevitable as the now thoroughly aroused American public clamored for action. He proposed additional funds for national defense and actively spoke against Spain’s policies. At length, as Madrid finally abandoned her reconcentrado policy and complied with some American demands, McKinley called upon Spain to declare an immediate six‑month armistice. Spain granted this and other concessions, but her own jingoists forced the government to hold out for settlement terms which would preserve Spanish sovereignty over Cuba. Soon it became obvious that Spain was playing for time. On April 11, McKinley asked Congress for authority to end hostilities on Cuba. On April 20, the final demand was made for Spain to relinquish her authority in Cuba to the United States. On the 21st, the Navy sailed for Cuba and declared a blockade for much of the island beginning the 22nd. On April 25, war was declared, retroactive to the 21st.
THE CALL TO ARMS
The apparent Spanish strength at the outbreak of the war is deceiving. To oppose the US, Spain had on its army list in 1898 some 492,067 men (regulars and volunteers) distributed as follows:
152,284 in Spain
278,447 on Cuba
51,331 in the Philippines
10,005 on Puerto Rico
This list, however, hides the real numbers by retaining the sick and dead. Since the beginning of the insurrection in 1895, the Spanish army had suffered some 2,000 battle deaths and 8,500 wounded. Another 13,000 had died from yellow fever and 40,000 others had died from “other causes.” On February 8, 1897,18,000 lay in Cuban hospitals. By April 1898, the Spanish army in Cuba mustered 155,302 regulars and 41,518 volunteers (plus many thousand irregulars who were mostly ineffective). It already faced an active enemy, had inadequate food, was devastated by tropical disease, could hardly redistribute itself on Cuba, and had little prospect of reinforcement from Spain.
War found the United States with a clear and definite goal. Once Cuba was freed from Spanish dominion, the war would end. Thus, the island would be the main battleground and the logical main objective would be its capital, Havana, defended by some 31,000 well‑entrenched Spanish regulars. A simple strategy, yet the US army entered the war woefully unprepared to prosecute any strategy. On the eve of war it numbered 28,183, who only barely manned 25 infantry, 10 cavalry, and 5 artillery regiments. Some elements of these regiments had to remain in the western states to keep an eye on the Indians. The declaration of war added 33,000 recruits, but of them only a few hundred ever saw any fighting.
Since the US Army was so understrength, the President was obliged to call for regiments of volunteers to fight beside the regulars. Planners considered mobilizing the state militias (the National Guard), totalling some 100,000 men, but later decided to call for volunteers to create a citizens’ war for liberty.
The first call went out for 125,000 men. Each state had a quota, but some were granted increases so that their entire militia organizations could transfer intact to federal service. For example, Pennsylvania was able to transfer all its fifteen militia regiments instead of the allocated ten. This was fortunate as Pennsylvania’s militia was considered the most efficient of all. Since the states usually granted a leave of absence from the militia to each guardsmen who volunteered, militia volunteers comprised the vast bulk of the first call. They were formed into 119 infantry regiments, 5 cavalry regiments, 16 field artillery batteries, and a heavy artillery regiment, plus assorted detachments.
A second call raised 75,000 men, who were used to fill out the first call regiments and, additionally, a few new regiments. Noteworthy was McKinley’s insistence that five regiments of negro volunteers be raised and that the 8th Illinois (colored) regiment was commanded by the first negro colonel in the US Army (Col. John R. Marshall). None of these formations, however, saw combat.
The volunteers were enthusiastic and profoundly convinced of the righteousness of the new citizen’s army. The First Volunteer cavalry regiment, dubbed the “Rough Riders” by the many newspaper correspondents who covered their formation and exploits, was recruited from New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and the Indian Territory. Included initially were about 100 athletes from the Ivy League colleges (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.) ‑ others would join later. There were broncobusters, cowboys, sons of confederate veterans, some Texas Rangers, a marshal of Dodge City (Benjamin Franklin Daniels), and a few Indians known only by their nicknames: Cherokee Bill, Happy Jack of Arizona, Smokey Moore, and Rattlesnake Pete. Others gave fictitious names: one individual desired to redeem himself from a murder charge back home.
The regiment was the project of Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant Secretary of the Navy. He declined a political appointment as the regiment’s colonel, citing his lack of experience. Instead, he recruited an acquaintance from the regular army, Captain Leonard Wood, to command, while he became lieutenant colonel. Congress had authorized five volunteer cavalry regiments (three to be in the west) and had allotted 780 men to the regiment, but this number was raised to 1,000 as more of Roosevelt’s friends wanted their sons to join. The regiment was completely mounted while in the US.
Before the war the United States had no permanent military organization higher than the regiment. Volunteer regiments were established at 12 companies of 106 men. In practice most averaged about 1,000 men ‑ large in comparison to the regulars. (Of the 24 regular non‑artillery regiments seeing action at Santiago, 21 had only around 500 men, or even less.) Volunteer regiments were heavy with political appointees; some volunteer officers, however, had been with the regular army, and had been drawn to the volunteers by increases in rank and pay.
The Spanish were organized about the same as the US with 12 companies to the regiment, but each company numbered about 130 men. Including its headquarters and a 47 man band the Spanish regiment numbered 1711 men. At higher levels, Spain followed the European practice of combining two regiments to form a brigade and two brigades to form a division. Each artillery regiment was organized into two battalions, each with two 4‑gun batteries. No undivided infantry regiment was encountered at Santiago.
