The Death of Hitler’s Dream: From Stalingrad to Cherkassy: 1942-1944

14 Dec

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It has been fourteen months since the fateful German invasion of June 1941. Millions of Soviet and German troops have perished in brutal combat. Soviet resistance, at first nearly nonexistent, has stiffened. An audacious December 1941 counterattack mounted on the Moscow outskirts has pushed the Wehrmacht from the Soviet capital, yet German resistance, ripe with the spring thaw, has surrounded an entire Soviet army and decimated it in the thick, remote forests near Leningrad. The January 1942 death of Wilhelm von Reichenau has annihilated the morale of the 6th Army, yet his replacement, the former deputy chief of the German General Staff Friedrich Paulus, will surge new life into an army destroyed by a staggering loss they will not fully recover. By the summer of 1942, with the front near Moscow and within the wilderness of the north stabilized, the south of the immense Soviet Union, a battlefield of massive, desolate steppes coated in shrubs charred by the inexorable sun, will come to shape the next two years of combat in the Soviet Union, and shape the remainder of the war in Europe. The fates of two colossal armies will be decided, not on the open field of battle, but at a massive metropolis upon the river Volga, the final piece to an enormous German puzzle that would open the oil rich fields of the Caucasus to their use. This piece, resting atop the waters of the Volga and staring out into the bleak Kazakh steppe, will seal the fate of an army and the victory of another. There, at Stalingrad.

As the boiling summer of 1942 came to a close, all appeared within Germany’s grasp. The inexorable Nazi jackboot stood atop enemies from France and the Low Countries to Stalingrad, nearly 2,100 miles away. From North Cape, Norway, to the Qattara Depression in Egypt, the Third Reich was awe-inspiring in its size, being rivaled only by the great empires of the Caesars, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Alexander the Great. Yet there was a fatal flaw, a chink in the proverbial Nazi mail. And it was, ironically, the very leader of the German Reich, Adolf Hitler. The unexpected Russian counterattack, launched in the bitter deadlock of the impregnable Russian winter just 24 hours prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, had thrown the initiative grasped by the German military so early in the war to the Russians, who had decimated the hard-fought German positions outside the beleaguered Soviet capital. The inherent lack of resourcefulness in the German military command in the East, manifested in their poor ability to mount an organized counterattack, had prompted der Fuehrer to take direct command of the Wehrmacht on December 21st, 1941, a decision that would lead to the death of Nazi Germany. Hitler had only been a corporal in the First World War, and loyal though he was, receiving the Iron Cross, First and Second Class, he was woefully unfit for military command. And in the spring of 1942, he ordered his most audacious plan to date: a daring assault that would drive from Kursk and Kharkov, seized in the whirlwind opening days of Barbarossa, and push south, toward Grozny and Baku, in the regions of Chechnya and Azerbaijan respectively. These areas were two of the largest petroleum producers in the world, and could feed oil, the lifeblood of the German military, into her armored arteries, and breathe new life into the war effort, throwing the overwhelmed Red Army across the Volga, and into Asian Russia. Yet the plan, known simply as Fall Blau, Case Blue, would become tragically skewed.

As German forces forded the rivers Donets and Don, the Fuehrer, fickle as ever, shifted his strategy to encompass the thriving university town of Stalingrad, not only housing the massive engineering academy, yet also a tractor factory that had been converted to construct tanks, such as the ruthless T-34, the only Allied tank capable of holding its own against a heavily armed and armored German Panzer. In doing so, he ordered Paulus’s 6th Army, spearheading Case Blue, to seize the city alone, shifting Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, giving unto the foot-borne 6th Army speed and mobility, southward toward the Caucasus. The removal of the 4th Panzer Army had cut into the speed of the 6th Army’s advance like a knife, sawing it apart. In the summer heat, exacerbated by the inherent lack of shade on the arid steppe, the infantry were forced to march toward Stalingrad, with little armored support available. It was hell on earth, a veritable cauldron, yet in a similar, stunning demonstration of Hitler’s fickleness, he shifted the 4th Panzer Army back from the Caucasus to support Paulus’s advance, draining the Army of its fuel surplus in doing so. Yet by late August, German forces were upon the metropolis. And in a matter of six long, frigid months, the war would be decided in the confines of a city ravaged by war.

