This was the primary German defence line on the Eastern Front in the area to the west of Orel, running from Sevsk to Zhidra via a point just to the east of Bryansk (summer 1943).
This line was schemed by Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ as a fall-back position at the base of the German salient round Orel for Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s 9th Army and General Heinrich Clössner’s 2nd Panzerarmee in the event they were driven back by the forces, from north to south, of General Vasili D. Sokolovsky’s West Front 1, General Polkovnik Markian M. Popov’s Bryansk Front 2 and General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Central Front 3.
In the sector of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', the 'Zitadelle' offensive, which the Soviets had already halted, was called off on 12 July. On the following day, after a conference at his headquarters, Adolf Hitler gave Model operational command of Clössner’s 2nd Panzerarmee (formalised on 6 August) in addition to his own 9th Army and instructed him to close the Soviet breakthroughs made in the 'Orel Strategic Offensive Operation’ (otherwise 'Kutuzov') and retake the original front of the Orel salient to the north of the Kursk re-entrant. Model’s appointment marked the emergence of a new type of German senior commander, the specialist in defensive warfare. While he had once called on generals such as Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein to engineer victories, from the summer of 1943 Hitler came to rely ever more heavily on a small number of generals who seldom disputed his orders and seemed to possess the capability to fend off catastrophe. Model was the ablest and most successful of the type: he was a Nazi believer whose faith in Hitler outlasted that of most other officers of his rank, and was moreover a superb tactician who in combat spared neither himself nor his subordinates.
At this time the ‘Kutuzov’ offensive against the rear of the 9th Army and 2nd Panzerarmee, holding the southern and northern halves of the Orel salient respectively, was based on convergent thrusts by the West, Bryansk and Central Fronts. The six infantry divisions of Fedyuninsky’s 11th Guards Army of the West Front, with a tank corps and four tank brigades supported by two breakthrough artillery corps comprising more than 60 regiments of artillery (almost 3,000 guns and mortars), launched the initial assault on the northern sector between Kirov and Belev on a southerly axis toward Khotinets.
The tactics now adopted by the Soviet forces were those which became standard throughout the latter part of the war on the Eastern Front: the attacks were delivered on very narrow assault frontages, the infantry divisions being allotted tight boundaries only some 2,025 yards (1850 m) apart. After a heavy artillery bombardment at dawn on 12 July, the 11th Guards Army advanced some 16 miles (25.75 km) during the first two days. The attack had by now been taken up from the eastern tip of the German-held Orel salient by Gorbatov’s 3rd Army and Kolpakchy’s 63rd Army, both of the Bryansk Front.
The German resistance was very determined, and as several of the 9th Army’s formations were turned about to aid the 2nd Panzerarmee in covering the left flank and rear of the 9th Army, the Soviet offensive was slowed and finally checked. However, this did not occur until a time after von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, on the southern flank of the Soviet-held Kursk salient, had been ordered to reinforce Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ with Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’.
Although the forward movement of the Soviet armies had been halted, temporarily at least, the pressure inevitably started to increase once again when the West Front brought up another two armies, Badanov’s 4th Tank Army and Fedyuninsky’s 11th Army. The weight of the Soviet effort was also swelled by the commitment of Bagramyan’s 63rd Army and Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army of the Bryansk Front north and south of Novosil respectively.
By the time Model took command in the Orel salient, therefore, the Soviets had achieved several penetrations through the 2nd Panzerarmee's front. Two of these penetrations, one directly to the east of Orel and the other to the south of Sukhinichi, were rapidly growing both wider and deeper. On 15 July the Soviet offensive expanded into the 9th Army's sector.
On 16 July, as a precaution, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and its subordinate armies began work on the 'Hagen-Stellung' as a line of north/south field fortifications across the base of the Orel salient between Kirov in the north via Bryansk and Nalya to Sevsk in the south. Distracted by events in the Mediterranean theatre, such as the 'Husky' (i) Allied landings on Sicily, and in the sector of von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd', such as the Soviet 'Belgorod-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation' (otherwise 'Polkovodets Rumyantsev'), Hitler did not insist on a rigid linear defence: he had quickly amended his original order demanding a continuous front, and on 22 July authorised Model to conduct an elastic defence.