Regular Spanish units were widely dispersed in battalions and even detached companies, but were often well reinforced with locally raised troops. Those not in static garrisons were assigned to a “column.” Such columns ranged in size from a few companies to three or four battalions. Some commanders had fearsome reputations, but generally, the Spanish army in Cuba behaved with considerable restraint. Unfortunately, graft was widespread. So many Spanish officers were involved in international arms‑sales rivalry that it was said almost every Spanish officer above the rank of major was an employee of Krupp or Vickers. Yet the army was veteran, with seasoned officers and men. It could still mete out damage and continue to function, even after appalling casualties.
US troops suffered from being ill-equipped for campaigning in the tropics. The most noticeable problem was the regulation woolen blue uniform, suitable for campaigning “in Montana in the fall” but certainly not for the summer tropics with the rainy season due. Only the Rough Riders had appropriate light‑weight brown uniforms.
Each man, regular and volunteer alike, was expected to carry his entire kit at all times. The standard kit comprised some 100 rounds of ammunition in cartridge belts slung around his hips, a sheathed bayonet, a canvas‑covered canteen, half a tent, two tent poles, and some clothes. Unfortunately for their health, many soldiers threw away clothes and tents. A few carried the new Meriam packs, a square box‑like canvas knapsack, but most sweated along under the old “horse‑collar” Civil War blanket roll.
A soldier was supposed to carry a five-day ration, but most in the early actions had had little to eat. The standard ration was canned beef, hardtack, dried navy beans, and roasted coffee beans. This diet was too heavy for the tropics and the canned beef spoiled quickly. Even the water was not good, but nearby swamps posed a far more serious threat, yellow fever. American medicine provided no answer save that of moving away from the problem.
In combat the US regular carried the Krag‑Jorgenson rifle. This repeater held five rounds in its magazine and was suitable for rough service. The cavalry carried the carbine version plus a revolver. The US had enough Krags in its arsenal (53,000 plus 15,000 carbines) to equip all new recruits to the regulars but, obviously, not enough for the volunteers. They were equipped with the .45 calibre Model 1873 Springfield rifle, a single‑shot weapon. Unfortunately, most ammunition available for the Springfield used charcoal powder, which produced clouds of smoke. The Springfield, though, was an accurate powerful weapon. It fired a slug weighing 500 grains versus 220 grains for the Krag. Both rifles had about the same range. Since US fire tactics emphasized accuracy rather than volume of fire, it is not surprising that the Springfield enjoyed such wide use. Interestingly, some Rough Riders preferred their personal Winchester rifles.
The Spanish infantryman carried the .45 calibre Mauser, a repeater delivering 15 rounds per minute using smokeless powder. The Spanish favored volume of fire, a tactic that worked well in closed country.
The US infantryman could expect little help from his artillery. The standard piece was a 3.25″ breechloader and, like the Springfield rifle, it discharged clouds of smoke when fired. US artillery performance suffered from poor siting, lack of observation, and lack of coordination with the infantry. The Spanish had efficient Krupp made breechloading pieces with a range superior to the American guns, but few were available and much ammunition proved to be defective. The bulk of Spanish artillery comprised ancient muzzle‑loaders good for little more than close range firing.
To American forces must be added the Cuban rebel army. According to Cuban official records, 53,774 served in the Revolution from 1895 to 1898. When the US invaded, the rebels numbered some 15,000, of whom about 6,500 could be found in the Santiago province, Claxito Garcia commanding. The rest were quite cut off from Santiago. Rebel forces were atrociously equipped, many going into battle barely clad and armed only with machetes. Those who carried arms often had no more than one or two rounds; in fact, Spanish Mauser cartridges were a form of currency in Havana. The rebels could not engage in close combat, as they lacked steadiness and discipline, having lost many of their best officers.
The battle cry of the Spanish-American War, coined by the jingo press, whipped up war sentiment after the USS Maine was destroyed in an explosion while anchored in Havana harbor. The sinking served as the cause for the United States to declare war on Spain. The battleship Maine arrived in Cuba, ostensibly for a “friendly” naval visit, at 11:00 a. m. on January 25, 1898. With Spain involved in a vicious colonial war with Cuban rebels, such visits had been avoided since 1895, but as American sympathy for the rebels grew, so too did anti-American sentiment among Spanish loyalists in Havana. Rioting in Havana on January 12, 1898, worried the American consul, Fitzhugh Lee, who cabled that “ships may be necessary later but not now.” Although Havana calmed down, the McKinley administration on January 24 ordered the Maine to Havana.
The Maine was a second-class battleship, weighing 6,682 tons and with a maximum speed of 17 knots. Main battery guns were sometimes arranged in rather strange fashion: the forward turret of the Maine was on the starboard side of the ship and could not effectively fire to port, and the after turret-on the port side-could not effectively fire to starboard. This was an obvious limitation, and was corrected in the next class of ships by placing the turrets on the centerline.
Although Spanish officials would rather the Maine were elsewhere, they were cordial and the city was calm. Nevertheless, Captain Charles D. Sigsbee did not allow his sailors liberty for fear of an incident. Security on the ship was high. The ship’s watch was greatly enlarged and sentries were armed. Both boilers were kept going-a departure from the usual practice of operating a single boiler-in case the ship was called to immediate action, and shells were kept near all of the Maine’s guns.