The city of Stalingrad was one wholly unprepared for the arrival of the Wehrmacht. The 62nd Army of Vasily Chuikov, resting on the opposing bank of the river Volga on the Asiatic steppe, was ill-equipped, and what little equipment it possessed was woefully inadequate to waging war against the coming German menace. As the Wehrmacht arrived, thousands of the city’s inhabitants, fearful of the unspeakable German retribution, poured across the Volga to Asia. The Red Army was forced to cease evacuations due to the glaring fact that the sheer volume of civilian evacuations was making the passage of Russian troops to the ravaged city impossible, leaving many to their doom, which came on the eve of the first German incursions into the city. Fighting on the steppe had been disorganized and sporadic, save for a token few patches of resistance, such as Voronezh, yet as German forces reached Stalingrad, resistance stiffened. It was the city that bore the General Secretary’s name, and the Red Army would not simply allow it to fall. This mentality, combined with a July 1942 directive from Stalin himself condemning those who retreated–a common theme within the Red Army in the early stages of the war–as defeatists, cowards, and traitors, and that those caught in the act of attempting to do so were to be shot on site, fueled a zealous, if not forced, zeal within the Red Army to resist the German assault. The Red Army would fight, and they would fight to the death, whether it was by the Wehrmacht or by their own hand. On the eve of the first German incursion, a massive assault fell upon the city, but not from the ground. It fell from the air, in the form of Stuka dive-bombers and high explosives munitions. The assault was designed to shatter the spirit of the city’s inhabitants, as well as that of its defenders, and destroy their makeshift fortifications, smoothing the assault of the 6th Army into the city. It was similar in effect to, and orchestrated by the very same man as, the 1936 bombing of Guernica, Spain. The city was almost totally annihilated, and with the majority of Soviet forces on the Asiatic steppe across the Volga, evacuation of the civilian population was impossible. Troops of the 62nd Army had to be brought across the river by boats, the very same avenue that civilians had to utilize to escape the path of German onslaught. They were caught in a veritable crossfire. By early September, the 6th Army had forced its way through the already battered Soviet troops still defending the western bank of the Volga and were now poised to throw any Soviet river crossing back onto the Asiatic steppe. Where the Wehrmacht had training and superior fire power, the Red Army had strength in numbers, and on top of that a lesson Hitler had still failed to learn: the Russian winter defeats all enemies. When the Russian troops landed on the western bank of the Volga, the supply shortage brought on by the horrendous Soviet economy meant that only every other man would get a rifle, and every other man a five-round ammunition clip. The Red Army’s overwhelming size had begun to push the Wehrmacht back into the confines of the city, now a massive pile of rubble disguised as ruined apartment complexes and department stores, a once thriving university town now reduced to ash. As winter set in, the two giants of the 62nd Army and the 6th Army traded blows with one another, the frontline evaporating almost entirely as the soldiers of each corps took refuge wherever they could. The fighting was brutal, often hand-to-hand, and the city became a sniper’s paradise, giving birth to the legend of Vasily Zaytsev, an illiterate farmer’s son from the Urals who engaged in a harrowing three-day sniper battle through the destroyed city, only to discover that his query was but a teenager. The close quarters of the destroyed city meant that the battle would have to be decided almost entirely by infantry, as armored support could not move between buildings erected so closely together. Certain buildings of strategic importance could change hands almost twenty times in a matter of a few days, some changing hands that many times in the same day. The railway station changed hands thirteen times, while Mamayev Kurgan, the summit in the city’s center, changed hands eight times. Ample supplies on both sides were short. Food was a scarce commodity, and amid the crossfire hid the Soviet civilians who had failed to escape. From the the courageous, albeit suicidal, Soviet charge across Red Square on the opening days of the 62nd Army’s counterattack to the battles for Pavlov’s House, the Soviet valiance during the battle was offset by the sheer fact that they could not seem to rout the dug in 6th Army, which by November controlled ninety percent of the city. The Red Army had been forced into two tiny pockets, and the might of Paulus’s army was bearing down on them as the first frost of winter came. Yet the Red Army had an ace in the hole: the overstretched German forces near Stalingrad and the Caucasus. The rapidity of the German advance in the summer of 1942 had stretched the might of Army Group South far beyond its proper operational capacity, and spread its units out over a massive distance, placing considerable gaps in the German lines. This situation was further aggravated when Hitler ordered several armored divisions to be redeployed to Western Europe and North Africa to counter the success of Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein and the recent American landings in Algeria and Morocco. Army Group South had to resort to plugging the gaps in their line with green, untested Romanian troops, with the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies supporting Paulus’s flanks. Along with these glaring issues, the 6th Army had advanced beyond the operation length of its supply lines, and with winter setting in, the German troops did not possess ample winter clothing, a similar problem that had faced the men of Army Group Center outside Moscow in December 1941. Frostbite and hypothermia were becoming common, along with the onset of malnutrition. Disease spread easily among men whose immune systems had been almost completely shot from fatigue. On November 19th, 1942, Vasily Chuikov exploited the problems of the 6th Army, which were obvious not only to Paulus yet also to him, and launched Operation Uranus, the plan to encircle and destroy the 6th Army in Stalingrad.

