Götterdämmerung in the East
The History of Battle: Maneuver, Part 17
Adolf Hitler worked very hard to create the illusion that he had no personal life. It was his great conviction that a leader ought to be seen as having forgone private life to sacrifice everything for the people, and accordingly the details of his leisure, friendships, and intimacies were hidden from public view to create the illusion of a workaholic and ascetic Fuhrer.
Behind the scenes, however, Hitler was a full color and peculiar personality, with a circle of familiars (even if he was somewhat introverted and unwilling to confide fully in others), and a variety of personal idiosyncrasies. He was extremely hygienic, greatly fond of pastries (he abstained from alcohol and instead indulged in ample quantities of eclairs and strudel), and he was tremendously engrossed by the music of Richard Wagner, in particular Wagner’s seminal work Der Ring des Nibelungen, or the ring cycle. This is a monumentally long operatic-dramatic production, played over the course of four sequential nights, which depicts a stylized tale of Germanic mythology in which the high god Havi (Oden) and his mortal grandson Siegfried attempt to recover from hostile giants a magical ring with the power to rule the world. For Hitler, Wagner's work invoked thematic elements of German greatness and the power of will, and during the early years of his leadership he made a point to make Nazi party functionaries join him at the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth. Not all of them were opera fans, and much to Hitler’s chagrin a great many of them routinely fell asleep during the performances.
If they had stayed awake, they might have seen what was coming for them.
The fourth and final sequence of Wagner’s ring cycle is called the Götterdämmerung. This is a German transliteration of the Ragnarök of Norse mythology, and it depicts the entire world being destroyed in fire and flood after a climactic war between the gods and their variegated cosmic enemies. Hitler’s favorite opera, like his Germany, ends with a scene of apocalypse, and a Götterdämmerung is exactly what the Wehrmacht found in the east from 1944 onward.
One of the many idiosyncrasies of World War Two historiography is the relative disinterest shown in the closing phase of the war in the east. The most famous battles and events in the east - in particular Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk - are frontloaded in the timeline. It’s generally recognized that by the time of the defeat at Stalingrad, the Germans had “lost” the war, and so the battles and campaigns that occurred in the closing phase of the war (in particular 1944 and 1945) do not enjoy significant name recognition. In general, the perception is that the Soviets more or less marched inexorably to the west.
The inevitability of German defeat was certainly a reality, but the war was anything but over. In fact, 1944 and 1945 formed the bloodiest and most cataclysmic years of the war by far. The Wehrmacht was losing the war, to be sure, but it still maintained millions of men in the field, and it increasingly propped itself up by mobilizing volunteers from around Europe. In its dying death rage, as it vainly protested its own Götterdämmerung, the Wehrmacht would both kill and die in astonishing numbers.
By November 1943, after over 1500 days of war, total Wehrmacht permanent casualties (dead, disabled, or missing) amounted to roughly 3 million men. This makes for a loss rate of just under 2,000 men per day for over four years - a time period which includes the campaigns in Poland, France, the Balkans, North Africa, and the colossal eastern battles of Operation Barbarossa, Rzhev, Kharkov, Stalingrad, Kursk, and the Caucasus.
From November 1943 through the end of the war in May 1945 - a span of 527 days - Wehrmacht losses would be some 5 million men. Thus, over the final eighteen months of the war, German losses were an astonishing 9,400 per day, and although this closing phase made up only a quarter of the war in chronological terms, it accounted for nearly two-thirds of Germany’s total combat losses. And while the Wehrmacht was unequivocally being caved in all over Europe, it remained a colossal and tactically competent force capable of making its enemies pay dearly as it died. The Red Army would suffer 1.4 million killed and missing in 1944 (a year in which it won tremendous victories) and another 630,000 in just a few months of fighting in 1945.
In a sense then, the popular narrative structure of the war is in direct opposition to the reality on the ground. The narrative tends to climax at Stalingrad in the East and Normandy in the West, and then grind downwards to Hitler’s bunker, but in fact 1944 saw the most ferocious and bloody fighting in the east, with sweeping Soviet offensives. Stalingrad may be the popular turning point, but in 1944 the Red Army would inflict defeats on the Wehrmacht that made Stalingrad look meek. Stalingrad swallowed up a German field army; 1944 would slaughter entire army groups in record time.
Perhaps some of the drama is taken out of the story by the knowledge that German defeat is inevitable, but for the men who actually had to fight the war to its conclusion, there was still everything to fight for. The outcome of the war in a strategic sense was now certain, but there was not a single soldier on the continent who could be certain that he would personally survive, and in that sense the world still hung in the balance for every man, as the Wehrmacht and their powerful enemies grappled amid the flames of Germany’s Götterdämmerung.
Manstein’s Last Victory
It is fairly common to describe the Nazi-Soviet War as a three-phase affair, with the phases largely determined by the degree of strategic initiative. In the first phase (call it June 1941 to November 1942) Germany had dominant strategic initiative and launched major offensive operations in Barbarossa and Case Blue. In this period, virtually all of the Red Army’s attempts to go on the strategic offensive collapsed with heavy casualties, as at Kharkov and Rzhev. In the second phase (let us say December 1942 to November 1943) the Red Army was able to attack with great success, but the Germans still retained the ability to organize operations of their own (most notably Kursk). In the third and final phase (December 1943 to the end of the war), the Red Army held full-spectrum dominance and the Wehrmacht could do little more than desperately try and fail to hold its positions. Now at last we come to discuss this final and astonishingly bloody phase.