At 9:40 on the evening of February 15 an explosion ripped through the Maine and sent it to the bottom of the Havana harbor. The first, a small muffled blast, was followed by a tremendous explosion that ripped through the whole forward half of the ship and, almost in an instant, killed 252 men. The ship settled rapidly to the bottom, and the confused survivors were soon either swimming in the muddied waters of the harbor or climbing into rescue boats. Surprisingly, there was no panic; Captain Sigsbee’s orderly, Marine Private William Anthony, furnished history with a memorable example of attention to duty when, upon meeting the captain in a passageway, said, “I have to report, sir, that the ship is blown up and is sinking.”
Three of the Maine’s boats were undamaged and were put into the water, and other boats arrived to help in the rescue effort. Captain Sigsbee was reluctant to leave his ship while there was any possibility of rescuing personnel who might be trapped in the wreck- age, but the fires were setting off shells in some of the magazines and it became impossible to remain aboard.
The captain sent an immediate cable to the Secretary of the Navy, both to advise of the disaster and to caution against speculation as to the cause. “Public opinion should be suspended until further re- port,” he said, but he knew that he was whistling into the wind.
With the entire forward part of the vessel destroyed, 260 men were killed (out of a crew of 355). Newspapers immediately attributed the explosion to Spanish treachery and called for war.
The newspapers had gotten the news by 2:00 a. m., and the race was on. The Journal was quick to announce that the Spanish were responsible, citing no less an authority than Assistant Secretary Roosevelt. Based upon the reported opinions of “naval officers,” the Journal was also able to graphically diagram the placement of the enemy mine that must have caused the sinking; but, leaving nothing to chance, Mr. Hearst also offered a $50,000 reward for additional evidence. Mr. Pulitzer dispatched a ship to Havana, carrying a team of investigators who were to uncover the true story for the World.
The Navy made preparations to convene a formal court of inquiry, and sent divers from Key West to retrieve the magazine keys and the cipher book, and to inspect the underwater damage. The divers reported there was a hole in the bottom of the ship; but none of them were construction engineers and were not really qualified to make any judgments. The Spanish suggested that a joint investigation be conducted, as being in the best interests of both countries, but this was coldly refused, as was permission to inspect the wreck- age. The Spanish went ahead and conducted their own inquiry, using whatever evidence was publicly available.
A great state funeral was held for the dead of the Maine, attended by all of the military, civil, and ecclesiastical authorities of Havana. There was no question of the authenticity of the shock and grief displayed by the members of the official community, and the ceremonies were conducted with deep and sincere sympathy. Captain Sigsbee was uncomfortable at the thought that a Catholic ceremony must be read over the Protestant dead, but the tropical climate did not permit of delay until a Protestant minister could be located. The captain satisfied his misgivings as best he could by reading the Episcopal burial service to himself, en route to the cemetery.
A naval court of inquiry concluded on March 20 that an underwater mine sank the Maine, although responsibility for laying the mine could not be determined. The Spanish offered to send the matter to arbitration in order to settle the cost of the dam- age and even agreed to an armistice (to last as long as the commanding general in Cuba thought prudent) in the war on the Cuban rebels. But the United States was in no mood for arbitration or for negotiations.
President William McKinley had experienced the carnage of war firsthand as an officer during the Civil War. He hoped that the report’s inability to blame the Spanish for the sinking would leave open an opportunity to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the sinking and of the political status of Cuba. But public sentiment was not with him. Reports of Spanish atrocities in Cuba both real and imagined and the mass starvation produced by Spain’s military policies created great sympathy for the Cuban rebels. The publication a few weeks before the explosion of the Maine of the de Lome letter, in which the Spanish minister had made derogatory remarks about the president, abetted the growth of war fever in the United States. Bowing to pressure, McKinley on April 11, 1898, asked Congress for the authority to use the armed forces to intervene in Cuba. Congress debated for a week before agreeing on April 19 by joint resolution. McKinley signed it the following day and the war began.
Seventy-eight years later a study, using the latest naval technology, by Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover of the U. S. Navy concluded that an internal explosion occurring in one of the coal bunkers had caused the sinking of the Maine.
THE MAINE INQUIRIES
Within days after the destruction of the battleship Maine, a US Navy court of inquiry was convened in Havana on the lighthouse tender, Mangrove. Captain Wm. T Sampson was the presiding officer. The most important duty was to determine whether the disaster was due to sabotage or an accidental internal cause.
The first action taken was to have divers investigate the wreck, but this examination would take time. Meanwhile, the court heard testimony from the survivors, 98 of an original crew of 350 officers and men, although more soon succumbed to their wounds.
From the great volume of testimony, the court narrowed the field of possible explanations for the disaster by examining such questions as the state of the electrical wiring, stowage of combustibles and ammunition, safety shoes, gas detection gear, and even the possibility of a lunatic. Later, the divers’ reports gave the court a new set of circumstances to investigate. A powerful force had driven the ship’s keel up from below and punched in her armor and plating on the port side, but the starboard plates were blown outward. Even a crater was found on the harbor bed. Since prior testimony had established that there had been two separate explosions the court concluded that the first had been caused by a mine and the second was an exploding magazine. Some ammunition had continued to explode even as the hulk settled on the harbor bottom. The Spanish court of inquiry, which met simultaneously, took issue with the exploding mine theory citing that no dead fish were found nor was a geyser observed. Unfortunately, the Spanish court could not send down its own divers (in its own harbor!) because of diplomatic protocol. The Spanish court also questioned the level of training of American sailors.
