Operation Skachok

hurdle jump

This was a Soviet strategic offensive, more formally known as the ‘Voroshilov Offensive Operation’ within the 'Voronezh-Kharkov Strategic Offensive Operation', by General Leytenant Filipp I. Golikov’s Voronezh Front across the Don river as the third stage, after the ‘Uran’ and ‘Malyi Saturn’ (part of the ‘Stalingrad Strategic Offensive Operation’ and the ‘Middle Don Offensive Operation’) undertakings of the great Soviet counter-offensive which led to the destruction of Generalfeldmarschall Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army at Stalingrad (12 January/3 March 1943).

The Axis opposition to ‘Skachok’ (often but wrongly translated as ‘Gallop’ rather than 'Hurdle') was found by Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s 2nd Army and Altábornagy Gusztáv Jány’s Hungarian 2nd Army of Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’.

The third stage of the great counter-offensive which culminated in the destruction of the 6th Army and the retirement of Heeresgruppe ‘A’ from the Caucasus was the offensive by Golikov’s Voronezh Front on von Salmuth’s German 2nd Army and Jany’s Hungarian 2nd Army with Kharkov and the Donets river basin as its immediate objectives. The assault frontage extended more than 300 miles (480 km) from Livny in the north to Kantemirovka in the south, and Golikov was to be assisted by the flanking formations of General Polkovnik Maks A. Reiter’s Bryansk Front to the north and General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s South-West Front to the south. The main assaults were to be made by General Leytenant Kirill S. Moskalenko’s 40th Army together with the XVIII Independent Corps against the Hungarians on the right, and General Leytenant Pavel S. Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army against Generale d’Armata Italo Gariboldi’s Italian 8th Army on the left, in order to encircle the Hungarian 2nd Army by a double envelopment as the two pincers met about 50 miles (80 km) to the rear near the town of Alexeyevka. The Soviet forces were then to turn outward and roll up the German 2nd Army to the north and the Italian 8th Army to the south by attacking their exposed flanks in conjunction with General Leytenant Nikandr E. Chibisov’s 38th Army and General Leytenant Ivan D. Chernyakhovsky’s 60th Army of the Voronezh Front, General Leytenant Nikolai P. Pukhov’s 13th Army of the Bryansk Front and General Leytenant Fyedor M. Kharitonov’s 6th Army of the South-West Front.

In this main assault sector, the German 2nd Army had two major formations in the form of General Walter Heitz’s VIII Corps and General Erich Straube’s XIII Corps with seven divisions between them, and the Hungarian 2nd Army a mere nine brigades or light divisions, Vezérõrnagy Ferenc Horváth’s 1st Armoured Field Division and one German infantry division. Generale di Corpo d’Armata Gabriele Nasci’s Corpo Italiano Alpino had three divisions.

The Axis forces were outnumbered by the attackers in both armour and artillery, the Voronezh Front alone comprising the equivalent of 19 infantry divisions (15 divisions and six brigades) and numerous tank and cavalry formations, the former including two tank corps and eight tank brigades. Three weeks were allowed to Golikov for reconnaissance and preparation, and this reconnaissance was carried out both from the air and from a series of observation and command posts which had been established close to the Hungarian positions. Reconnaissance through the use of probing attacks and fighting patrols was discouraged in order that the Axis forces should not be alerted to the Soviets’ impending offensive.

It soon became apparent that the Hungarian defence was based on a pair of defensive zones, one about 4 miles (6.4 km) deep and a second about 10 to 12 miles (16 to 26 km) farther to the rear. Because of the Hungarians’ reluctance to do anything but remain passive in their defences, the Soviets were able virtually to strip all the secondary sectors, and this made it possible for them to concentrate about 200 pieces of artillery and mortars per mile (104 per km) on each of their main assault frontages. Artillery of all calibres was sited in the direct-fire role, ready to destroy the many strongpoints which reconnaissance and intelligence had identified. The lack of cover on the open steppe made it necessary to bring up troops over the final 100 miles (160 km) to the front only by night, and the Soviets claimed that these security measures were effective as the Hungarians believed that the Soviets had expended their strength and that an offensive was therefore unlikely. On 7 January, only seven days before the offensive was scheduled to start, Vezérõrnagy Gyula Kovács, the Hungarian 2nd Army’s chief-of-staff, sent a report to Budapest in which he excluded the possibility of any Soviet attack on his sector, but in fact a Soviet offensive in this sector was not unexpected by the Germans.