We can say that the closing months of 1943 marked a new phase in the war, but the men in the Wehrmacht eastern army can be forgiven for not noticing. There was no operational pause, no obvious phase change, only a continuous and rolling wave of Red Army offensives - sequential operations in action. The Soviet autumn offensives put the Red Army on the attack everywhere, with Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group South falling back in a desperate state to get behind the Dnieper River.
The river, however, brought little solace, and would not offer a defensive buffer, simply because the Soviets were already across it in many places, and Zhukov threw the kitchen sink at it to ensure that he had solid bridgeheads from the start. And so, despite another year of hard fighting weighing heavy upon them, Manstein and Army Group South had to turn and try to fight west of the Dnieper.
There were three problems facing Army Group South, and all of them were fairly easy to understand and nearly impossible to solve.
The first basic issue was an astonishing level of overmatch in the Order of Battle. Army Group South by now contained four field armies (the 6th and 8th, along with 1st and 4th Panzer Armies), which were lined up across from four Soviet fronts, each equivalent to an army group in and of itself. As if to underscore the disparity, these Soviet fronts were named 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Ukrainian fronts, as if to mock the Germans - “we can put four army groups in Ukraine to your one”.
The second problem was that, though the disparity on paper was bad enough, all of Manstein’s field armies were in a state of complete mauling after the hard fighting of the previous three years. This was after all a force that had just been defeated spectacularly east of the Dnieper and now had to fight again to the west of the river. By the end of 1943, Manstein’s Army Group had at most 330,000 men upright in the field along with perhaps 100,000 non-German volunteers and allies, and despite nominally having fourteen Panzer Divisions in the inventory, the entire batch could scrape together barely 200 reliably operable tanks. In contrast, the Soviet fronts were at nearly full strength (the Red Army could provide as many as 600,000 replacements more per month than the Wehrmacht). On average, each of the four Soviet fronts had some 550,000 men and thus outnumbered Army Group South individually.
The third problem was an operational one, and indeed this was the only problem that Manstein was able to do anything about. The retreat over the Dnieper was bad math for the Germans. Because the Dnieper forms an enormous “S” as it bends back and forth across Ukraine, the line of the river is significantly longer than a line directly north to south from the same points. Attempting to defend a line along the course of the river from just north of Kiev to the Black Sea committed Army Group South to some 560 miles of front, though the actual north-south dimensions of the space were less than 300 miles - and that was already more than enough for this overstretched force.
The geography of the battlespace thus already dictated that gaps could easily form in Army Group South’s line, and the Soviets were quick to exploit this. A renewed Soviet offensive began on December 24rd (in a sense, the Werhmacht’s 1944 from hell began a week early), with General Nikolai Vatutin slamming his powerful 1st Ukrainian Front into the army at the northernmost end of Manstein’s line - 4th Panzer Army. 4th Panzer was in a desperate state already (it had been one of the spearheads at the Battle of Kursk and had thus been steadily ground up for nearly six months) and immediately began to fall back under Vatutin’s powerful attack. The steady melting back of 4th Panzer Army stretched Manstein’s parlous line to the breaking point, and before long Vatutin’s offensive had opened up a 60 mile gap between 4th Panzer Army and its neighbor to the southeast, 8th Army.
Vatutin had created a textbook operational catastrophe for Army Group South. Facing a thinly stretched opponent, he pushed hard at a vulnerable spot and tore open a huge gash in the line. With such a huge gap now wide open, the way was clear for the Red Army to drive through the gap into Manstein’s rear, overrun his rear area infrastructure, put the remainder of the army group out of supply, and swallow up the whole thing. It is not an exaggeration to say that on New Years Day, 1944, Army Group South faced annihilation.
Manstein still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Huddling over an absolutely abysmal situation map, he decided to rerun his maneuver of the previous year - a castling move and a timely counterattack. Soviet forces were barreling through the enormous gap in his line, and he needed something to hit them with and plug the gap. The only unit that fit the bill was 1st Panzer Army - it still had some bite left, and was led General Hans Hube - one of the toughest and most gifted commanders on the roster.
The problem was that 1st Panzer was all the way on the southeastern end of Manstein’s line. For Manstein and his staff, the answer was an obvious and elegant operational solution: 1st Panzer would pull out of the line and rail back to the west to redeploy and counterattack into the gap, while 6th Army slid eastward to take its place. With a subtle rearrangement of the army group, Manstein could get panzer forces in place to counterattack, plug the gap between 4th Panzer and 8th Army, and he would not even have to give up any ground. The latter element was crucial to getting the approval of Hitler, who was by now habitually making histrionic demands that no withdrawals or retreats be countenanced.
By frantically railing First Panzer Division to the scene of the action - and cajoling Hitler into transferring a few extra divisions in from other fronts - Manstein managed to assemble a decent strike package in west-central Ukraine in the second week of January, on the plains near Uman. On paper, he had put Hube in position with three Panzer corps, arrayed in a semicircular arc to await the onrushing Soviets. On January 15, he pulled the trigger and began yet another well-timed counterattack against outstretched Soviet tendrils.