While the Navy’s case was not airtight, evidence strongly supports the US court’s conclusions. Notwithstanding, in 1911 the wreck was raised and a second court of inquiry was convened. With no new evidence uncovered, that court reaffirmed the earlier court’s finding that the first explosion was exterior to the ship. The wreck of Maine was subsequently moved farther out to sea and to date no new physical evidence has been presented.
In the years since the second inquiry, debate over the exact cause of the disaster has continued. A report released by Admiral Rickover in 1976 summarizes one popular theory. This theory holds that the explosion resulted from coal gas (methane) coming into contact with a crude electrical wiring system. The gas would have formed in the nearly inaccessible Ai6 bunker; close to the 6‑inch reserve ammunition magazine which exploded. This theory explains the problem in those years of ships blowing up seemingly without reason, the origin of coal gas not being fully understood in 1898. Yet the court of 1898 closely investigated the condition of the A16 bunker and found nothing amiss.
The Maine’s destruction was such a fortuitous and timely event for some political groups and the accidental explosion theory dependent on such a sufficiently rare type of occurrence that it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that her loss was not accidental. Anarchists of the day would not have had any scruples about sabotage. If there was indeed a mine, the question of whose mine it was remains open to this day.
What, then, was the “true” story? Admiral H. G. Rickover conducted a new examination into the explosion in 1976. He noted the problems of the original 1898 U. S. inquiry: limited expertise, poor diving conditions in the harbor, and inadequate questioning during the hearings all contributed to an inquiry that was not as comprehensive as it should have been, given the import of its result. Even contemporary experts questioned the likelihood of a mine having been the cause of the disaster. Public pressure to do something with the Maine wreck led to Congress appropriating $650,000 in 1910 to remove the wreck and recover the bodies still there for burial in Arlington Cemetery. The Army Corps of Engineers were given primary responsibility for the endeavor. In 1911, a new board of investigation arrived in Havana with more expertise than 1898. They took detailed records of the damage and many photographs and diagrams. Nevertheless, their ultimate conclusion (while differing from 1898 in technical detail) was that the primary explosion was still due to the placing of a mine, which had set off another explosion in the magazines. For the purposes of Rickover’s study, two experts reexamined all the evidence and concluded that in fact the primary explosion had been an internal one, possibly caused by fire in a bunker setting off explosions in the magazines.
The story of the sinking of the USS Maine is clearly central to the story of the Spanish-American War; but it also raises issues that have to do with the role of the press in creating “conspiracy theories” to suit their purposes (increased circulation and jingoism), as well as the issue of scientific evidence and its role in establishing “truth.” In this story, technical evidence is central in determining the “true” story of the Maine and whether a war was started over an accident. Certainly the role of technical or scientific evidence continues to be central to society’s need to determine the “truth” of events, but this story also reveals that technical evidence (which is not infallible) can be given too much power. Rickover speculates whether a different outcome might have occurred if the 1898 inquiry had come to a different conclusion. While that can only ever be hypothesis, it nevertheless raises the issue of just how important the “conspiracy theory” about the Maine-reinforced by the “truth” of a scientific inquiry and the inflammatory actions of the press-was in shaping the course of history.
The capture of Philippsburg and Mainz had given France secure access over the Rhine, but the Lower Palatinate was too devastated to provide an adequate base for them inside Germany. The local truce ruled out use of the Franche-Comté to the south, heightening the importance of securing Swabian territory east of the Black Forest to sustain French forces in the Empire. News of Jankau emboldened Mazarin to believe there was a real chance of knocking Bavaria out of the war and Turenne was ordered to achieve this.
Both sides spent the opening months of 1645 raiding each other across the Black Forest. Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne, Viscount of Turenne was delayed by the need to rebuild his infantry shattered at Freiburg, while Franz von Mercy had detached Johann von Werth and most of the cavalry to Bohemia. Only 1,500 troopers returned in April. Turenne was able to attack first, crossing the Rhine with 11,000 men near Speyer on 26 March and advancing up the Neckar into Württemberg, which he thoroughly plundered. He then moved north-east, taking Rothenburg on the Tauber to open the way into Franconia. Mercy deliberately feigned defeatism, keeping to the south while he collected his forces. Turenne remained cautious, but was unable to sustain even his relatively small army in the Tauber valley. He moved to Mergentheim, billeting his cavalry in the surrounding villages in April.
Having received Maximilian’s permission to risk battle, Mercy planned to repeat his success at Tuttlingen. Werth’s arrival gave him 9,650 men and 9 guns at Feuchtwangen. He force-marched his troops 60km to approach Mergentheim from the south-east on 5 May. Turenne had been alerted by one of Rosen’s patrols at 2 a.m., but there was little time to collect his troops at Herbsthausen, just south-east of the town. He knew he could not trust his largely untried infantry in the open, so posted them along the edge of a wood on a rise overlooking the main road. Most of the cavalry were massed to the left ready to charge the Bavarians as they emerged from a large wood to the south. He had only 3,000 troopers and a similar number of infantry, though not all were present at the start of the battle and another 3,000 billeted in the surrounding area never made it at all.