In the early morning hours of November 19th, the Red Army north of the city launched their assault, throwing armored spearheads at the inexperienced Romanian troops. The Romanians were able, for the most part, to hold off the Soviet assault, yet the following day a second assault opened to the south, and by day’s end, the 3rd and 4th Romanian armies had abandoned their positions to the overwhelming might of the Red Army. Chuikov had exploited the weakness of Paulus’s flanks, and, having routed them, began to throw the arms of his double envelopment around the entirety of the 6th Army. Paulus, too distracted with events unfolding inside the city itself, was unable to redeploy infantry and armor soon enough to counter the Soviet pincers, which linked at Kalach in the evening of November 22nd, 1942, encircling almost 300,000 men. The success of Chuikov’s double envelopment closely mirrored Hannibal’s success at Cannae, and the German inability to act in time allowed for the Soviet troops to dig themselves into defensive positions and await a German counterattack they knew would soon come. Against myriad calls to order an evacuation and have Erich von Manstein, in command of Wehrmacht units at Sevastopol, launch a counterattack to free the 6th Army, Hitler chose rather to leave Paulus’s army in Stalingrad and resupply it by air, a decision that would come with disastrous results. Hermann Goering, the Reichsmarschall of the Luftwaffe warned Hitler of the gamble he was taking, yet Hitler refused to listen. With the Afrika Korps crumbling away due to supply problems outside El Alamein against the strength of Montgomery’s Operation Supercharge and the American landings at Oran, Algiers, and Casablanca, Hitler was surrounded by failures. 1942 would prove not only the extent of the the Third Reich’s hold on Europe, yet also the depth of its failure to hold what it had taken. On December 12th, 1942, an audacious plan to free the 6th Army from the clutches of the Red Army was launched. Erich von Manstein, in command of what was known as Unternehmen Winter Sturm, Operation Winter Storm, had been promised four armored divisions for the relief of Stalingrad, yet was only given Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, which would be forced to launch an assault against Rodion Malinovsky’s 2nd Guards Army alone. The situation around Stalingrad had rapidly spiraled out of control, and the German High Command was unwilling to redeploy too many armored or infantry divisions to assist in Manstein’s counterattack, for fear that weakening an sectors could be exploited by the enigmatic Soviets, who, for most of November, the Germans thought they were beating. Manstein’s attack initially made excellent ground, aided by the powerful weapon of surprise. The Red Army had not anticipated a German armored counterattack, and the Russians had actually been in the stages of planning the crushing blow that was to be delivered unto Army Group South: Operation Little Saturn. Initially dreamt as being an assault that would use Chuikov’s position near Stalingrad as a springboard, Little Saturn was planned to seize all of the Ukraine, yet had been rewritten by Stalin to advance to Kharkov and Rostov and hold, a far more realistic plan. Yet Winter Storm had thrown the time table for Little Saturn into complete disarray. The 4th Panzer Army was become nearer and nearer to Stalingrad everyday, and the Soviets needed to act fast. After amending Little Saturn once more, the plan was put into effect on December 16th. Launched by a spearhead of three Soviet armies south of Stalingrad, with the aim of encircling German forces in the Caucasus, Little Saturn also forced Manstein to withdraw the 4th Panzer Army just short of Stalingrad. The speed and surprise of the Soviet assault threatened to encircle Manstein’s relief force, and with Hoth’s panzers already low on fuel, Manstein had no choice but to recall them back into friendly territory, abandoning Paulus’s last hope of rescue. By January 1943, the final elements of the 6th Army had been forced into the steppe west of Stalingrad, and the airborne resupply of the army had ceased. Increased resistance from the Soviet Red Air Force had cost the Luftwaffe far too many aircraft, and with the constantly shifting frontline many of the supplies dropped had fallen into Russian hands. Little Saturn had been halted short of its objectives by the resistance of Army Group South, which had seen its advance coming, but Little Saturn had still forced Army Group South further away from Stalingrad and had destroyed the Italian 8th Army near Millerovo. By mid-January 1943, Paulus had informed Hitler of his desire to surrender rather than face annihilation. The Fuehrer replied that surrender had never been an option, and the primary reason Hitler had kept the 