The German counterattack, even considering the enormous Soviet overmatch across the theater, was well positioned to achieve some successes. Several major factors were at play. First and foremost, the three Soviet armies (1st Tank Army plus 38th and 40th Rifle Armies) advancing into Manstein’s rear area had been fighting and driving almost continuously for three weeks, and were thus classically vulnerable to culmination due to dwindling supplies of fuel and other necessities. Secondly, Manstein had arranged what amounted to an ambush, with two of Hube’s corps taking the Soviets on the flanks. Finally, even until the very end the German panzer package remained the premier tactical asset in the war, owing to both their experience and the technical superiority of their late-war vehicles. When the Germans could manage to scrape together enough Panzers, they were always able to do damage - the simple matter was that they usually could not get a reasonable strike group put together. But in Soviet Ukraine, in January 1944, Manstein had just enough to stave off a catastrophe.
The ferocious and concentrated counterattack caught those three overstretched Soviet armies from all sides, and a week of hard fighting saw the Germans wipe all three from the battlefield. To be sure, the tactical performance of the Panzer force seemed as deadly as ever. The crown jewel in the force was a novel formation dubbed the Heavy Panzer Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel and licensed dentist Franz Bäke. The regiment was equipped with a whopping 46 Panzer V Panthers and 24 Tigers, along with cutting edge self propelled howitzers and mechanized infantry. Even at this stage in the war, a Panzer force like this was powerful enough to terrorize any Soviet formation it tangled with, and Bäke the death dentist led his regiment to nearly 300 tank kills in the January action, at the cost of only 4 of his own vehicles.
The counterattack was tactically successful, and for the moment Manstein had avoided the total annihilation of his army group. Maybe, in the most generous construction, he had restored the structural integrity of his line and won what might be called a victory. But a closer examination reveals a less than stellar situation, to put it mildly.
On paper, 1st Panzer Army had wiped out three entire Soviet field armies, consisting of 14 infantry divisions and five mechanized corps, and to be fair they had genuinely ceased to exist as fighting units. The destroyed equipment was prodigious - all in all, Hube’s Panzers destroyed 700 Soviet tanks. But Manstein’s trap was not an encirclement battle of the sort that the Germans had fought in the past. The Panzers were in the field, but there were not nearly enough infantry divisions to form a proper encirclement. As a result, total Soviet casualties in the counterattack amounted to less than 30,000. This may seem like some large number (and to each of the unfortunate dead it was one too many), but truthfully, given the scale of the forces involved in this war, this was a miniscule tally which reflected the fact that most of the Soviet personnel had simply melted back toward their start lines amid the ferocious German counterattack. In other words, we might say that Manstein’s attack had eliminated those three armies by scattering them and smashing their equipment, rather than destroying them.
Furthermore, what Manstein had accomplished was simply to turn back an exploiting spearhead. The broader Soviet offensive had succeeded in battering 4th Panzer Army and capturing an enormous swathe of territory west of the Dnieper, and the Germans could not even earnestly pray to reverse this. Virtually all of the Soviet gains, consolidated by the second week of January, were permanent.
On the tactical level, a unit like Dr. Bäke’s heavy panzer regiment could congratulate itself on racking up Soviet armor kills, but they were only one elite - and small - unit on an enormous front that was coming apart at the seams. While these elite German units would remain the most potent tactical elements in the war, right up until the very end, the remainder of the Wehrmacht was increasingly made up of a de-motorized mass of hastily scrounged up replacements who were overmatched at every level by the Red Army, which by now fought with extreme degrees of both confidence and competence. Concentrating the available mechanized forces near Vinnitsa had allowed Manstein to delay a catastrophe, but at the expense of the rest of his front - for example, 8th Army, which now occupied a dangerous salient near Cherkassy.
We might call Manstein’s castling maneuver and timely counterattack his last victory - if we can stretch the word victory to include an action that only delays catastrophic defeat by a few weeks. Perhaps, in a moment of extreme self-congratulation and delusion, Manstein could convince himself that his operational acumen, superior German willpower and aggression, and the tactical superiority of the elite panzer units really could make it possible to hold the line in the east as Hitler had ordered. Or perhaps we would be more wise to listen to one of Manstein’s subordinates, like Lieutenant General Nikolaus von Vormann, who said it succinctly:
“Defending in Russia means losing.”
Hube’s counterattack marked the last flickering moment of optimism for Army Group South. Thereafter, the Red Army would repeatedly kick them into the dirt and drive them from Soviet Ukraine. In fact, the beatings continued so relentlessly that the next great blow was already forming before the dust had settled from the desperate counterblow. The Red Army’s opening act of 1944 (Vitutin’s great attack on 4th Panzer Army) had pushed the front out in a great arc from the upper Dnieper, from the Pripet Marshes in the north down to the plains around Vinnitsa and Uman. Simultaneous, but less intense attacks against Sixth Army on the southernmost end of Manstein’s line had similarly advanced the Red Army well west of the river south of Cherkassy.
This produced a situation map with one of the most obvious and glaring structural vulnerabilities of the war. The Red Army was far over the Dnieper in both the northern and southern sections of Army Group Center’s front - in some places, they had advanced 100 miles past it. Yet German 8th Army, in the center of the front, was still attempting to hold a defensive line on the river itself. It was by now the only of Manstein’s armies to still be at the Dnieper line, occupying at most a 25-mile stretch of riverbank to the west of Cherkassy.