On 18/19 July, and now free of the threat which had been posed by 'Zitadelle', the Stavka had meanwhile committed powerful forces from its reserves. Popov’s Bryansk Front received the 3rd Guards Tank Army to lend weight to the thrust toward Orel, and Sokolovsky’s West Front was given the 4th Tank Army and 11th Guards Army with which to widen the gap on the north face of the salient. The onset of heavy rain from the start of the third week in July combined with superior German tactics, which could not stop the Soviet onslaughts but generally to blunt them, started to rob the Soviet offensive of some of its momentum.
Hitler’s fears about Italy materialised during the last week of July, when on 25 July the king dismissed Mussolini, who was placed under arrest as he left the palace. The new government under Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio announced that it intended to continue the war, but no one at Führer headquarters, least of all Hitler, placed any credence in this claimed intention. Hitler immediately ordered the start of planning for the 'Eiche' rescue of Mussolini and the strengthening of the German hold on Italy, including the 'Achse' (ii) plan to seize key areas in the events of an Italian surrender or defection.
Hitler also summoned von Kluge, who arrived at Hitler’s headquarters at mid-day on 26 July Hitler to be informed that one of the most powerful German formations on the Eastern Front, SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps, was to be transferred from Heeresgruppe 'Süd' to Italy: Hitler believed that the politically pure SS divisions, which Hitler believed to be equivalent to 20 Italian divisions, would thereby form the nucleus around which the Fascist elements in the Italian army could rally. SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Theodor Wisch’s (from 20 August SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Mohnke’s) SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler' already had orders to entrain at Stalino. von Kluge was told that his army group would have to provide replacements for the SS divisions, and would in the near future would also have to release other divisions, about 24 in all, for transfer to Italy and France. The only way these formations could be made available was by the abandonment of the Orel salient, and the 2nd Panzerarmee and 9th Army would immediately have to start their fallback to the 'Hagen-Stellung'. von Kluge protested that he could not pull these two armies back into a line which was still very far from complete, but Hitler was adamant as Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' would very soon have to start releasing a major portion of its strength.
Protesting as strongly as he could, von Kluge tried to persuade Hitler that his army group faced too many dangers to lose any of its strength, especially as neither the ‘Hagen-Stellung’ defences in the rear of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ nor indeed any intermediate lines were anywhere near completion. von Kluge added that a major part of the delay was the need for the relevant construction workers to spent most of their time keeping open roads constantly washed away by heavy rain, and that the local Russian peasants were busy collecting the rye harvest and could not therefore be used to work on the field defences in the rear as, at any hint of a German withdrawal, they would fade into the woods. von Kluge also informed Hitler that the Soviet forces possessed a huge matériel advantage in the numbers of armoured fighting vehicles and pieces of artillery they could deploy. Thus, according to von Kluge, the only practical solution available to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was a methodical but gradual retirement over a period of two to three months, since too rapid a withdrawal would probably lead to the overrunning of the German troops, especially as the region’s partisan bands were proving increasingly more capable. Finally, von Kluge told Hitler, the sacrifice of Orel with important railway facilities would reduce the effective capacity of the railway line east from Bryansk from 50 to just 18 trains per day. Hitler listened to von Kluge but remained obdurate about the need for immediate withdrawal to a shorter line and thus the freeing of formations for redeployment.
In just three days Model had his two armies ready to move, but then he had to postpone their start until 1 August as a result of the poor state of the roads which 10 days heavy rain had turned into impassable quagmires. In some places the roads had become broad bands of ruts, as much as 110 yards (100 m) wide where vehicles had wandered off to the sides in their search for better going.
The German difficulty was compounded by the fact that over the withdrawal the Soviet air forces had effectively undisputed command of the air.
Through all the terrain, climatic, organisational and tactical problems, the two armies had to move their heavy equipment and supplies. The 9th Army had large quantities of supplies and ammunition, originally earmarked for 'Zitadelle', in dumps around Kromy to the south of Orel. The rear-area commands set about the destruction of the rye harvest, which was just ready to be brought in, and began moving some 250,000 civilians and their cattle and carts, along side roads. In Orel demolition crews set charges in all the buildings and installations which might be of use to the Soviets.
