The Russo-German War, Part 510 May 2003 0
Editor's Note: The following is the fifth entry in a series of historical articles by Bill Wilder covering the Eastern Front of World War II. The previous four articles have already been published: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
The Handwriting on the Wall
As the winter of 1943 approached, a feeling of despairing gloom pervaded the ranks of the Wehrmacht. In October, the temperature was already dropping to zero, reminding veterans of the ominous winters of the last two years. Many felt that they were buried alive in Russia, and few dared anticipate a return to their beloved Germany.
In addition, the continual retreat across the Russian heartland did nothing to create any sort of hope. The alternatives to fighting were grimmer still. Surrender would mean a slow and cruel death as a Soviet prisoner. Desertion included the almost certain fate of a firing squad and disgrace. So the final choice was to fight on. It was no longer a battle for victory, but simply for survival.
The Shrinking Front Line
By the end of 1943, the German retreat back across Russia had caused the length of the front line between the combatants to shrink to a little over 1,000 miles. Even before Kursk, the troops of the Wehrmacht had suffered the attacks of overwhelming Soviet forces. After Operation Citadel, no further resources were immediately available. The German generals had to make do with what they had, and what they had was not enough.
Soviet tank production was taking on new dimensions. The Russian factories were putting out almost 2,000 tanks a month, mostly the T-34. A newer version, with a larger turret and 85mm guns had proven to be a more powerful upgrade. The self propelled guns or SU series, had moved beyond the 76 and 85 models. Newer, larger guns, such as 100mm and 122mm were being installed. A new model, the SU-152, would replace the KV-II as an infantry support weapon. A newer model, named after Stalin, with stronger armor and a bigger gun was in the making.
Germany concentrated on perfecting the Mark V "Panther" tank. It was fast becoming the superior tank of the Eastern Front. In speed, armament, and mobility, it enjoyed the advantage over anything the Russians had in the field. Its biggest problem was its scarcity. For every Panther tank produced, Russia was matching it with 10 T-34s.
In December 1943, the Soviet army launched its usual offensive. On this occasion it would be more successful than in the previous two years. The Russians, beaten badly at the beginning, were becoming proficient in war. Much improved in defensive strategy, the Red soldiers were now learning how to take the war to the Germans.
They had completely revised their order of battle along with the strategies of making war. In the south, the Russian 1st Ukranian Front on an 18-mile line with over 100,000 men and over 1,000 tanks charged into the German defenses. 4th Panzerarmee was practically annihilated in the onslaught, with a serious wedge driven between German Army Group South and Army Group A. Fortunately for the Nazis; Soviet general Vatutin did not perceive the extent of his good fortune and let the valuable opportunity slip away.
The Kirovograd sector came under attack on January 3rd. Soviet armies struck hard at the reconstituted Sixth Army and again tore it apart. The situation became so desperate that von Manstein went to Hitler and pled with him directly to allow a strategic withdrawal to further shorten the line, allowing what resources the Germans still retained to be used effectively. Hitler stormed and raged at the idea of further retreat. Fortunately, the Russians were stopped by an early "rasputitsa" (thaw). The winter of 1943-44 had been rather mild and strangely erratic. Once and again the climate turned in favor of the Germans. In 1941, it was their worst enemy. Now it had strangely befriended them.