6th Army in Stalingrad was so that the beleaguered German troops there could die a soldier’s death rather than humiliate the Third Reich with surrender. Hitler then promptly promoted Paulus to the rank of field marshal, yet the promotion was to aid Hitler’s point of no surrender: no German field marshal had ever surrendered. All had instead opted for suicide. Hitler had made his point clear, yet Paulus refused to listen. On January 31st, 1943, Paulus took his staff and marched into Soviet lines, effectively surrendering the 6th Army to the Soviet 62nd Army. Two days later, the remaining German forces who resisted the Red Army were captured or killed, effectively ending the battle of Stalingrad. Strategic initiative had now shifted entirely into Soviet hands, and for the remainder of the war it would remain there. Stalingrad had not only seen the death of the 6th Army, but the death of the Third Reich. In two years, the Red Army would be upon the German capital, the black heart of the Reich, to wreak a terrible vengeance.

The disastrous reversal at Stalingrad had cost the Wehrmacht the last of its momentum. Offensive capabilities had effectively been handed over to the Red Army, who soon reversed the advances of the German military in the south. For the next full year, 1943, all major Wehrmacht defeats or advances would be decided in the Ukraine, from Kursk and Kharkov to Cherkassy. These defeats would permanently seal the German defeat in the Soviet Union and open the window for the Russian advance into Eastern Europe. 1942 had essentially been the year of Allied victories across the board. In North Africa, the stunning victories scored by Rommel at El Agheila, Tobruk, and Gazala had been reversed at El Alamein by the cunning of a previously desk-bound general, Bernard Montgomery, and the first American offensive was underway in Morocco and Algeria: Operation Torch. The Americans had initially planned on landing troops in occupied France, yet after the disastrous Canadian landings at Dieppe, this overambitious goal was proved impossible. The Afrika Korps had been locked in a vice by two armies who were now bearing down upon it from two directions at once, yet Rommel’s constant overtures for men and supplies fell on deaf ears, both to the Commando Supremo in Rome and to the Wolfsschanze in Rastenburg. Hitler’s undivided attention had sucked him into the Russian vortex, and he had essentially abandoned Rommel and his panzers to the gross ineptitude of the fractious and disorganized Italian command structure. At its head sat Mussolini, who was too engrossed in his own image to sacrifice any marginal supplies to aid in Rommel’s campaign, which, in 1942, had been designed to serve Mussolini’s glory. The Italians had not even instituted fuel rationing, which at this point was commonplace all over Europe, and even in the United States, which had just entered the war only a few months before. Three other major Allied victories had occurred in the summer and fall of 1942, the first being the American stalemate following the four day engagement off the coast of New Guinea in the Coral Sea. Although both sides claimed victory, the battle had essentially ended in an unclear result, yet it was a moral victory for the United States Navy when they sank their first Japanese aircraft carrier and thwarted Japanese landings near Port Moresby. The second came when American admiral Frank Fletcher lured the Imperial Japanese Navy into a trap at Midway Atoll, leading to the loss of four of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s premier, irreplaceable aircraft carriers. The third blow arrived in late summer of 1942, when American Marines under Alexander Vandegrift landed at Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, and thwarted the Japanese construction of an airfield that could block the lines of shipping and communication to Australia. Although hard fought and only taken after months of bitter combat in the steamy jungles, the battle of Guadalcanal proved the first American land victory over the Japanese, and demonstrated the steady shifting of the tide in the Americans’ direction. The victories scored by the Axis in 1940 and 1941 over Europe, North Africa, China, and Southeast Asia were beginning to reverse, primarily due not only to inspiration following minor victories that proved the enemy was not invincible, but also due to better understanding of hackneyed and sometimes overused enemy tactics, such as the Blitzkrieg, which was far beyond its expiration date on the European battlefield. It had succeeded against the Polish, French, and English, and initially against the Russians, but its repeated use allowed the Allies to become more acquainted with it, and, just like a disease, they found their respective cures to this land and airborne malady.