On 29 July the German radio intercept service listened in to a radio telephone conversation between Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt about Italy’s planned defection from the Axis alliance. The intercept confirmed Hitler’s concerns, and on 1 August he ordered an immediate withdrawal from the Orel salient.
The withdrawal began on time during the night of 1 August. By this time the Soviets were fully aware of what was planned and, unlike the situation in the German ‘Büffel-Bewegung’ evacuation of the Rzhev salient in March 1943, were already geared for offensive operations and could therefore react swiftly. On the nights of 3 and 4 August partisan activity flared throughout the rear areas of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte': on 4 August the army group’s rear-area command organisation counted 4,110 partisan-laid demolitions on the railways. One day later waves of Soviet fighters. fighter-bombers and bombers swept over the front and across the clogged roads in the rear, shattering columns moving to the west. All over the salient telephone communications were rendered unserviceable four hours at a time.
On 6 August, convinced that the 2nd Panzerarmee and 9th Army were on the run, the Stavka extended the offensive farther to the north into the sector of Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 4th Army. As co-ordinator for the Stavka, Marshal Nikolai N. Voronov put seven armies on the West Front’s left flank into an attack toward Spas-Demensk and Yelnya with the object of taking Roslavl and thereby unhingeing the northern end of the 'Hagen-Stellung'. During the days which followed, Soviet air and partisan raids multiplied, cutting telephone communications over much of the zone held by Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', and severing its supporting railway lines.
The battle reached its height as the second week of the 'Hagen-Bewegung' began. Model believed that the Soviets would attempt to overrun the 'Hagen-Stellung' if they had not already succeeded in driving round its flanks. The 4th Army was already near breaking point. The quality of the Soviet troops was low, but they surged forward massive, seemingly endless, waves of infantry and tanks. One of the 4th Army's corps commanders reported that the Soviet losses were five greater than those of his own command, but that the Soviets still possessed a major numerical advantage as they had begun the battle with a 10/1 superiority.
On 13 August the West Front’s armies took Spas-Demensk, and farther to the north Voronov committed two armies of General Andrei I. Eremenko’s Kalinin Front to an attack on the junction between the 4th Army and Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee. On the same day the 9th Army took over the 2nd Panzerarmee's sector and began to develop a switch line position behind the 'Hagen-Stellung'.
On 14 August the first German formations moved into the 'Hagen-Stellung'. For three days the army kept as many as possible of its divisions to the east of the position while German engineers, using Russian forced labour, rushed ahead with the work on the 'Hagen-Stellung', which was still far from complete. On the night of 17 August the last troops moved into the 'Hagen-Stellung' after what had been, by any standards, a withdrawal of superb tactical achievement. What no one could estimate, though, was for how long the German formations could now hold the position.
For all practical purposes, Model’s withdrawal into the 'Hagen-Stellung' ended the chain of events directly associated with 'Zitadelle'. With 'Zitadelle', Hitler had intended once more to gain the strategic and operation initiative on the Eastern Front, but what he actually achieved was a huge convulsion of the Eastern Front which had further degraded the German armies in the east and left the USSR in still fuller possession of the initiative. By the time the divisions of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' moved into the 'Hagen-Stellung', the Soviet armies in the south were advancing once more, and the summer campaign of 1943 still far from over.
During this same period Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ in the German-held salient round Kharkov, and thus on the southern side of the great Soviet held salient round Kursk, was faced with a situation with was deteriorating inexorably not just here but also in Ukraine.
On 17 July General Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s South Front and General Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South-West Front had thrust in some strength across the Mius river and the middle reaches of the Donets river near Izyum, about 300 miles (480 km) to the south-east of Orel, where the attacks fell on Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee and Generaloberst Karl Hollidt’s new 6th Army. Such was the gravity of the situation in this more southern region that German armoured formations, equivalent to two Panzer corps, were shifted from the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ near Kharkov and sent to the south-east to restore the position near the Mius river. von Manstein later admitted that this was a decidedly serious error, for the Soviet forces round the Kharkov salient were altogether stronger than von Manstein had thought them to be, especially in light of the losses the Soviets had suffered in the ‘Zitadelle’ fighting for the Kursk salient in July.