Werth appeared first at the head of half the Bavarian cavalry to cover the deployment of the rest of the army on the other side of the narrow valley opposite the French. Mercy used his artillery to pound the wood, increasing the casualties as the shot sent branches flying through the air, just as the Swedes had done to the Bavarians at Wolfenbüttel. None of the six French cannon had arrived. Their infantry fired an ineffective salvo at long range and fell back as the Bavarians began a general advance. Turenne charged down the valley, routing the Bavarian cavalry on the left that included the units beaten at Jankau. However, a regiment held in reserve stemmed the attack, while the few French cavalry posted on Turenne’s extreme right were swept away by Werth’s charge. The French army dissolved in panic, many of the infantry being trapped around Herbsthausen. Turenne cut his way through almost alone to join three fresh cavalry regiments that arrived just in time to cover the retreat. The subsequent surrender of Mergentheim and other garrisons brought the total French losses up to 4,400, compared to 600 Bavarians.
The success was not on the scale of Tuttlingen, but it was sufficient to lift the despondency in Munich and Vienna after Jankau. The sequence of these actions underscores the general point about the interrelationship between war and diplomacy, as each change of military fortune raised the hopes in one party of achieving their diplomatic objectives, while hardening the determination of the other to continue resisting until the situation improved. In this case, Mercy was too weak to exploit his victory beyond securing the area south of the Main. Mazarin moved swiftly to restore French prestige before negotiations moved further in Westphalia. Louis II de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, D’Enghien was directed to take another 7,000 reinforcements across the Rhine at Speyer, and in a new show of common resolve Sweden agreed to despatch Königsmarck from Bremen to join the French. Having reinforced the garrisons in Meissen and Leipzig, Königsmarck arrived on the Main with 4,000 men. The return of the war to the Main area allowed Amalie Elisabeth to revive Hessian plans to attack Darmstadt under cover of the general war. She agreed to provide 6,000 men under their new commander, Geyso, who assembled at Hanau to invade Darmstadt in June.
The Battle of Allerheim [Battle of Nördlingen (1645)]
Ferdinand of Cologne sent Gottfried Huyn von Geleen and 4,500 Westphalians south past the allies to join Mercy on 4 July, to give him about 16,000 men against the enemy’s 23,000. Mercy then retired south to Heilbronn, blocking the way into Swabia. The allied troop concentration soon broke up. One commonly cited reason was that d’Enghien had managed to insult both Johann von Geyso and Hans Christoff von Königsmarck. However, the real cause of the latter’s departure in mid-July was an order from Lennart Torstensson to knock out Saxony. The instructions, dated 10 May (Old Style), were later copied and sent to Johann Georg to put pressure on him to negotiate. Given Torstensson’s inability to take Brünn, there was only a limited period of time in which to intimidate Saxony before the Imperialists recovered sufficiently to send assistance. D’Enghien meanwhile resumed Turenne’s earlier plan and marched east through southern Franconia heading for Bavaria. The division of military labour evolving since 1642 was now complete. Sweden would eliminate Saxony and attack the emperor while France knocked Bavaria out of the war.
Mercy deftly checked the French advance by taking up a series of near impregnable positions, obliging d’Enghien to waste time outflanking him. The game ended at Allerheim near the confluence of the Wörnitz and Eger rivers on 3 August. Though it is also known as the second battle of Nördlingen, the action was fought on the opposite side of the Eger to the events of 1634. Mercy had deployed with his back to the Wörnitz between two steep hills on which he entrenched some of his 28 cannon. The infantry, who comprised less than half his army, were positioned behind Allerheim in the centre. The cemetery, the church and a few solid houses were filled with musketeers, while others held entrenchments around the front and sides of the village. The cavalry were massed either side, with Geleen and the Imperialists on the right (north) as far as the Wenneberg, and Werth with the Bavarians on the left next to the Schloßberg hill, named after the ruined castle on the top.
D’Enghien had not expected to find the enemy, but seized the opportunity for battle despite his subordinates’ reservations. Königsmarck’s departure had left him with 6,000 French troops, plus 5,000 more under Turenne and the 6,000 Hessians, with 27 guns. He placed most of the French infantry and 800 cavalry in the centre opposite Allerheim, while Turenne stood on the left with the Hessians and his own cavalry. The rest of the French were deployed on the right (south) under Antoine III de Gramont opposite the Schloßberg.
It was already 4 p.m. by the time they were ready, but d’Enghien knew from Freiburg how quickly the Bavarians could dig in and did not want to give them the night to complete their works. The French guns could not compete with the Bavarians’ that were protected by earthworks, so d’Enghien ordered a frontal assault at 5 p.m. He was soon fully occupied with the fight for Allerheim, leading successive waves of infantry over the entrenchments, only to be hurled back again by fresh Bavarian units fed by Mercy from the centre. The thatched roofs of the village soon caught fire, forcing the defenders into the stone buildings. The French commander had two horses shot under him and was himself saved by his breastplate deflecting a musket ball. Mercy was not so fortunate as he entered the burning village around 6 p.m. to rally the flagging defence. He was shot in the head and died instantly. Johann von Ruischenberg assumed command and repulsed the French.
Werth meanwhile routed Gramont who thought a ditch in front of his position was impassable and allowed the Bavarians to approach within 100 metres. The French cavalry offered brief resistance before fleeing, leaving Gramont to fight on with two infantry brigades until he was forced to surrender. Werth’s cavalry dispersed in pursuit and it is possible that the smoke from Allerheim obscured the battlefield. Either way, he discovered that the rest of the army was on the point of collapse only when he returned to his start position around 8 p.m. Turenne had saved the day for the French with a desperate assault on the Wenneberg that allowed the Hessians, the last fresh troops, to overrun the Bavarian artillery and hit Allerheim in the flank. Parties of Bavarian infantry were cut off in the confusion and surrendered. Werth assumed command, collected the army at the Schloßberg and retreated around 1 a.m. in good order to the Schellenberg hill above Donauwörth.
