Operation Citadel: The Plan that Never Was

25 Sep

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On February 2nd, 1943, the remnants of the battle weary, broken, battered, and bruised German 6th and Romanian 2nd and 3rd Armies surrendered to the Soviet 62nd Army in Stalingrad. On January 31st, with no hope of evacuation in sight, and with the Red Army’s successful Operation Uranus of November 1942 having pushed the German and Romanian Armies into an untenable position from which  they could not hold, Friedrich Paulus, commander of the 6th Army, surrendered himself and his divisional staff to the Red Army after being offered generous surrender terms by the Don Front’s commanding officer, Marshal of the Soviet Union Konstantin Rokossovsky. With the fall of Stalingrad, the German Ostheer, or Eastern Army, remained in a perpetual and unstoppable retreat through spring and into the early summer of 1943. Having suffered severe setbacks in their advance to Moscow in December 1941, and with the destruction, death, and surrender of 91,000 men in Stalingrad, along with the disasters caused by the failure of the German push into the Caucasus, and with the sieges of Leningrad and Sevastopol eating up supplies needed elsewhere, the German Army was in no position to assume offensive action against the Soviet Red Army, until Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, the architect of Germany’s previously successful invasion of the USSR, adopted a dangerous and risky plan for an offensive, in this case, a massive gamble with a nearly fifty-fifty shot at success.

On June 22nd, 1941, the German Army launched Unternehmen Barbarossa, or Operation Barbarossa, named for Frederick Barbarossa, who had participated alongside French King Philip II and English King Richard the Lion Heart in the Third Crusade. The operation the scheduled invasion of the Soviet Union, a previous ally of Nazi Germany. By late autumn of 1941, the German Army had surrounded Leningrad, near the Karelia Peninsula annexed by the Soviets during the Winter War of 1939-1940, and had pushed to the outskirts of Moscow. On Stalin’s order, the city was evacuated, yet Stalin himself, along with a vast majority of his governmental staff, remained within the besieged capital. Yet their fears would never be realized. With the fierce and brutal Russian winter setting in, the temperatures rapidly plummeted, and Hitler, confident that his men would have taken Moscow before the onset of winter, did not order the distribution of winter clothing. Hitler’s generals had warned him of both overconfidence and of invading the USSR, which they deemed suicidal following the example set by Napoleon in 1812. War would have ground to a halt, considering the snow would be too thick for armor, and all fighting would be infantry-based. Armor was only effective during the summer, where the temperatures on the desolate steppe skyrocketed to well over one hundred degrees with the lack of overhead cover. With the spring came the rasputista, the spring rains, which, combined with the massive volume of melting snow, would make any road or field un-serviceable for armor, and by early October came the first snow fall and frost. The temperatures plummeted so low the oil and gasoline in engines would freeze. By December, the Germans were, however, poised to launch Operation Typhoon, which would have pushed into Moscow and overwhelmed the city’s outnumbered and outgunned defenses. During the early stages of Barbarossa, Hitler was primarily focused on capturing Moscow, and had turned his attention away from the agrarian-based, grain rich expanses of the Ukraine and the oil-rich, industrious center of southern Russia and the Caucasus Mountain range within Georgia. With the operation prepared for launch, the Germans were stunned when they were simultaneously counterattacked by the Red Army en masse. The force they had been assaulted by in December 1941 was not the average, run-of-the-mill Red Army trooper, who, in most cases, did not even have shoes. The soldiers assaulting the German positions were well-trained in winter warfare and well-equipped, as well as ably led by none other than the exuberant and tenacious Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov. Zhukov had been the mastermind behind the success of the Red Army at Khalkhin Gol in Mongolia against the imposing Imperial Japanese Kwantung Army established in Manchuria, which had been ceded to the Japanese in 1931. With the Soviet counterattack, the German Army’s position was pushed further and further westward, in the direction of Army Group Center’s starting line for the assault. With casualties mounting, the onset of the monsoon-like conditions of early spring were openly welcomed by both sides as a respite to the brutal war of attrition developing outside Moscow. Yet Hitler was never idle, and began altering his battle plan to focus further in the south. The River Donnets and River Don sectors in the south were center of the Ukrainian agriculture community. The area was dominated in the east by desolate, barren steppes criss-crossed by the occasional lazy river or riverbed, and in the west dominated by the impossible Pripet Marshes, a virtual muddy quagmire invested with overgrown algae colonies that was completely impassable. Vehicles would sink and be lost forever. As the curtain rose on 1942, the situation in the East had changed rapidly.