Though the main attack was scheduled only for 14 January, a preliminary but powerful reconnaissance on 12 January threw the Hungarian forces into such disarray that Soviet troops were able to make a 3.25-mile (5-km) penetration into the Hungarian defences. The main offensive was then launched without further delay, tank-borne mine rollers being used for the first time to breach the Axis minefields. Soviet accounts claim that the preparatory bombardment and the use of artillery in the direct-fire role proved so effective that the Hungarian artillery observation posts were destroyed in the first few minutes, Soviet infantry and armour then breaking through with almost no losses. By 15 January the field defences which the Axis forces had held for a year, but not developed to any appreciable degree, were penetrated despite repeated counterattacks by the Hungarian armoured division. On the following day the Hungarian communications system broke down and the defence fell into total disorganisation. By 18 January Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army and Moskalenko’s 40th Army had linked near Alexeyevka and most of the Hungarian 2nd Army, part of the Italian Corpo Italiano Alpino and elements of General Martin Wandel’s XXIV Panzerkorps (one Panzer and two infantry divisions) and Generalmajor Hans Cramer’s Generalkommando zbV ‘Cramer’ (one German infantry division and part of the Hungarian armoured division) had been isolated and surrounded.

The weather was acutely severe, with thick snow storms and very poor visibility, and in combination with a number of other factors, such as poor Soviet inter-arm co-ordination and pockets of determined Axis resistance, this made it possible for many of the encircled troops to escape but, even so, by 27 January the Soviets claimed to have taken 86,000 prisoners, most of them Hungarian. The southern flank of the German 2nd Army was completely exposed, and on 28 January Moskalenko’s 40th Army moved to the north in the direction of Kastornoye across the German line of communications to link with Pukhov’s 13th Army of the Bryansk Front. Two corps of the German 2nd Army, totalling about seven divisions, were cut off as Adolf Hitler had, with what was now his customary reluctance, finally authorised the German 2nd Army to evacuate Voronezh and pull back to the west. For these troops there was to be no repetition of the disaster at Stalingrad, however, as Voronezh was abandoned and torched, and the several pockets of encircled troops started to fight their way back to the west: most of them survived the 125-mile (200-km) haul back to Rylsk in temperatures of -13° F (-25° C). Thus most of the men were able to rejoin their compatriots, but almost all of their heavy weapons and equipment was lost.

On 21 January von Weichs sketched for Hitler a picture on almost total gloom. There was a 200-mile (320-km) gap in the German front where Heeresgruppe ‘B’ had formerly been, and von Weichs held out little hope of halting the thrusts of the Soviet forces, particularly as their formations had changed their tactics and simply bypassed and isolated all strongpoints without pausing to overrun them. von Weichs feared for the survival of the German 2nd Army, and could see that the Soviet high command might be planning a drive to the south-west through the gap which now existed, and thereby preventing any withdrawal by Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Don’. The only German reserves available were one infantry division being transferred from Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s SS Panzer Generalkommando (from June 1943 the II SS Panzerkorps) still in the process of arriving from western Europe. von Kluge, whose Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had been under severe pressure by the Kalinin Front and West Front right through this early part of the winter, but especially in the ‘Rzhev-Sychevka Strategic Offensive Operation’ (otherwise ‘Mars’), was especially concerned about the danger to his army group should the Soviet forces penetrate the front to his south and then swing to the north, and begged fruitlessly for authorisation to evacuate the great salient near Rzhev, thus shortening his army group’s front and thereby making it possible for him to create the reserves with which to deal with the threat.

For a short time late in January, General Georgi K. Zhukov and General Polkovnik Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky had been attached to the Voronezh Front in order to consider and recommend the course of further operations and, following Zhukov’s recommendations, a new plan known as ‘Star’ was drawn up to liberate the area of Kharkov. It is possible that the Stavka had some reservations as the scheme involved simultaneous thrusts by Golikov’s forces on a pair of divergent in the directions of Kursk and Kharkov. ‘Star’ began on 1 February and the Soviet forces, eager to press their advantage, drive through the gap, Golikov’s Voronezh Front moving almost straight to the west in the direction of Kursk and Kharkov, and Kharitonov’s 6th Army and General Major Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Guards Army of Vatutin’s South-West Front advancing to the south-west in the direction Mariupol on the north coast of the Sea of Azov in order to cut the communications of both von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ and von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’, of which the latter was still in the Caucasus. On 2 February Stalingrad fell. Three days later Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army reached the frozen Donets river but could not cross it in face of determined resistance by SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ of the SS Panzer Generalkommando. Kursk, Belgorod and Kharkov were immediately threatened and von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ was in great danger.