The defeat at Stalingrad laid the framework for the Soviet advance to the city of Kharkov, which was taken shortly after the Soviet victory at Stalingrad. The loss of both Stalingrad and Kharkov was far too much for Hitler to bear, and shortly thereafter he flew to the headquarters of Army Group South and met with Erich von Manstein to assess the situation. The Soviets had overrun Kharkov, which had been taken and held throughout 1941-42, and were steamrolling rapidly over German resistance toward Army Group South’s headquarters. Von Manstein had a plan in the works, and in late February the plan materialized. Designed as a striking blow against the Soviet flanks, it would fall against the Soviet spearhead, commanded by Marian Popov, after it overextended itself. Once it had done so, the Fourth Panzer Army under Hermann Hoth would cut off the spearhead and advance on Kharkov. At the same time the Soviet offensive was underway, a second was being launched against the joint between Army Groups South and Center, the assault being under the command of Konstantin Rokossovsky. And von Manstein’s plan was wildly successful. The Soviets, overextended and exhausted by their stunning victories, were cut off. Their supply lines were destroyed by the rapid German advance, and the stunning blow that hit them in the March snow decimated their offensive capabilities and rendered their assault worthless. Reinforcements were cut to pieces by German air superiority, and by mid-March Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army had retaken Kharkov, and the Soviet frontline had been forced back several hundred miles. Fifty two Soviet infantry and armored divisions had been completely destroyed. The stunning success of von Manstein’s assault, completed in the third week of March after an advance from Poltava to Kharkov completed just before the arrival of the vaunted rasputitsa, the spring thaw, scored a major German victory, but simultaneously created an overwhelming problem. Centered on the city of Kursk was a massive Soviet salient left behind by the shattering speed of the German advance. The salient dug deep into the German front line, and presented a major difficulty. If exploited, the Soviets could rip Army Group South in two and separate it from Army Group Center. And the Soviets possessed one thing the Germans did not: ample man power. German casualties were, by this stage of the war, becoming harder to replace, whereas the Soviets possessed no shortage of men to fight the Germans, as is clearly demonstrated by their overwhelming amount of casualties following the war. Hitler had ceded operational control of combat on the Eastern Front to the High Command, whose power he had stripped in December 1941 following the setback at Moscow. If the Kursk salient could be removed, the front lines from 1941 and 1942, prior to Operation Blue, that had been controlled by the Wehrmacht could be restored, and if a large enough defeat was incurred by the Soviets, a potential peace settlement could be reached. Yet Hitler’s dreams were far fetched when compared with the brutal reality of the situation. The Soviets were conscripting men from the provinces they reoccupied, and thus had a steady supply of man power. Simultaneously, they were constantly bolstering the strength of the Kursk salient, but in the spring of 1943 a plan had arrived known as Unternehmen Zitadelle, Operation Citadel, and if successful, Hitler’s aims in the East could be reached, and he could turn his attention to the West, where the Allies were preparing to land men on the island of Sicily in Operation Husky. But if Citadel failed, the offensive momentum in the East would permanently fall into Soviet hands, never to return, and the German military would enter a long, agonizingly painful retreat from the vast steppes of Russia. Hitler’s offensive was a fifty-fifty shot, and in one of the largest gambles of the war, comparable to Operation Market Garden and the battle of Midway, he took it. But like Market Garden and unlike Midway, his gamble failed.