Following the devastating setbacks in the Army Group Center sector in December 1941 to February 1942, the German Army began to reestablish a shaky foothold in the north. With the repulsion of several attempted Russian counterattacks through late winter and early spring of 1942, Army Group Center began to regain some of its infamous notoriety gained during the victorious battles at Smolensk and Vitebsk. In the south, the great battles that ushered in the bloody finale of 1941 in the north had had little effect. The southern front-lines remained surprisingly unaltered, and the stage was thus set for Unternehmen Blau, or Operation Blue, the German thrust deep into the Ukraine that would, hopefully, seize Sevastopol and wrest the oil metropolis of Grozny in the Caucasus from the hands of the Russians. The plan was far-fetched and an uncertainty, but if it worked, oil, the lifeblood of the German Army, which was based upon mechanized warfare, could be pumped into the arteries of the  Ostheer and thus feed its war effort without lapse. Yet the doorway to Grozny and the Caucasus was guarded by the last vestige of Soviet resistance in the south, the veritable fortress city of Stalingrad, on the River Volga. Without Stalingrad, the Soviets’ northern flank would be open to a potentially devastating assault which could thrust deep into the heart of the Red Army, killing it. Stalingrad would be the site of the largest urban battle in history, and would set the stage for the finale of the Second World War, even in the snow-caked suburbs and factories at the end of 1942, the war had already come to an end for the Nazi German war machine, and they did not even know it.

Unbeknownst to the Germans, Stalingrad was just as important to the Red Army as it was to Germans. The 62nd Army, commanded by General Vasily Chuikov and manned primarily by civilian recruits and unwilling conscripts, had locked the industrial center of the southern USSR down completely, and intended to keep it that way. Not only did the city bear the name of their beloved General Secretary and Commissar of the People’s Defense, it was also the industrial heart of the USSR, and its vaunted tractor factory had been transformed into a tank factory, pumping out the nefarious T-34 main battle tank, the nemesis of Germany’s seemingly unstoppable Panther and Tiger main battle tanks. Stalingrad not only guarded the mouth of the Volga where it empties into the Black Sea, but also guarded the Caucasus, and, in the wake of the Red Army’s humiliating defeats and setbacks of 1941 and early 1942, Stalin had issued his infamous order of “not one step backwards”, essentially boiling down to, if a soldier chose to retreat, he would be executed by his fellow soldiers for treason. If he ran forward, he would be killed the enemy. In late August 1942, the German Army Group South, under the command of the intelligent and persistent strategic genius of Erich von Manstein, had pushed into the outskirts of Stalingrad, which had been almost completely evacuated, safe for the 62nd Army deployed there. As the Germans poured into the city and rapidly overwhelmed its beleaguered defenders, the Red Army, having been pushed onto the eastern bank of the Volga, was forced to attempt a daring crossing under heavy artillery and small arms fire from the German troops. With the landing came mounting casualties, and the majority of Soviet troops that landed did not even have a rifle. Yet by October, the Germans were being forced back, just by the sheer weight of the volume of Soviet infantry. With the city’s buildings having been constructed so close together, the tight quarters made it nearly impossible for German Panzers to navigate, and the assault into the city, which had been heavily based on Germany’s earlier successful Blitzkrieg strategy, began to deteriorate into a battle where there were no front-lines, where German soldiers could be in the room of an apartment complex, and a platoon of Soviet soldiers could be in the room next door without either side knowing about the other. The battle ushered in a sniper war, where the thought of going outside a house or building surely meant suicide. By January 1943, snipers ruled the city. In November 1942, the Red Army, now under the command of Konstantin Rokossovsky, launched Operation Uranus, forcing the Germans from the city itself altogether, and out onto the Don Steppe adjacent the industrial metropolis. The area became colloquially known as “der Kessel“, or the Cauldron. With the collapse of the Romanian 2nd and 3rd Armies protecting Friedrich Paulus’s northern and southern flanks, he was completely surrounded. Herman Goering, the Reichsmarschall of the Luftwaffe, or Germany’s air force, ordered an attempted airlift to bring in supplies by air, but it failed miserably due to the rapidly changing situation of the front-line. The pilots continually dropped supplies into the wrong sectors, giving them to the Soviets, and when they did attempt to bring them into the Kessel itself, they were often shot down by heavy antiaircraft fire or enemy fighters. By late January, Goering had issued his “death oration of the 6th Army” and sealed its inevitable fate. Yet Hitler refused to believe that he had lost Stalingrad. He continued to urge Paulus to hold the city to the last man, even when his troops were low on food, ammunition, water, ample winter clothing, medical supplies, and above all, morale, and with disease, frostbite, and starvation rates mounting. Von Manstein attempted his Operation Winter Storm to pry open the vice-like grip around the Kessel utilizing armor to break the 6th Army, or what was left of it, free, yet it failed when the Panzers spearheading the assault began to run low on petrol and were forced to turn round, only six miles from Stalingrad. On January 20th, Paulus was presented with peculiarly generous surrender terms offered by Rokossovsky, which would allow Paulus and his men to maintain their ranks, their uniforms, and badges, as well as giving them ample food, water, and medical supplies and attention. Paulus presented the terms to Hitler via radio, yet Hitler insisted that Paulus maintain his defensive posture. Twice more, Paulus was presented with the terms, and once more Hitler refused. On the third attempt, Hitler disregarded the terms and promptly promoted Paulus to field marshal, following the tradition that no German field marshal had ever surrendered to the enemy. Hitler implied with this that he effectively ordered Paulus to commit suicide in the face of defeat. Paulus, with blatant disregard for the orders issued him by Hitler, marched into the Soviet lines with the majority of his divisional staff and army headquarters, and surrendered on January 31st. The remaining German and Romanian forces followed suit on February 2nd. The German Army had been obliterated, and would never recover from Stalingrad. In the south, the Germans had also failed to reach Grozny, being stopped short by strong Red Army resistance and heavy partisan activity, and with the fall of the 6th Army, von Manstein’s left flank near Sevastopol was open to counterattack. With his position untenable, he was forced to give up Sevastopol, which he had wrested from the grip of the Black Sea Fleet. For several more months after, the front-line was pushed in a fluid motion from its salient in Stalingrad back to Kharkov, and, following the fourth battle for the city, beyond it altogether. In July 1943, out of sheer desperation and false hope in a situation hopelessly lost, Hitler ordered a disastrous counterattack that hammered the last nail into the coffin that had become Germany’s war effort.