Werth attracted considerable blame, especially from later commentators like Napoleon, for failing to exploit his initial success by sweeping round behind the French centre to smash Turenne as d’Enghien had done with the Spanish at Rocroi. Werth defended himself by pointing out the difficulties of communicating along the length of the Bavarian army that probably measured 2,500 metres. His troopers were also short of ammunition and it was getting dark by the time they reassembled. Indeed, the late hour probably proved decisive, limiting what Werth could see. His withdrawal was prudent under the circumstances, depriving the Bavarians of a chance for victory, but at least avoiding a worse defeat that would have wrecked the army.
D’Enghien had been fortunate to escape with victory, losing at least 4,000 dead and wounded. The infantry in the centre had been almost wiped out and the French court was aghast at the extent of casualties that included several senior officers. Like Freiburg, it was the Bavarian retreat that transformed the action into a strategic success, partly because at least 1,500 men were captured as Werth pulled out of Allerheim in addition to the 2,500 killed or wounded. Retreat after another hard-fought battle eroded morale. The Bavarians vented their fury on the unfortunate captive Gramont, who narrowly escaped being murdered by Mercy’s servant and was grateful to be exchanged for Geleen the next month.
The Kötzschenbroda Armistice
The immediate repercussions were soon redressed. The French captured Nördlingen and Dinkelsbühl, but got stuck at Heilbronn where d’Enghien fell ill. Mazarin refused to send reinforcements to replace the casualties, leaving Turenne outnumbered as Leopold Wilhelm and 5,300 Imperialists arrived from Bohemia in early October. By December, Turenne was back in Alsace having lost all the towns captured that year.
The stabilization of southern Germany was offset by a major blow in the north-east that indicated that the new allied strategy was working. Though the French had been unable to knock out Bavaria, their campaign in Franconia prevented relief reaching Saxony, which had been left isolated after Jankau. Königsmarck had force-marched the Swedish forces up the Main and burst into the electorate early in August. Johann Georg appealed to Ferdinand, protesting that the Swedes were deliberately ravaging his land. The emperor replied on 25 August that he had just made peace with Georg I. Rákóczi and help was on its way. It was too late. Before the letter arrived, the elector had already given up hope; he concluded an armistice at Kötzschenbroda on 6 September.
Saxony secured a six-month ceasefire on relatively favourable terms. The Swedes accepted the electorate’s neutrality, but allowed it to continue discharging its obligations to the emperor by leaving three cavalry regiments with the imperial army. In return, Saxony had to pay 11,000 talers a month to maintain the Swedish garrison in Leipzig, the only town Königsmarck insisted on retaining in the electorate. The Swedes were allowed to cross the electorate, but they also agreed to lift their blockade of the Saxon garrison in Magdeburg.
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.”
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.
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.
The battle for the Dessau bridge in 1626, from the Theatrum Europaeum The legend to the small letters on the plan reads: A. Imperialist fortifications; B. Elbe bridge; C. Imperialist redoubts; D. Mansfeld’s camp; E. Mansfeld’s fortifications; F. Mansfeld’s approach trenches; G. Imperialist approach trenches and redoubts; H. Aldringer’s approach trenches; I. Position held against Mansfeld; K. Imperialist artillery; L. Mansfeld driven off; M. Imperialist sally; N. Friedland’s cavalry on the near side of the river; O. Mansfeld’s cavalry; P. Friedland’s cavalry; Q. Mansfeld’s flight; R. Friedland commences pursuit; S. Schlick’s and Aldringer’s infantry; Y. The village of Rosslau.
Albrecht von Wallenstein’s appointment as Imperial general had come too late for matters to be concluded in 1625, when a conjunction of his and Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly’s forces might have driven the isolated Christian IV back to Denmark and out of the war. Instead they united in time only for the armies to spend the winter skirmishing, looting the countryside, and eating the peasantry out of house and home, rather than achieving anything of military significance. Meanwhile Christian was involved in two contradictory negotiations, one taking place in Brunswick, where peace with the emperor was discussed, and the other in The Hague, where attempts were made to widen the anti-Habsburg coalition in order to continue the war. The peace conference was the first of many occasions upon which Wallenstein favoured a realistic approach in order to achieve a peace settlement, but the hardline Imperialist position was determined in Vienna and Munich, and no progress was made. Matters stood little better for Christian in The Hague as most of his prospective allies did not participate, even though they realised that Wallenstein’s new army completely altered the balance, and that if as a result Christian were defeated or withdrew from the war their interests would be seriously threatened. However England and the Dutch Republic agreed to provide him with money, Ernst von Mansfeld’s army was despatched to Lower Saxony, and contacts were re-established with Bethlen Gabor. The other Christian the Younger of Brunswick, the `mad Halberstädter’, also reappeared on the scene, albeit with a makeshift army of limited military value, while another German prince, Duke Johann Ernst of Weimar, contributed troops to the revived coalition.