The objective was simple: two armies would drive north from Orel and south from Belgorod and sever the head of the Soviet salient. On paper, it seemed deceptively simple. In practice, it proved obviously impossible. The German military possessed around nine hundred thousand men for Citadel, whereas the Red Army possessed upwards of two million men, and that number only continued to grow. On top of that, the Germans possessed nearly three thousand tanks, while the Soviets possessed almost five and a half thousand. The odds were definitely in the Soviets’ favor, and during the week long offensive, that daunting statistic began to show. Both the High Command and Stavka had realized that the dynamic front in the south along the Ukrainian frontier was where the war would be decided, and the success or failure of Citadel would ultimately determine the stance of the Wehrmacht in the southern Soviet Union. The line near the Orel salient had remained relatively static, but Hitler was nevertheless fearful. In the months it took for Hitler to finally make a decision, months where the Wehrmacht lost North Africa and was forced onto a defensive footing in Sicily after being pinched in Tunisia by British and America pincers, the Red Army had steadily reinforced the Orel salient near Kursk and Prokhorovka with more firepower than had ever been amassed in single area in history. Even when the assault’s planning had been made by the most gifted tactical mind of the Twentieth Century, Erich von Manstein, and Hitler had reinstated Heinz Guderian to a relatively respectable position, the odds still remained against a German victory. Hitler had given strategic authority to the High Command, but the decision for or against was agonizingly slow. Infighting was common, and in the summer of 1943 the Third Reich’s situation was becoming horrifying precarious. Decisions coming from Rastenburg were horrifically ignorant, as Hitler knew little of what the situation was on the frontline, and his bias toward eliminating the Soviet Union had been one of the prime culprits for the loss of North Africa. And by July 1943, a decision had finally come. Operation Citadel would go forward. But unbeknownst to the High Command, they had just sent two armies worth of men to their graves, for they had been tricked. Just like the British Double Cross system used prior to the Normandy landings, the Abwehr, Germany’s intelligence circle, had been fed misinformation by a Soviet spy network–Lucy–that operated in neutral Switzerland. The Germans had been duped.

On July 5, 1943, just five days prior to the Allied assault on Sicily, Operation Husky, the curtain rose on Operation Citadel. The German 9th Army had orders to advance from Maloarkhangelsk to Kursk, but just five miles into its advance was stopped short by lands riddled with Soviet minefields. The 9th Army continued repeatedly to attempt to find a way through, but each time drew back a bloody stump. The ground was so laden with minefields that their armor could not advance, which angered most primarily because the plateau ahead of them was the last patch of high ground before they reached a flat plain that led straight into Kursk. The 9th Army finally realized its luck had been cut short, and chose to switch from offensive to defensive, and dug itself in around Ponyri. But they had made a fatal error, one General Mark Clark would make when landing at Salerno two months later. The Germans had split their forces along the banks of the river Zhizdra, and if that gap was exploited, a wedge could be driven between the elements of the 9th Army and an army could get behind the 9th and surround it. And on July 12, that was exactly what happened. The Soviets launched Operation Kutuzov, and after heavy fighting against determined defenders under the command of Walter Model, by mid-August they had almost annihilated the 9th Army and reached Orel, the starting point of the German advance. The Red Army and the Wehrmacht were like two boxers engaged in a brawl. The Germans had attempted to break the Soviet line with brute force, but the Red Army had absorbed their assaults and waited for the Germans to exhaust themselves before capitalizing on their exhaustion and fighting back. To the south, the offensive had gone smoother, with the 4th Panzer Army, supplemented with the strength of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division, had advanced sixteen miles to Prokhorovka before they ran into the might of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army, and on the same day the Soviets launched Operation Kutuzov, the largest tank battle in history occurred as more than one thousand tanks engaged in battle, kicking up colossal clouds of dust on the arid steppe in the dead heat of that disastrous Soviet summer. By the end of the sixteenth of July, the battle had been decided. The charred hulls of tanks, shattered antitank defenses, and the bloated bodies of the dead had proven that the Soviets were now permanently on the offensive. Stalin’s overture to his men, issued in the summer of 1942 imploring them to not take “one step backward”, was now truer than it ever was. Retreat was no longer and option for the Red Army. At Kursk, the Soviets had claimed the lives of close to 300,000 men, and destroyed over one thousand German