In July 1943, the bloody battles of early 1943 had begun to wind down significantly. With the front gradually beginning to stabilize, the situation was ripe for battle. A significant salient, or bulge, struck out into Germany’s front-line near the Soviet village of Prokhorovka and near the city of Kursk, in the Ukraine. Germany needed to score a winning blow, and if ever there was a place to do it, it was at Kursk. 

The Soviet salient was thinly manned and extremely unkempt. The Germans outnumbered them significantly, in both men and material, and the general outline of the plan was ramshackle at best. They intended to pincer the sides of the salient, and gradually cut it off completely, surround it, and destroy it. That type of strategy had worked in the early days of the war in the East, but with the situation changing as it was, the plan was hastily developed and born out of panic of collapse and melancholy toward the current setting. The battle was pregnant with possibilities, and if the Soviets kept their poor condition in the area, there was a significant chance that the Germans could deal a finishing blow at Kursk. They were sadly mistaken. Their encrypted messages were, as they were sent, being intercepted by Red Army code-breakers, and the German plan for Operation Citadel, as the assault at Kursk came to be known, unfurled before the eyes of Stalin and Zhukov. This was the end. The Soviets managed to pump men and material into the pocket well before the German onslaught was set to begin, and soon outnumbered the German Army horrendously: 780,000 German troops to 1,900,000 Red Army troops, along with 2,000 German tanks and armored fighting vehicles versus their Soviet adversary’s number of close to 6,000. On July 5th, the opening barrages rained down on the thinly manned front of the Soviet lines, and soon the Germans began their slow advance, marching alongside clanging and clattering armor that had been devastated by negligence, poor maintenance, and punishment issued by the abysmal conditions of the steppe. Within a week, the situation had gone from bad to worse, and from worse to unfathomably horrifying. Army Group South’s attempted strike had had its spearhead hewed off by the knife-edge of the Red Army’s armored strength, and by July 16th, the German Army was in full retreat, having been nearly, if not completely, annihilated. That same day, the Soviets turned round and began to push the Germans beyond Kursk and Prokhorovka, erupting into the largest tank battle in history, with the two sides’ massive quantity of armor striking one another had full force. When the smoke cleared, the Red Army was victorious. The German Army had lost any offensive strength it still had left, and 1943, 1944, and the finishing year of 1945 continued to personify its defeat in the forms of the fall of Belgrade in October 1944, the fall of Budapest in February 1945, the surrender and then switching of sides of Romania in September 1944, the complete collapse of Army Groups South and Center during the unbelievable successes of Operation Bagration and the Lvov-Sandomierz Offensive in June-August 1944, the fall of Warsaw in January 1945, and the fall of Berlin in May 1945, with the death of Hitler becoming the key stone of the battle’s fateful end for the devastated and distraught German Army.

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One Response to “Operation Citadel: The Plan that Never Was”

  1. bigmoosey September 30, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    Pour mes lecteurs Francais, je vous remercie beaucoup! Merci!

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