The problems with this position were myriad. In the first place, it is fairly obvious that the Dnieper did not actually constitute a defensive barrier for 8th Army, simply because the Soviets were already across the river everywhere else. There were allusions made to holding some of the Dnieper crossings for “future offensive action”, but that was only a fantasy. Furthermore, the odd insistence on holding a position on the Dnieper put 8th Army into a shockingly severe salient. It was not even "in the line” at all, but far outside of it, with its connections to neighboring armies laying well to behind it. In short, this was an entirely unproductive position which further stretched 8th Army’s already insufficient forces and put six divisions in a position ripe to be encircled. Abandoning the salient at maximum speed was an obvious need. General Kurt von Tippelskirch pleaded that the “last moment” had come for the forces in the salient to be “saved from inevitable disaster by swift withdrawal to the south-west”, but Hitler’s by now dogmatic insistence on “standing fast” made this a nonstarter.
The position was obviously vulnerable, and the Red Army wasted no time exploiting it. By January 24, they had already moved two tank armies (the 5th and 6th) into position at the base of the salient. Given both their substantial capability overmatch and the tremendous violence of the Soviet assault, they broke through at will almost everywhere. One German commander likened the assault of the Soviet tank armies to a natural disaster: “An astonishing scene, shattering in its drama! No other epithet will do. The dam burst, and the great unending flood poured across the flat terrain.”
The leading Soviet tank spearheads took only four days to drive across the nearly 90 mile base of the salient, linking up on January 28. By the 31st, the Red Army had filled out the encirclement with infantry forces, forming an iron ring around what had once been a salient but was now a fully encircled pocket. Zhukov - who was coordinating the operation, which involved forces of both the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts - took no chances with this pocket. He established a double ring of forces around the encircled Germans, and resolved to liquidate the pocket systematically before moving on.
This was probably an excessive level of due diligence, which reflects a Soviet intelligence failure related to the German forces in the pocket. Ivan Konev (commander of 2nd Ukrainian Front) reported that the pocket contained a whopping 130,000 German troops, who were estimated to have with them some 1,600 artillery pieces and nearly 250 tanks. Thinking they had a substantial German force encircled, Zhukov rationally opted for a methodical and robust liquidation. In fact, the German forces in the pocket consisted of 6 divisions (including an SS division), with at most 58,000 personnel. These divisions had already been largely decimated in the fighting of the previous year and were stripped of much of their equipment, and had a mere 242 artillery pieces and 40 operable armored vehicles. Given the disparity between the Soviet estimates and the actual strength in the pocket, the Red Army’s caution in dealing with the encirclement amounted to overkill.
Still, they had caught a nice bag full of German divisions in a fire sack. Facing annihilation, the first order of business for the Germans was to try and organize their forces in the pocket. The six German divisions were withdrawn into a consolidated position in the center of the pocket, anchored on the town of Korsun (for which the pocket is conventionally named in the historiography). There, the encircled Germans bunkered down to wait…. but for what? Starvation? Annihilation? Rescue? The presence of 5th SS Division inside the pocket was a comfort to many of the rank and file infantry - perhaps Hitler didn’t care about them so much, but surely he wouldn’t let his cherished SS be captured? A rescue or breakout attempt must surely be underway?
In fact, Hitler initially reacted nonchalantly to the encirclement, and declared that the units in the pocket must defend it as a “fortress on the Dnieper”. He approved a plan to prepare a relief effort, but in his mind the point was not to break the encircled units out of the pocket, but to break in from the outside and begin some sort of offensive. At some staff meetings, he even alluded to driving back to Kiev. Needless to say, this was pure fantasy. Army Group South faced a catastrophe, and it would be a herculean task just to rescue some of the forces in the Korsun pocket, but here was the supreme commander talking about going back on the strategic offensive. Major-General Otto Wagener, a one-time confidant of Hitler’s, was more sober and lachrymose:
“A new Stalingrad on a smaller scale had arisen, with the Volga replaced by the Dnieper and the same orders from Hitler to the encircled troops: “hold out, supplies from the air, relief offensive, no breakout.”
In the end, Manstein did manage to pull together 3rd Panzer Corps (or at least, what was left of it) for a drive into the pocket, though he had to pay lip service to Hitler and tell him that the intention was not to evacuate the forces inside but only to reestablish a ground connection to them. On paper, 3rd Panzer Corps did have some strong horses still in the stable, in particular the heavy panzer regiment under the Death Dentist, Colonel Bäke. In a straight up fight, this concentration of late model panzers had the punching power to breach Soviet lines, but the penetration would be small - and in any case, this presumed that the Germans could actually maneuver.
The German attempt to break open the Korsun Pocket (code-named Operation Wanda) misfired almost immediately due to the unlucky sudden onset of bad weather. In this case, the serendipitous climatic intervention was not cold, but the thaw. The winter of 1943-44 turned out to be unusually short and warm, to the effect that the first days of February turned into a rapid thaw which soon turned Soviet Ukraine into one colossal mud pit. This was particularly bad news for the German relief effort, which was counting on the combat power of heavy panzer models that sank into the mud and become virtually immobile.
This led to one of the most phantasmagorical - and borderline incomprehensible - vignettes of the war.
To move the enormous Panther and Tiger tanks through thick mud proved to be unbelievably fuel-expensive; with the tanks sinking practically down to their track covers, the drivers essentially had to gun the engines full-bore just to keep the tank inching forward. As a result, during Third Panzer Corps assault on the Soviet encirclement, the Panther tanks required a full tank of fuel (about 190 gallons or 730 liters) to move 2.5 miles. How is it possible to wage a mobile operation when fuel expenditure balloons to 76 gallons per mile? To keep the panzers moving, the Germans had to drop barrels of fuel out of low-flying airplanes, then roll or drag the barrels over to the tanks by hand. The infantry hardly fared better than the tanks - the mud began to swallow up their boots, so the majority took them off and quite literally advanced to battle barefoot. Even for an army which had gone through the thaw season several times now, this was possibly the worst mud of the war. This was a shocking and humiliating scene for an army that had only recently brought Europe to its feet.