von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ was still trying to extricate itself from the Caucasus away to the south. On 28 December General Kurt Zeitzler, the Oberkommando des Heeres’s chief-of-staff, had persuaded Hitler the inevitability of abandoning part of his oil and Black Sea objectives, but far from agreeing to a complete evacuation of the Caucasus to the safety of the right bank of the Don river in the area to the north of Rostov-na-Donu at its mouth, Hitler would allow only a partial withdrawal, and then in stages, to the line of the Manych Canal and the Kuban peninsula as he remained steadfastly intent on keeping the Maykop area and a beach-head on the east side of the Strait of Kerch and lower reaches of the Don river as a firm base for a later campaign back toward the Caspian Sea. On 7 January, however, forward elements of the 5th Shock Army and 2nd Guards Army of General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s South Front were already nearing the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ near Novocherkassk, less than 30 miles (50 km) from Rostov-na-Donu, and it seemed probably that the Soviet forces were on the verge of taking the bridge over the Don river at Rostov-na-Donu, and thereby severing the line of communications nourishing not Heeresgruppe ‘A’ but also Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee and General de divizie Constantin Sanatescu’s Romanian IV Corps to the army group’s north in the steppe area between the northern edge of the Caucasus and the main body of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’.

The Soviet reaction to the German withdrawal along the lower reaches of the Don river and in the Caucasus was notably slow, however. The former Stalingrad Front, since the beginning of January redesignated as the South Front and still under Eremenko’s command, covered a 95-mile (150-km) sector between the Don river and the Manych river, and had been forced to give up some of its troops for the reduction of Stalingrad. Eremenko had been ordered to take Rostov-na-Donu and Salsk, thereby cutting the main line of withdrawal of Heeresgruppe ‘A’, but both General Leytenant Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 2nd Guards Army and General Leytenant Markian M. Popov’s 5th Shock Army met what they reported as fierce resistance from Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee. General Major Nikolai I. Trufanov’s 51st Army and General Leytenant Vasili F. Gerasimenko’s 28th Army to the south-east in the Zimovniki area had no better fortune against Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin’s 16th Panzergrenadierdivision and other elements reinforced by SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Wiking’. Moreover, Eremenko and his military council emphasised to Moscow that the South Front was more 215 miles (350 km) from its railhead and that its armoured strength was 350 tanks below establishment.

Far away to the south and the south-east, General Ivan V. Tyulenev’s Trans-Caucasus Front, which was still operating in two isolated groups (General Leytenant Ivan Ye. Petrov’s Black Sea Group in the mountains to the south of the Kuban near Novorossiysk and General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s North Group covering Grozny and Baku near the Caspian Sea) was fighting under conditions of great difficulty in the ‘North Caucasian Strategic Offensive Operation’ (1 January/4 February 1943) 1. There were few roads and in the frequent periods of thaw the terrain was essentially impassable, even by infantry. Added to this, it was difficult to reinforce Petrov’s Black Sea Group which, at the insistence of Iosif Stalin, was intended to cut the German line of retreat across the Taman peninsula, as the necessary troops, weapons and equipment had to be moved along poor roads from the Caspian Sea area along the length of the Caucasus mountain range, a distance of something like 625 miles (1000 km). The Black Sea Group had started to move forward, but this as a slow process using pack transport and building roads as it progressed, and as it finally emerged from the foothills it found the Kuban river in spate and the steppe flooded. As Heeresgruppe ‘A’ fell back in its staged withdrawal, the Soviets followed it, but there was never any great opportunity for the Trans-Caucasus Front to cut off Heeresgruppe ‘A’, and both Tyulenev and Maslennikov came later to be accused of being too fearful as they were more concerned than necessary that von Kleist might trick them and take Grozny.

The Soviet advances during January made it apparent that the threat to Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Don was based on Soviet thrusts along two axes, firstly by Eremenko’s South Front on the lower reaches of the Don river and secondly by Vatutin’s South-West Front in eastern Ukraine. Even so, it was 27 January before Hitler belatedly acceded to the need for the final withdrawal of Heeresgruppe ‘A’. Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee, with one Panzer and three infantry divisions, was ordered to join von Manstein, whose Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ was now authorised to fall back behind the lower reaches of the Don river, but the remainder of Heeresgruppe ‘A’, some 350,000 men in 10 German and 10 Romanian divisions, was instructed to pull back into the Taman lodgement on the Kuban peninsula, where it was to sit in a splendid but crumbling isolation that was of no real support to von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ in the hard battles imminent in Ukraine. von Manstein had requested permission to fall back to the defensive line of the Mius river, but in refusing this permission Hitler insisted that even this small part of the Donets basin coal area was essential to the German economy.