tanks and tank destroyers. The Soviets had lost upwards of over a million men and close to eight thousand tanks and tank destroyers, but the difference between the Soviets and the Germans, like those of the United States and Japan, was that where the Soviets lost a tank, they could produce ten more to replace it. If the Germans lost a tank, it could take months to make just one more, similar to the Japanese, whose loss of an aircraft carrier was an irreparable scar, whereas by war’s end the United States had forty fleet-sized aircraft carriers in service in the Pacific. By war’s end, the Soviets had constructed over fifty thousand T-34 medium tanks, whereas the Germans could only complete twelve hundred Tiger tanks, and was forced to balance that number between two, technically three, fronts. The Germans had attempted to annihilate industry, but the Soviets had simply packed up their factories and displaced them into the Urals, and like Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion in the summer of 1812, the Germans had fallen victim to the very same enemy that had crushed the Grande Armee. It was a silent enemy, and it was all around. It was Russia itself. Russia had been invaded by a full-scale force hundreds of times, but Hitler’s would be the last. And it would be the most devastating, claiming over thirty million German and Soviet lives, and destroying the U.S.S.R.’s grain surpluses and livestock. But like the United States, the Soviets could recover. The Soviets possessed native natural resources and veritable wells of able-bodied men that could be forcefully conscripted into service. The Germans were not as lucky. With a smaller population to conscript from and without the daunting size of the U.S.S.R.’s grain and oil fields, the Third Reich was doomed when Citadel failed. Its fate had been sealed. But there would be no surrender. Hitler had made his decision when he chose to invade that muggy summer morning two years earlier. Unknown to him, or any of his generals, he had sealed his own fate, had hammered in the nails of his own coffin. He was fighting against an enemy that not only had behind it the force of a despotic regime that was regarded with a sort of god-like, albeit forced, loyalty, but also a population that was angered with the invasion. Angered not only with the level of destruction, but with the loss of their kin. Hitler had done something. He had united an entire country against him. And when Citadel failed that scorching summer day in 1943, when the realization of that failure finally sunk in, the tide could no longer be held back. The dikes burst, and the irreversible tide of millions of people, angered beyond all comprehension, fell upon his armies with devastating effect. Hitler’s Reich would soon see its last sunrise.

By early August the scales had tipped in the Soviets’ favor for the final time. Fighting the south was taking a severe toll, and unlike in France in the summer and early fall of 1944, where the Wehrmacht had managed to slip across the river Seine and retreat to the pre-constructed defenses of the Siegfried Line, the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union would not be blessed was such divine luck. Over flat, open steppes they were pursued doggedly by the forces of the Red Army, which in many areas outnumbered the beleaguered German defenders ten to one. Fighting was brutal, and often relied on armored support. Engagements between tanks were a frequent sight, like dogfights in the Pacific. By early August, the Wehrmacht was forced to abandon their position at Orel, and retreat to Kharkov, their final defensive line before the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, the third largest city in the Soviet Union. Outnumbered, outgunned, exhausted, and running dangerously low on supplies and morale, the Wehrmacht was executing a fighting retreat over one hundred and forty miles to the river Dneiper, which Hitler hoped would act as an impromptu Siegfried Line, but unlike the defenses along Germany’s western border, the defensive line along the Dneiper was the very definition of the word “impromptu”. Hitler hoped defenses like dragon’s teeth, rifle pits, pillboxes, bunkers, tunnels, minefields, machine gun nests, and artillery and mortar pits would be built, but the German troops would have to settle for shallow slit trenches and foxholes that would have to be dug immediately and would not be waiting for them when they reached the two mile wide Dneiper. The Soviets were bearing down on the Wehrmacht, and on August 22, 1943, the Germans evacuated Kharkov for the last time, and in just a matter of days the city changed hands for the fourth and final time in two years. The Wehrmacht was under threat of being overrun, and had to retreat faster than the Soviets could advance, leaving everything they had taken two years to seize behind. Those hard fought regions, including rich farmland, were retaken in mere days or weeks by the unstoppable Red Army. German defenses along the river Mius, manned by troops of the 6th Army, which had to be rebuilt from scratch, were abandoned. German troops fled to the banks of the river Donbass, but even this could not stem the tide. The Soviets never seemed to engage the Wehrmacht in a pitched battle (considering the Germans attempted