The breakout attempt had been due to start on February 3, but within a few days it had bogged down completely and Manstein actually had to pull 3rd Panzer Corps back to redeploy and try again at a different spot on the Soviet line. By February 15, they had made some progress into the Soviet pocket (once they got into the fight, the Panthers and Tigers remained deadly to the outgunned Soviet T-34s), but Manstein had to admit that the attack had maxed out, largely due to the loss of tanks to mechanical failure amid all the wretched mud.
Still, Hitler refused to let the forces inside the Korsun Pocket break out. He had appointed General Wilhelm Stemmermann “Commander in the Pocket” and demanded that they hold the “fortress” no matter the circumstances. Manstein and his staff, however, were increasingly frustrated with what they saw as an incomprehensible and borderline suicidal order. Eventually, Manstein’s chief of staff confided that Army Group South would have to “give the order for the breakout on its own responsibility. There can be no question of leaving the two corps sitting in the pocket.” This was a belated and unusual moment of willing defiance against Hitler’s orders - the sort of moment that was far too rare.
Trouble in paradise. Despite everything apparently going quite well for the Red Army, Stalin remained impatient for the liquidation of the Korsun Pocket. As he saw it, Zhukov was dragging his feet, while Stalin anxiously desired to announce another Stalingrad to the world. Unfortunately, the opportunistic commander of 2nd Ukrainian Front, Ivan Konev, took advantage of this moment - he suggested to Stalin that the problem was that the pocket was the dual responsibility of both his own front and Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian, and Zhukov was not up to the challenge of coordinating between them. He promised Stalin that if custody of the sector was transferred solely to his own command, he could liquidate it in short order. This was an underhanded move which humiliated and angered Zhukov (poisoning his relationship with Konev for the rest of their lives), but Stalin agreed with Konev’s suggestion and sent out the order on February 12:
“Command of all troops engaged in action against the Korsun grouping is transferred to the commander-in-chief of 2nd Ukrainian Front, with the task of destroying the Korsun grouping without delay.”
It was at this point that events confluence. Konev immediately set about preparing to reshuffle and rearrange the encircling forces to launch an attack on the pocket and destroy the Germans inside, but the act of reordering his forces temporarily created openings for the Germans to exploit. All of this occurred just as Manstein’s relief attack was breaking down, breathing new life into the German position. Knowing what the answer would be, Manstein opted not to consult with Hitler and gave the order himself.
“Watchword freedom, objective Lisyanka. Set out at 23.00 on the 16th… ‘Stemmermann Group must carry out decisive breakthrough to Zhurzhintsy—Hill 239, two kilometres to the south, with its own forces. Link up there with III Armd. Corps.”
A seemingly innocuous little name, but one that would signify an inglorious and morbid scene.
The news that a breakout attempt was to be conducted did much to energize the Germans in the pocket. There were many complications, of course, in particular a lack of motor transportation which led General Stemmermann to make the brutal decision to leave behind the wounded (some of his men ignored these orders and carried their comrades out, but several hundred were left to die). Nevertheless, the codeword “Freedom” seemed to signal a lightening of the mood, and Stemmermann organized his weary force to attack southward and break out. It was a longshot, to be sure, but the encircled Germans were ready to fight with all the desperation of men facing certain death.
The men inside the pocket knew very little of what was going on outside. They knew vaguely that 3rd Panzer Corps had been fighting to reach them, and they were told that Hill 239 was the “receiving point” where they would be welcomed by the rescue force. Therefore, when the initial German breakout attack miraculously managed to penetrate the Soviet line - thanks to a combination of Konev’s ill-timed reshuffling and the fact that they attacked in the middle of a foggy night while the Soviet troops were mostly asleep - the German grouping devolved into a disorderly mass of men desperately trying to run down the road to Hill 239. What was once an organized, if decimated, military force was now essentially a mob motivated by a collective frenzy to reach the safety of the hill.
One can imagine their chagrin at discovering, via a hail of gunfire, that Hill 239 was still occupied by the Red Army. Manstein’s staff had expected Third Panzer Corps to capture Hill 239 by the time the breakout attempt began, but the attack had stalled and the hill remained in Soviet hands. They had been unable to relay this fact to General Stemmermann, first because the radio link to the pocket had been broken, and secondly because Stemmermann was killed almost immediately after the breakout attempt started when his staff car took a direct hit from a Soviet shell. Remarkably, his death was not even noticed for several hours in the general confusion. General Theo-Helmut Lieb, who took defacto command after Stemmermann’s demise, described the scene as follows:
There was no longer any effective control; there were no regiments, no battalions. Now and then small units appeared alongside us… Behind and alongside me, thousands of men were struggling south-west… The entire area was littered with dead horses, and with vehicles and guns that had either been knocked out by the enemy or simply abandoned by their crews.