The situation was removed from Hitler’s control on 2 February, however, when Malinovsky replaced Eremenko in command of the South Front and two days later the front’s troops reached the line connecting Shakhty and Novocherkassk. Four days later a cavalry mechanised group of General Major Vasili A. Khomenko’s 44th Army arrived near Rostov-na-Donu after a long march from Grozny via a crossing the frozen Don river, and reached Chaltyr between Rostov-na-Donu and Taganrog.

Farther to the north-west in Ukraine, meanwhile, Golikov’s Voronezh Front took Belgorod, Kursk and Volchansk, and crossing the frozen Donets river, its VI Guards Cavalry Corps and General Major Mikhail I. Kazakov’s 69th Army on 11 February reached the outskirts of Kharkov, where they were engaged by the SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ of the SS Panzer Generalkommando. The South-West Front, which was the Voronezh Front’s southern neighbour, used Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Guards Army, Kharitonov’s 6th Army and Markian M. Popov’s Tank Group ‘Popov’ of the 5th Shock Army (one rifle and four tank corps with about 500 tanks) to cross the Donets river deep in the rear of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ and drive toward the Dniepr river crossings at Dniepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye. On 5 February General Leytenant Dmitri D. Lelyushenko’s 3rd Guards Army of the South Front attacked Voroshilovgrad and took this in nine days of urban combat.

The German position at the southern end of the Eastern Front was now so parlous that von Manstein and von Kluge were summoned to Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia on 6 February, and at this meeting the German leader was unwillingly compelled by circumstances to accede to the two army group commanders’ earlier requests to withdraw behind the line of the Mius river and also give up the Rzhev salient farther to the north. This latter was the second large salient to be evacuated, since Hitler had also been forced to agree to yield the Demyansk area in order to stabilise the position near Leningrad, where the Soviet forces had finally driven a land corridor through to the city in ‘Iskra’. The headquarters of von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ was now also taken out of the chain of command and placed in reserve, what was left of this army group being reallocated to von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Don’ (now renamed as Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’) and von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.

In combination with the sudden withdrawal from Voronezh to Rylsk, the defeat of the German 2nd Army and Hungarian 2nd Army had led to the partial outflanking of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ from the south. At the beginning of February the Soviets created a new Central Front under General Polkovnik Konstantin K. Rokossovsky out of the previous Don Front, and with the 2nd Tank Army and three combined-arms armies, this tried on 25 February to envelop von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in an operation, planned personally by Stalin, to get behind the Bryansk-Orel salient from the south. Rokossovsky failed to achieve this as the retreating German 2nd Army, commanded since 4 February by Walter Weiss and constituting part of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, had managed to secure a stop line from Rylsk to Sumy. The numerous divisions arriving from the evacuation of the Rzhev area soon contained the Soviet pressure to the north and north-west.

On 17 February Hitler, accompanied by Zeitzler and Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s general staff, arrived at the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ at Zaporozhye, where the position was causing alarm. On his way to this meeting, Hitler had intended to dismiss von Manstein. On the previous day Generalleutnant Hubert Lanz’s Armeeabteilung ‘Lanz’ (comprising the SS Panzer Generalkommando and Generalleutnant Erhard Raus’s Generalkommando zbV ‘Raus’, the latter comprising Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Division ‘Grossdeutschland’ [mot.] and elements of two other divisions) had acted in direct contravention of Hitler’s order in evacuating Kharkov, and was now withdrawing to the south-west. General Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’, which on 6 March was to be re-formed as a new 6th Army, held the line of the Mius river against Malinovsky’s South Front, while von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee, withdrawn from the Caucasus to the left flank of von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, was attempting to check part of Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Guards Army and the Tank Group ‘Popov’, which were driving from Slavyansk in the direction of Krasnoarmeiskoye and Stalino (Donetsk). About 70 miles (115 km) farther to the west, deep in the rear of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, other elements of the 1st Guards Army and Kharitonov’s 6th Army were a mere 30 miles (50 km) from the Dniepr river and, after severing the main railway between Dniepropetrovsk and Stalino, were also within 50 miles (80 km) of Hitler’s conference.