The next Soviet blow now fell on the Kharkov salient, whose loss would open the way for a Soviet offensive to the west into Ukraine. The ‘Polkovodets Rumyantsev’ offensive on Belgorod and Kharkov was co-ordinated by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov and mounted by General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front and General Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front, supported in the south by the right wing of Malinovsky’s South-West Front. These ground forces were further supported by the front’s own tactical air armies, 200 bombers of the long-range bomber force, and artillery formations of the High Command Reserve removed from the Bryansk Front.
A deception operation was mounted by General Leytenant Nikandr E. Chibisov’s 38th Army on the extreme right flank of the Voronezh Front on the western face of the Kursk salient near Sumy, and was based on radio networks and troop movements.
This was in fact unnecessary as the scheduling and strength of ‘Polkovodets Rumyantsev’ took the Germans completely by surprise largely as their attention had been diverted the front along the Mius river and middle Donets river. On 3 August, even as ‘Kutuzov’ was still being fought inside the Orel salient, the 6th Guards, 5th Guards, 53rd and 69th Armies of the Voronezh and Steppe Fronts drove toward Belgorod, the attack coming as a complete surprise to the Germans. After three hours the Soviet attack had broken the German defence, and by 12.00 of the same day General Leytenant Mikhail Ye. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army and Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army, both of the Voronezh Front, were deep in the German rear.
The Soviet forces retook Belgorod on 5 August, the formations of the two tank armies having pushed forward almost 70 miles (110 km) in five days and driven a 30-mile (50-km) gap between Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee and General Werner Kempf’s Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’. With the aid of partisan forces which effectively halted all German railway transport in the area for two days, the Soviets swept forward to retake Bogodukhov on 7 August, and so acute had the situation now become that the Germans were compelled to recall one Panzer corps from the south-east and also the Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ and other elements from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in an effort to strengthen the left wing of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’.
Hitler was adamant, as usual, that Kharkov had to be held, but on 13 August the Steppe Front fought its way into the city, and by 23 August the Germans had been forced to withdraw to avoid being trapped. The arrival of General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps and SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Walter Krüger’s 2nd SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’, SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Max Simon’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’ and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Herbert Gille’s 5th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Wiking’ allowed major German counterattacks on the 1st Tank Army and 6th Guards Army to the south of the line between Bogodukhov and Kharkov required the 5th Guards Tank Army to be brought in to stabilise the position with a temporary halt in the Soviet advance. As always, von Manstein wanted the freedom to make his own operational decisions, and told Hitler that he must have either reinforcement or permission to abandon the Donets basin.
On 27 August Hitler arrived at von Manstein’s headquarters in Vinnitsa, avowedly to discuss the situation, but refused to commit himself to any decision. Hitler insisted that the Donets basin must be held, and he offered vague promises of reinforcements from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’. von Manstein received the impression that Hitler’s mind was in fact not on the Eastern Front but rather in Italy and the Balkans, and with the Anglo-US threat in the Mediterranean theatre.
Just one day before the meeting in Vinnitsa, the Central Front had embarked on a new offensive against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and on 28 August von Kluge attended Hitler on his return to East Prussia to attempt to stave off the transfer of any formations from his Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, and the upshot of this process was that von Manstein received no reinforcements.
Starting on 26 August, the Central Front’s new offensive committed the General Leytenant Ivan D. Chernyakovsky’s 60th and Batov’s 65th Armies against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in a drive west from what had been the northern half of the Kursk salient’s western flank against Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army. Batov’s 65th Army encountered strong resistance and advanced only 12 miles (18.5 km) in the first five days of its effort, but Chernyakhovsky’s 60th Army met the comparatively weaker resistance of General Friedrich Siebert’s (from 7 September General Arthur Hauffe’s) XIII Corps and swept forward quickly on a 60-mile (100-km) front, crossing the Desna river near Novgorod Seversky on 3 September and threatening the flanks of both Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. Thus was scene set for the Soviets’ grand strategic operation to reach and cross the Dniepr river and enter the heart of Ukraine.