All the recipes now existed for a proper massacre. The Germans were already disorganized and frantically rushing for Hill 239, only to find it occupied by the Soviets. Adjusting or reorganizing themselves to fight turned out to be impossible due to the breakdown of communications and the fact that their general had been exploded. And so the breakout became a shooting gallery for the Soviet tankers and gunners, who began to pump fire into the mass of Germans who now became little more than a mob making a break for it, trying to run through the Soviet ring to safety.
A remarkable number made it, simply because they were in an enormous mass and the Soviets simply couldn’t fire fast enough to kill them all. It was not a fight so much as an animalistic attempt by the Germans to run the gauntlet of fire and escape into the night air. The result was the sort of outcome which dissatisfies both parties. For the Germans, this was an unqualified military disaster which saw six divisions abandon their gear and make a mad dash for freedom through a Soviet killing field. For the Red Army, however, the disappointment was that nearly 36,000 of the 58,000 Germans in the pocket managed to escape, albeit without their equipment and in such a physically and psychologically traumatized state that they were unfit for combat.
Konev - having promised Stalin that he would liquidate the Germans only to let a good number slip through - immediately churned up a laundered version of the story. He claimed to have annihilated 130,000 Germans and described the battle as follows:
“We took all the necessary measures so that not a single hitlerite could escape from encirclement. To break through four defensive zones—two on the inner and two on the outer encirclement front— and besides this, to pass the tank-proof areas and antitank artillery in the center of the corridor was impossible… Tens of thousands of German officers and men paid with their lives for the senseless and criminal stubbornness of the Nazi Command which rejected our ultimatum for surrender.”
Korsun had been a victory for the Red Army, to be sure, and a substantial one, but it fell far short of Konev’s described extermination battle. Stalin, however, accepted and advanced Konev’s story, simply because he was the one who had overridden Zhukov and given Konev command of the operation in the first place, and he did not feel like conceding that this had been a mistake. Instead, he had Konev promoted to Marshal. Zhukov, feeling both aggrieved and vindicated, recalled the incident the following way, pointedly refusing to mention Konev by name:
“I consider this an unforgivable error on the part of the Supreme Commander. The Red Army had lost a great opportunity. The prey escaped. There was no “Cannae at Korsun.””
The Soviet story about the Battle of the Korsun Pocket was a lie, but that was nothing compared to the German spin. The extrication - barely - of the remnants of a massacred forced was trumpeted as a great victory. Knowing, as we do, that the escape entailed running frantically through a gauntlet of fire which mowed down 40% of the force, the official German statement on Korsun reads like pure fantasy:
“The troops cut off there since 28 January… fought off the assault by far superior enemy forces in heroic battle and then broke through the enemy’s enclosing ring in bitter fighting. The commanders and their troops have thus written another glorious page in the history of German soldiery, a further shining example of heroic endurance, daring fighting spirit, and selfless comradeship.”
Nevertheless, medals were handed out and congratulations were in order, and some of the battered escapees of the Korsun Pocket were even brought to Berlin to receive commendations from Hitler himself. One of their commanders made the laconic observation that:
“The troops who took part were astonished and unbelieving when they were told they had won a great victory at Cherkassy in the Ukraine in 1944.”
So far in 1944, the Red Army had mauled 4th Panzer Army and encircled the better part of two corps at Korsun, and it was only February. It had been all Manstein could do to stave off disaster with a risky castling maneuver and then extricate a skeletal force from the pocket. Army Group South survived - barely - but its combat power was exhausted. And yet, these operations amounted to little more than a prologue for the Soviets. With the entire German line battered, disjointed, and exhausted, Zhukov brought the hammer down on the entire army group in a burst of attacking power so broad and violent that the Germans could do nothing to stop it. The offensive wave, which opened up on March 3, was so comprehensive that it is overwhelming for us to even map it. But if we can hardly stand to look at it on a map, imagine how the Germans felt trying to withstand its fury.
Amid this general collapse of the front, three incidents in particular stand out.
One was the exemplary performance of 1st Panzer Army under the unshakable General Hube. Encircled on the plains around Vinnitsa, Hube kept his cool and organized his army into a consolidated armored hedgehog, which he proceeded to move westward to escape. 1st Panzer was by this point the most battle-worthy formation in the army group, and Hube kept the cohesion of his force strong and moved in a methodical stop-start manner towards freedom, with panzers in the lead to push through the Soviet forces and antitank guns guarding the rear. Starting on March 24, First Panzer formed a “moving pocket” which slowly slogged its way out of the encirclement, linking up with the 2nd SS Panzer Corps on April 6 and finally slithering out of the trap. Hube’s moving pocket demonstrated the vital role that group cohesion, discipline, and competent command could play - in this case, the difference between life and death for an entire field army.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Hube were two forces condemned to die in place. On March 8, Hitler crossed a new Rubicon of operational incompetence when he issued the first order for a “Feste Plätze” or stronghold. This was an entirely new degree of military lunacy, which called for forces in various towns and cities to allow themselves to be encircled and then defend to the last man as a way of delaying and tying down Soviet manpower. The first forces to attempt this insane experiment were the German garrison in the city of Ternopol. Some 4,600 German personnel were encircled by the Red Army on March 23, and by April 1 half of them were already dead. Under intense artillery fire from all sides, only 55 men of the original 4,600 would escape the death trap - slithering out in small groups on April 12.
In the context of this war, which killed tens of millions, the action at Ternopol may not look substantial. However, those 4,545 Germans who were killed served as a sort of canary in the coal mine - a stark warning of the Werhmacht’s trajectory. Despite the utter insanity and abject failure of the “Ternopol Fortified Place”, which offered up six battalions to die for no obvious reason, there would be a great many more “strongholds” declared by Hitler, and each of them would become colossal death pits.
