Operation Panther-Stellung (i)

panther position

This was a German strategic defence line in the USSR, planned to run from Narva on the Gulf of Finland in the north to the Sea of Azov near Melitopol in the south via Lake Peipus, the Sozh river, Gomel, the Dniepr river and Zaporozhye (1943/44).

Otherwise known as the ‘Ostwall’, and thus the counterpart to the ‘Westwall’ in western Germany, this major strategic defence line was associated with the ‘Panther-Wotan-Stellung’, and was proposed in the middle of 1943 by General Kurt Zeitzler, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, in the aftermath of ‘Zitadelle’, whose failure clearly signalled that Germany had lost the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front.

Adolf Hitler was at first opposed to the construction of such a line, on the grounds that the materials and construction manpower were needed for the ‘Westwall’, and that the availability of defence works in their rear would induce German commanders on the Eastern Front to fall back rather than hold ground won by German blood. Then as something of the reality of the reality of the campaign on the Eastern Front impinged on him, Hitler saw the possibility of repeating the success in the World War I of the Hindenburg Line on the Western Front, which allowed the Germans to shorten their front and release many formations for operations elsewhere. In the current situation, the German army was no longer able to launch any strategic, and therefore decisive, offensive against the Soviet forces, so instead Hitler veered toward the concept of a forced but conclusive draw with the USSR before the Allied armies in the west became a major threat.

With the 'Panther-Stellung' (i), therefore, Hitler seemed to indicate a desire to return to the type if attritional warfare which had become standard through much of World War I. On 11 August 1943 Hitler therefore agreed to the start of work. Before this time, however, the German forces on the Eastern Front had already embarked on the task using slave labour to create defensive earthworks, there being wholly inadequate amounts of concrete, barbed wire and mines on the Eastern Front for anything but such extemporised measures, and these early endeavours were then expanded as a result of Hitler’s order.

Most of the new defensive line extended along the Dniepr river, from a point just to the west of Smolensk to its mouth on the Black Sea. In September 1243 Hitler told his senior commanders on the Eastern Front that the Dniepr river defensive line was to be the last barrier against Bolshevism. The line departed from the banks of the Dniepr river only where another major tributary offered similar defensive capabilities, and in the south, where the Dniepr curves to the west and therefore offered no protection to the Perekop isthmus linking Crimea with the Ukrainian mainland. In the north, the line was to have been constructed roughly from Vitebsk to Pskov, where it then followed the western bank of Lake Peipus and then the Narva river to its delta on the Baltic Sea at Narva.

When the order was signed for its construction on 11 August, the German armies held positions large distances to the east of the proposed defensive line, generally along the Donets river in the south and along a line approximately from Smolensk to Leningrad in the north. The eventual retirement to the new defensive line would necessarily involve the abandonment of considerable territory, including major cities such as Smolensk and Kharkov, which had been recaptured from the Soviets only recently, as well as large numbers of smaller cities including Kholm, Novgorod, Orel and Bryansk. Moreover, the retirement would also necessitate the abandonment of the siege of Leningrad.

In the north, centre and south responsibility for the task was entrusted respectively to Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and a combination of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’. All of these formations continued to use very significant numbers of slave labourers as a supplement to the German armies’ own engineers and rear-echelon troops.

The need for effective fixed fortifications is indicated by the extremely low strength of the German formations on the Eastern Front: Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, for example, held a 450-mile (725-km) sector with 37 infantry divisions whose real strength was each on average that of a regiment, so each division had between 1,000 and 2,000 men to cover 12 miles (20 km) of front, and even then in no significant tactical depth. Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ also had 17 Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions, but again these formations' real strengths were as low as 40 tanks to each Panzer division: on 7 September the whole of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had just 257 tanks and 220 assault guns.

Hitler expressly ordered that no immediate retirement should be made to the ‘Panther-Stellung’ (i) defences, which were often poorly sited and inadequately constructed for the task of halting what were now highly trained and well equipped Soviet armies. Confidence in the utility of the line was especially poor in Heeresgruppe 'Nord', whose commander, von Küchler, would not use the line’s name on the grounds that its use would instil an unwarranted sense of security, and thus a false hope, in the men of his army group. The line had been only partially completed when the order to fall back to it was issued on 15 September 1943 as the principal element of a general withdrawal.

As von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' began its withdrawal, the Soviet forces immediately attempted to break the line to deny the Germans in general, and the Oberkommando des Heeres in particular, the time required to plan and implement a viable longer-term defence. The resulting 'Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation' (26 September/20 December 1943) punched forward on a 185-mile (300-km) front. The line was particularly weak in the area just to the north of the Black Sea coast, and this made it possible for General Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s South Front to breach it with relative ease.

By the end of September the eight German armies of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ and Heeresgruppe ‘A’ had thus been driven back to the rudimentary ‘Wotan-Panther-Stellung’ defences by the Soviet summer offensive of 1943, launched from north to south by General Andrei I. Eremenko’s Kalinin Front, General Vasili D. Sokolovsky’s West Front, General Polkovnik Markian M. Popov’s Bryansk Front, General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s Central Front, General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Front, General Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front, General Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s South-West Front and Tolbukhin’s South Front, all co-ordinated by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov; and by the end of 1943 the Soviets had driven right through the ‘Wotan-Panther-Stellung’ defences in three vast areas.

In the north Eremenko’s 1st Baltic Front split Generaloberst Hans-Georg Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee between Nevel and Vitebsk; in the centre the Bryansk Front and the Belorussian Front (renamed Central Front) pounded Generaloberst Walter Model’s 9th Army and Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army between Mogilev and Kiev, the latter falling to the Soviets on 6 November.

In the south Vatutin’s 1st Ukrainian Front, Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front, Malinovsky’s 3rd Ukrainian Front and Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukrainian Front tore through General Otto Wöhler’s 8th Army, Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube’s 1st Panzerarmee and General Maximilian de Angelis’s (from 19 December Generaloberst Karl Hollidt’s) 6th Army between Cherkassy and the Sea of Azov, pushing on in the south as far to the east as Kherson at the mouth of the Dniepr river on the Black Sea, so cutting off Generaloberst Erwin Jaenecke’s 17th Army in Crimea, to which it retreated from its Kuban beach-head under pressure from General Ivan Ye. Petrov’s North Caucasus Front.

By 1 December 1943, the whole of the German defensive line had been penetrated between Velikiye Luki in the north and the north coast of the Black Sea in the south, the line to the north of Velikiye Luki being ignored by the Stavka planners on the assumption that it would be abandoned under the threat of encirclement.

The turn of the very northern end of the ‘Wotan-Panther-Stellung’ defences came later, for it was between January and March 1944 that the powerful forces of General Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front, General Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front and Popov’s 2nd Baltic Front pushed Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s (from 29 March General Herbert Loch’s) 18th Army and General Christian Hansen’s 16th Army of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ (commanded by von Küchler and, from 29 January, by Model) back to the ‘Wotan-Panther-Stellung’ defences, breaking through them in a massive offensive launched on 4 July.