to avoid one at all costs), and like waves against rocks the Soviets struck continuously, and gradually began to whither away German strength. By September, the Soviets had finally reached the Dneiper, where the Germans had managed to dig themselves into hasty defenses. The Soviets initially did not attack these positions en masse, and small patrols crossed the river in the rubber rafts or wooden boats and small, relatively insignificant beachheads were established. Shootouts were sporadic, but not uncommon, as German and Soviet troops probed each others defenses to assess the strength of the other. In late September a paratrooper drop was attempted at Kanev, but the strike only proved the tactical unpreparedness and insufficiency of the Soviet paratrooper corps, and the Soviets chose to leave airborne operations in the hands of their Western counterparts, who had used them in Sicily with average, albeit pleasing, results (the average results inspired the British and American commanders in London to continue with the project, using paratroopers with devastating results in Normandy, and even launching an almost entirely airborne assault in the Netherlands in September 1944, which accomplished with what Bernard Montgomery claimed to be a “ninety percent success”). But the minuscule Soviet bridgeheads established by scouting parties in early September continued only to grow in size, and soon actual bridges were being constructed, and tanks were being ferried across the river to bolster the strength of the Soviet infantry, many of whom faced the brunt of German armored strength with little support. Fighting became more intense as the Russians gathered their strength for the push to Kiev, and in late October, as the first snow became to fall, the Soviets overran German positions near Zaporozhye and Dnepropetrovsk, and soon the powerful Soviet sword fell upon Kiev, which had been the site of several mass murders, such as the massacre at Babi Yar, that were part of the infamous genocidal campaign known as the Holocaust. An armored counterattack, mounted by the 4th Panzer Army, attempted to force the Soviets back from Kiev in mid-November, with a successful assault on Zhytomyr, almost ninety miles west of Kiev, displaying promising results, but the position the 4th Panzer Army had established for itself was rapidly becoming untenable. The 4th, under Hermann Hoth, had dug out a relatively negligible salient in the Soviet line near Korosten, but the position was soon overrun in late December by the First Ukrainian Front. By early January, the prewar border with Poland had been recovered, which would allow the Soviets to breakout into Eastern Europe and threaten the eastern border of the Third Reich, and an assault that same month, which linked two Soviet army groups (known as fronts), had caught ten German armored and infantry divisions, including the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, in a small pocket near the villages of Korsun and Cherkassy. Hitler intended for the division to breakout and advance east and reclaim Kiev, but Field Marshal von Manstein informed the Fuehrer, who had become too invested in pipe dreams and the impossible due to the unrealistic maps at Rastenburg, that that would be advancing in the wrong direction. Manstein intended to get the trapped divisions across the frozen expanse of the river Gniloy Tikich in mid-February 1944. Manstein’s concerns, like many of Hitler’s generals, were not invested in the impossible. Hitler’s field commanders knew what reality looked like, and it was the loss of everything between Stalingrad and Kiev in just a year. The maps in Rastenburg and Berlin had deceived Hitler. In the west, the fortress of Sicily, the last line of defense before the Italian peninsula, had fallen, and in September 1943 British forces had landed at Calabria and Taranto, and Americans had landed at Salerno. Mussolini had been deposed and arrested by the same Fascist Grand Council that sworn him loyalty, and the Italians had negotiated, like the Russians in the First World War, a separate peace. The level of Italian treachery forced Hitler’s hand, and prompted him to disarm the Italian military, arrest some of its commanders, and invade the peninsula to protect his southern flank. By early 1944, American positions were deeply entrenched at Anzio and Monte Cassino, and the British had taken Ortona. By late spring, the Allies would breakout of their position at Monte Cassino and take Rome, the first Axis capital to fall. In the East, the Soviets would launch an all-out offensive against Hitler’s line of defense protecting Poland, Romania, the Baltic States, and Yugoslavia, and with this offensive Hitler would lose Leningrad, as well a Belgrade and Bucharest. And when this offensive came, so too would another offensive, the largest amphibious landing in history, whose end result would destroy an entire German army group and liberate Paris. Hitler had nowhere to turn. He was helpless. And the Soviets knew it. 1944 and 1945 would be the years of reversals for the Wehrmacht, and the years of retribution for the Red Army, as they entered and sacked the black heart of the Third Reich. As MacBeth said, “blood demands blood.” And the Red Army would have theirs.

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