A similar fate awaited the German 17th Army - a lonely force which had been left behind months ago in Crimea. Even as late as 1944, Hitler had ambitions of holding Crimea - both as a launchpad for fictional future offenses, and to prevent the Soviets from using it to launch air raids on Romania. The latter was something of a quaint notion, as the Red Army had arrived on Romania’s overland doorstep anyway, but nevertheless there lay the 17th Army, holding down the fort as they say.
During the early months of 1944, the Red Army had bigger fish to fry than a useless German army rotting in Crimea, but in April they finally decided to liquidate them. Two armies (2nd Guards and the 51st) were to come overland via the Perekop isthmus, while a specialized littoral force - the “Coastal Army” was to make an amphibious leap over the Kerch Strait. As the 17th Army had been given nothing useful to do over the past several months, they’d been hard at work preparing a sequence of defensive belts to block the eventual Soviet attack. This was a veteran field army, fighting from behind prepared defenses in natural chokepoints, could they not reasonably hope to delay the Soviets or at least make them pay for their efforts?
Hardly. The Red Army rolled through the German lines like a hot knife through butter, cutting apart a new belt on a daily basis. The assault began on April 8, and already by the 13th the remnants of 17th Army were bottled up in the final fortress around Sevastopol, where they desperately held out until the survivors were mercifully evacuated by sea in the second week of May. Crimea - that natural fortress which had taken Manstein so much effort to capture in 1942, had been completely cleansed in only a month. As was becoming more and more common at this stage in the war, the Germans were no longer on the right end of the loss ratios. Some 60,000 German soldiers died trying to hold Crimea, against a mere 12,000 Soviet casualties.
It had been a bad year for Manstein. Despite every operational contrivance he could come up with, his front had been systematically caved in by the Red Army’s overpowering Ukrainian fronts, and the Wehrmacht was ejected from Soviet Ukraine for good. His four field armies (or what was left of them) managed to extricate themselves, barely, with 6th and 8th retreating over the Prut River towards Romania and the Balkans, and 1st and 4th Panzer Armies feebly dragging themselves over the line towards occupied Poland.
Manstein was defeated.
We can say, of course, that he had fared better than virtually anybody else would have in his situation; his castling maneuver and timely counterattack had staved off disaster for a time, and he and his subordinate General Hube had quite literally saved 1st Panzer Army by skillfully managing the mobile pocket and extricating it from its Ukrainian tomb. But it was not enough to save his position in Ukraine, or his post at the head of Army Group South. Hitler had finally had enough of Manstein’s constant demands to “operate” - to withdraw, maneuver, and give ground. He needed a commander who would obstinately stand in place, and most certainly not authorize withdrawals without permission. Manstein was relieved of his post and would never receive another field command, and one of history’s great military talents exited the stage with his front in freefall amid an orgiastic explosion of attacking power from the Red Army, with Zhukov standing victorious over its corpse, like Ali roaring at the prone carapace of Liston. Manstein was a genius, but the tragedy of his genius was that it had all been a waste and a mistake.
Hube, for his performance in extracting his army from a potentially fatal encirclement, was summoned to Berlin to receive the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds - the highest honor that the Wehrmacht could bestow. No sooner had he received his medal than he hopped on a plane to return to the front, which crashed en-route, killing the distinguished general, who had been reverentially called “The Man” by his troops. Thus Army Group South lost its two most talented and vital personnel right as it was in free fall.
In a strange sense, both Manstein and Hube were lucky. Neither would have to participate in the disaster to come. By the standards of this war, and this year in particular, the great Soviet victory in Ukraine was only an appetizer. The main course of this Götterdämmerung were still to come.
On a Knife’s Edge
It would probably be a substantial understatement to say that German faced a strategic crisis in the spring of 1944. With the Werhamcht’s position in the east unraveling by the day, manpower, material, and fuel shortages increasingly crippling the army’s ability to operate, and the prospect of an Anglo-American landing looming, it is probably better to simply say that Germany was confronting a comprehensive and apparently inevitable ruin.
Despite the unequivocally pessimistic outlook, the German war state continued to function. It continued to produce large quantities of munitions and equipment and experiment with ever more advanced forms of weaponry. German soldiers at the front continued to fight, and the logistical apparatus continued to provide them with food, ammunition, and fuel, though never quite enough. German officers continued to manage operations and obey orders. And above all, the high command continued to make strategic decisions. These decisions were frequently foolish and self-destructive, but the fact remains that even amid an unfolding geostatic catastrophe the German state continued to manage the war in an intentional way, and their strategic choices mattered a great deal in determining the shape of postwar Europe. It is worth our time, then, to contemplate these choices.
In 1940, Germany had seemingly solved its classic strategic problem of a two-front war when it defeated and occupied France in a single campaigning season. This put the combined resources of the European core at Germany’s disposal and freed up significant military resources for further campaigning. Because Britain remained in the war, garrisoning and occupying Berlin’s vast empire required a manpower commitment which was not inconsequential, and intervention in Italy’s African misadventure did divert some German strength - nevertheless, in 1941 and 1942 Germany was able to concentrate the bulk of its fighting power in the Soviet Union. By 1943, however, American troops were increasingly entering the fight in Africa and then in Italy, and it was universally understood that a major invasion of France or the Low Countries was immanent. If Germany could be said to have escaped a two front war, the reprieve was frightfully short, and the Wehrmacht had to prepare accordingly.