There were predictable tensions between the leaders of these diverse forces, at least partly as a result of which their grand plan was based on independent rather than united action. Although this was making a virtue of necessity it was nevertheless a sound strategy, as by separating they prevented Tilly and Wallenstein from combining against them. Mansfeld’s task was to draw Wallenstein away by heading east into Silesia, forcing him – so the plan went – to follow because of the threat this would pose to Bohemia, Moravia and ultimately Austria itself. As in 1623 the intention was that this force from the west would join up with Bethlen Gabor invading from the east, when together they would be strong enough to face and defeat Wallenstein. Meanwhile Christian of Brunswick was to bypass Tilly and move south, before turning and threatening his rear while Christian of Denmark confronted him from the north.
It was not a bad plan, and it also exploited the equally predictable ten- sions between Tilly and Wallenstein, the old, experienced and successful general and the younger unproven leader of a new and unproven army. Rivalry over winter quarters had been the start, but Wallenstein had come off better by moving quickly into the rich lands of the Protestant- held secularised bishoprics centred on Magdeburg and Halberstadt. With Wallenstein thus ensconced by the Elbe, Tilly remained 80 miles to the west on the River Weser, a disposition which determined their respective roles in the campaigns of 1626. There were also differences over strategy. Wallenstein wanted their forces to join up for a decisive attack on Christian early in the year, whereas Tilly preferred to play a waiting game, hoping to trap the Danes between them later in the spring. Wallenstein, closer to Christian’s main army, was thus left at risk should the king move first and attack him in strength. The result was that while the generals were arguing the relative importance of possible lines of attack or defence, each seeking support and troops from the other, they lost the initiative and were forced instead to respond to the opening moves of their enemies. Tilly was soon under pressure, and when the `mad Halberstädter’ threatened the city of Goslar Wallenstein was obliged to assist by leading a large force against him, only to find that the enemy quickly disappeared. He then had to turn back to counter an advance south by a Danish division under General Hans Fuchs, which he chased off after a sharp skirmish but without being able to force a battle. Meanwhile Mansfeld was already across the Elbe.
Rivers were of great strategic importance, not only as the easiest line of advance or retreat using the relatively good roads alongside them, but also as supply lines for bringing up heavy guns, provisions and other necessities by water. However major rivers were also potentially dangerous obstacles, particularly to a retreating army, as bridges were few and far between as well as easily fortified or broken down. Hence over the winter Wallenstein had substantial defences constructed on both sides of the Elbe bridge at Dessau, 30 miles south-east of Magdeburg, and he placed Aldringer there with a garrison to defend it. Magdeburg and its bridge were in Protestant hands, while south of Dessau all the way to the Bohemian border the Elbe flowed through Protestant Saxony, so that securing the bridge was a prudent precaution as well as preventing the river being used as a supply line by the enemy. Nevertheless it was a surprise when in April 1626, after taking the town of Zerbst nine miles to the north-west, Mansfeld mounted an attack on the defences around the northern end of the bridge.
Despite the confident accounts given in many histories it is very difficult to describe accurately what happened at battles in the early modern period. Numbers are the first problem. Contemporary reports give large, round and probably exaggerated figures, and for want of anything better these often pass from one history to the next, eventually becoming accepted as though they were established fact. The starting point in the Thirty Years War was to list the units involved, which were known by the names of their commanders and were usually well recorded, and to tot up their nominal strength, 3000 for an infantry regiment, 300 for a company, and 1000 and 100 for the equivalent cavalry formations. The result was the maximum figure, although the one often reported, but units were rarely at full strength even in total, while after deducting the sick, wounded, missing and dead the numbers available and fit to fight could be very much lower, sometimes half or less. This may not matter, as the same applied on both sides, so that the relative strengths quoted may be somewhere near right even if the absolute numbers are wrong, but it helps to explain the frequent discrepancies between different reports of the same event. Numbers of casualties were even more arbitrary, as the dead were mostly buried in mass graves and perhaps not even counted, while those who failed to return for roll-call and were not known to be prisoners were simply struck off the company lists, so that there was no distinction between casualties and deserters. Prisoners were no better accounted for, usually simply being enrolled by the winning side, and here too the numbers represent the loosest of estimates or perhaps simply guesswork. The most accurate figures after a battle seem to have been the number of enemy standards taken – a particular point of military pride – and perhaps the number of cannon captured.
The course of a battle is often as unclear as the numbers involved. Two hundred years later the duke of Wellington noted `how little reliance can be placed even on what are supposed to be the best accounts of a battle. . It is impossible to say when each important occurrence took place, or in what order.’ There are good reasons for this. Battles were frequently confused affairs, and the participants themselves rarely had a full picture of events, so that subsequent accounts involve piecing together partial, impressionistic and often inconsistent reports to work out what might have happened. The term `battlefield’ is itself misleading, suggesting a conveniently open and something like level discrete area, whereas in fact troops, particularly cavalry, might range widely over territory broken up by streams, ditches, hills, woods, villages and other obstructions to both movement and vision; 10,000 infantry could well be spread out over two miles or more, so that a commander would often not have had a clear view of their disposition. Worse still, once action commenced the guns of the period quickly created `such an awful smoke. that we could scarcely see a pistol-shot in front of us’, as a Bavarian officer recorded after one such engagement.
The battle for the Dessau bridge is a good example of the numbers problem. Mann, in his biography of Wallenstein, puts Mansfeld’s army at 10,000 men, whereas Guthrie calculates less than 7000 in his study of the battles of the Thirty Years War. Of these Mann states that 3000 to 4000 were killed, against Guthrie’s estimate of somewhere over 1000. Conversely Mann reports 1500 taken prisoner against Guthrie’s 3000, so that according to Mann Mansfeld escaped with 5000 survivors while Guthrie says that it was only about 2000. Neither gives figures for Wallenstein’s forces, although Guthrie contends that he had at least twice as many men as Mansfeld, that is upwards of 14,000 by his calculation, whereas Diwald, in his Wallenstein biography, puts his strength at 21,000 infantry and six regiments of cavalry.