The broad implication of this was that Germany now faced a two-fold force allocation problem due to an extraordinary level of overmatch. In the first place, it had to make a theater allocation choice - that is, choosing how to distribute its available forces among the various fronts like Italy, the Soviet Union, and the soon to be reopened French front. Then it faced a more specific dilemma as to how to allocate forces on the Eastern Front, where the Red Army enjoyed an enormous combat power advantage. The specific ways that Germany tried to solve these allocation problems would do much to shape the final phase of the war.
Stalin would repeatedly complain throughout 1943 and early 1944 that the Anglo-American allies were taking far too long to open up a second front against Germany, but this was really quite unfair of him. Already by the time of the Tehran Conference in late November, 1943 (the first face to face meeting of the “Big Three”), precisely as Stalin was accusing his allies of dragging their feet, the Anglo-American coalition had already invaded Italy and tied up some 20 German divisions. Of course, this was not a colossal amount in the context of the Eastern Front, but it amounted to the better part of half an army group, and Germany’s Italian deployment directly denuded its frontline eastern formations of strength. More to the point, the growing threat of an Anglo-American invasion forced the Wehrmacht to maintain sprawling deployments around the western periphery. By October 1, 1943, only some 62.5% of the German field army was still deployed on the eastern front, and that ratio would decline over time.
By November, 1943, Hitler had firmly decided that the main point of effort ought to shift from the east to the west, and commanders in the east watched in dismay as newly raised or refurbished units, along with shiny new equipment, was slowly but surely stockpiled in France. This raised a rather ironic juxtaposition - while Stalin vociferously complained that the allies needed to open a second front, the German Army Operations Staff (OKH, responsible for the eastern front) sent a memorandum to Wehrmacht high command demanding an explanation for why (by that point) only 53 percent of the army’s available forces were committed to the east.
It is a valid question. Knowing, as we do, that the Red Army was building up an unstoppable steamroller, we can certainly ask why Germany de-prioritized the eastern front right as it was falling apart at the seams in favor of a French front that had not yet even been properly activated. Why prioritize a theoretical future doom when a very real one was already at hand?
In part, this reflected a belief that Germany had less strategic depth in the west - for example, a Wehrmacht staff study argued that the Anglo-Americans could quickly threaten the vital Ruhr industrial region, which would destroy the German war economy in an instant. Hitler put the argument this way:
‘The danger in the east remains, but a greater danger now appears in the west: an Anglo-American landing! In the east, the vast extent of the territory makes it possible for us to lose ground, even on a large scale, without a fatal blow being dealt to the nervous system of Germany. It is very different in the west!”
But his thinking was much more expansive - and much more fantastically optimistic - than this. By the beginning of 1944, Hitler’s envisioned path to victory hinged on the idea that the enemy coalition would collapse due to its ideological contradictions. He described the alliance between the Anglo-Americans and the USSR as a cooperation of:
“the greatest extremes imaginable in this world: ultra-capitalist states on one side and ultra-Marxist states on the other.”
Therefore, German strategy was largely conducted with an eye as to how to pull the enemy coalition apart. In Hitler’s view, the only way this was possible was to get the Anglo-Americans to drop out of the war, and this in turn could be achieved by decisively defeating their inevitable invasion of France. In this extremely optimistic construction, Germany’s path to victory would entail building up a strong force in France that could smash the allied landing in its opening stage. Hitler said:
“I look forward to this battle with full confidence. A defensive victory will change the military and political situation from top to bottom, because a landing operation of that kind, for which detailed preparations have been years in the making, cannot simply be repeated—not to mention the political repercussions in Britain and America.”
In this alternate reality, the Wehrmacht inflicts a shocking defeat on the Anglo-American forces before they can ever really get a foothold in Normandy. With the landing thrown back into the sea and the American public shocked at suffering high casualties without even getting a foothold on the continent, the Anglo-Americans come to their senses and make peace with Germany, freeing the forces in France and Italy to rush eastward to reinforce the front against the Soviets.
This was, in a sense, not very different from the German strategy in the first world war, which had hinged on winning a rapid victory in France so that the whole army could quickly rail to the east to fight Russia. The basic formulation was the same - attack and win quickly in the west while defending in the east. Hitler even went so far as to say he “welcomed the landing”, because it would allow the Wehrmacht to give the Anglo-Americans a hard blow that would knock them out of the war, after which “30 to 35 divisions will be free for operations in the east.”
Clearly this all seems ridiculously optimistic and phantasmagorical, and of course the Wehrmacht could neither successfully win in the west nor defend in the east. However, Hitler and those closest to him really did think this way, and so Germany entered the spring of 1944 with a basic strategic formula of “attack in the west, defend in the east.” This goes a long way to explain the decision to rely on “fortified places” like the ill-fated holdfast of Ternopol. The German operational approach in the east would increasingly be predicated on tenacious defense and willpower, rather than any sort of operational sophistication or maneuver.
If there was one possible silver lining in all of this for the armies in the east, it was simply that they would not be asked to do much in the near term. All they really had to do was hold their lines and survive. As Hitler put it, “The time for grand-style operations in the east… was now past. All that counted now was to cling stubbornly to what we held.” But in the path of a mighty storm, even this would be too much to ask.
The Big One: Operation Bagration
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