The Theatrum Europaeum, a major contemporary chronicle, made a speciality of elaborate copperplate illustrations, including detailed plans of battles commissioned from experienced military officers, and these give very helpful pictures of the terrain as it then was, together with such features as earthworks and other defences. A drawing in the Theatrum shows that the Dessau bridge, which was some distance north of the town, spanned both the Elbe and its wide flood plain. It is depicted as a narrow structure built on piers, with small Imperialist forts on the south side and a substantial defensive enclosure around the bridgehead on the north, and with protective wings and trenches securing a strip of land along the riverbank in both directions. The whole area to the south was heavily wooded, so that the road along which the Imperialist troops approached was well screened from Mansfeld on the opposite side. The fortifications would have largely hidden the bridge itself from him, and Aldringer had also covered it with tree branches, so that troops crossing could not be seen. The land north of the river where Mansfeld made his camp and positioned his forces was much more open, but he had thrown up temporary earthworks opposite and parallel to the Imperialist defences. To the east a belt of woodland started from the river close to the Imperialist right wing, extending northwards and then westwards so that it effectively bounded the whole of Mansfeld’s left flank.
Mansfeld’s initial probes in early April and a more substantial attack a week later showed that although Aldringer had only a small garrison the position had been too well prepared to be easily taken. Mansfeld accordingly brought up guns and set his men to digging approach trenching for a full-scale storm of the bridgehead. His reasons are not well established, but if his plan was to draw Wallenstein after him into Silesia he would have needed a head start so that he could reach Bethlen Gabor before Wallenstein caught up with him. Taking the bridge and leaving a rearguard to defend it would have helped to pre- vent the Imperial army following too hard on his heels. Christian of Denmark was also worried that Mansfeld’s departure would weaken his own position, so that he wanted him first to hamper Wallenstein by cutting his supply line along the river and opening up a potential threat to his rear. Fuchs was charged with supporting the action, but he was still recovering from his own clash with Wallenstein, so that he did not appear on the scene. Hence Mansfeld launched the attack on his own, perhaps tempted by the opportunity of an easy victory over the heavily outnumbered Aldringer. His career had been remarkable more for his ability to recover from setbacks and survive disasters than for any achievements in the field, and he may have wanted a triumph to register with Christian. Successive failed attacks seem only to have made him the more determined to persevere, and to have made him oblivious to the changing balance of forces around the bridge.
Mansfeld’s perversity was Wallenstein’s opportunity. It had been a frustrating winter, and he was well aware that critics in Vienna were saying that in the six months since the novice general set out with his new army nothing of consequence had been achieved. Now there was a chance of action. He could not move too early in case the attack on the bridge was a diversion as part of some larger plan, but once Mansfeld brought in artillery and his main army Wallenstein was ready to respond. The first step was to move up enough reinforcements to prevent Mansfeld gaining a quick success, and Colonel Heinrich Schlick was swiftly despatched with the necessary troops. Schlick managed to get his men over the bridge and into the northern defences either unobserved or with their numbers sufficiently hidden by the screening, so that when Mansfeld attacked on 23 April he encountered much stronger resistance than he had expected and he was obliged to withdraw. Meanwhile Wallenstein moved up his own artillery and a large force of both infantry and cavalry.
The key point in his plan was the wood on Mansfeld’s eastern flank, where the latter had not placed troops either for lack of men or because he did not think it important. On 24 April Wallenstein moved more units over the bridge, including heavy cavalry. Then under covering fire from an artillery battery south of the river, and assisted by a diversionary sally from the west side of the bridgehead defences, his men occupied the wood. Presumably Mansfeld again underestimated their number and strength, as he pressed on regardless, launching a heavy frontal attack on the fortifications early the following morning. Reports indicate that he made several unsuccessful assaults over the next three hours before Wallenstein ordered a counterattack, which was followed by heavy and evenly balanced fighting on the open ground. At the critical stage Wallenstein sent infantry reinforcements over the bridge, and the issue was then decided by a flanking cavalry attack from the wood. To add to the confusion of Mansfeld’s men some of their gunpowder wagons exploded in the rear, so that retreat quickly turned to flight. Mansfeld managed to escape back to Zerbst with many of his cavalry, but most of his surviving infantry were captured.
Wallenstein’s battle plan was well conceived and well executed, following a central principle of military strategy by concentrating superior forces before engaging the enemy. Nevertheless it was a bold undertaking, as getting large numbers of men and horses over a narrow bridge and into a small defended area in the face of the enemy had its own risks, while fighting with their backs to the river left little scope for an orderly retreat had Mansfeld proved the stronger. Wallenstein’s own report was brief and to the point:
Mansfeld and his entire army moved up to the fortifications at the Elbe bridge near Dessau, besieging and bombarding them, to counter which I led the majority of the Imperial army entrusted to me out to meet him, advancing against him from the aforementioned fortifications. Yesterday God gave us the good fortune to defeat him, cutting through his forces and putting them to flight.
He sent an officer to provide a fuller account to the emperor, who was delighted with these `impressive and knightly deeds’, as he enthusiastically wrote in congratulatory letters to Wallenstein and his principal officers.