To restore the position von Manstein proposed to mount a counter-offensive against the Soviet envelopment, using Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, with General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps and General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVIII Panzerkorps of five divisions, of which three were Panzer formations, and the SS Panzer Generalkommando of two, later three, motorised divisions. The 4th Panzerarmee was to attack from the area between Zaporozhye and Stalino in a northerly direction into the Soviet flank while the SS Panzer Generalkommando attacked in a southerly direction from the area of Poltava to meet the 4th Panzerarmee, so isolating off the forward elements of the 1st Guards Army and 6th Army. Overall operational command was vested in Hoth, whose force’s left was to be covered by General Werner Kempf’s Armeeabteilung ‘Kempf’. On Hoth’s right, von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee (General Hermann Breith’s III Panzerkorps, General Siegfried Henrici’s XL Panzerkorps and General Maximilian Fretter-Pico’s XXX Corps) was first to hold and then to destroy the Tank Group ‘Popov’ and the supporting elements of the 1st Guards Army. Although Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was dangerously short of fuel for its vehicles, intercepts of Soviet radio signals had indicated that the Soviet fuel situation was still worse, and the same radio sources indicated that the Soviet field commanders were almost certain that the Germans were on the verge of retiring behind the Dniepr river. As a result of the efforts and reinforcement of Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV, the Soviet air forces had suffered a sharp tactical defeat and were at least temporarily unable to gain command of the air.

Still furious about the loss of Kharkov, Hitler saw the reoccupation of this city rather than the destruction of the Soviets as an immediate aim, and could not effectively be persuaded that Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was in any danger, let alone under severe threat of destruction. By the second day of the conference, however, he had reluctantly agreed to von Manstein’s proposal for a counter-offensive.

Meanwhile Stalin was driving the South-West Front forward in the direction of the Dniepr river. The Soviet troops had already outrun their support and supplies, and they were beyond the range of effective air support since many of the airfields which they had taken had not yet been restored to service. The supply and reinforcement and maintenance system was functioning badly over the vastly over-extended line of communications, and many formations and units had been reduced to little more than cadres by casualties. During the morning of 19 February, Hausser’s SS Panzer Generalkommando attacked the flank of Kharitonov’s 6th Army from the area of Krasnograd, punching a hole some 25 miles (40 km) wide, through which SS-Brigadeführer under Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Herbert-Ernst Vahl’s SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich scattered the IV Guards Corps. On 22 February General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzerkorps, driving toward Pavlograd with Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps on its right, cut off large numbers of Soviet troops and linked with the Waffen-SS corps. The German formations then changed direction and advanced to the north against Kharkov in the 3rd Battle of Kharkov. The Germans took a mere 9,000 prisoners, but Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ claimed 23,000 Soviet dead on the battlefield. von Mackensen, using General Siegfried Henrici’s XL Panzerkorps of two Panzer divisions and one SS motorised division, destroyed the forward elements of the Tank Group ‘Popov’, some of them already rendered immobile by lack of fuel, in the area between Krasnoarmeiskoye and Barvenkovo.

The Soviet high command still believed that the German counter-offensive had been undertaken primarily to cover the withdrawal of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ from the line of the Mius river behind the line of the Dniepr river, and the South-West Front was ordered to attack once more in order to cut off the Armeeabteilung ‘Hollidt’ and the 1st Panzerarmee. It was impossible for the front to implement this instruction, however, Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, which was still moving rapidly to the north and was currently about 150 miles (240 km) to the north of its starting point, regrouped between 4 and 6 March and then, outflanking the South-West Front from the north, launched a major assault on the left wing of the Voronezh Front near Kharkov in the area between Merefa and Sokolovo. A breach some 30 miles (50 km) wide was driven between Kazakov’s 69th Army and Rybalko’s 3rd Tank Army. The Voronezh Front could not close this breach. By 12 March the Germans were fighting in the streets of Kharkov, and two days later had completely encircled the city. The gap continued to grow, no Soviet reserves being available, and the German thrusts were approaching so close to Belgorod that Rokossovsky’s Central Front appeared to be threatened. Belgorod fell on 18 March to the Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’. By this time the Soviet high command had to the belated conclusion that, far from being faced with a holding operation intended to cover a German withdrawal, the Central Front and Voronezh Front were facing a major offensive and were in danger of being cut off. The 3rd Tank Army was ordered to break out of encirclement near Kharkov, and the Voronezh Front and South-West Front fell back behind the Donets river about 40 miles (65 km) to the east.

Stalin’s reaction was typical both of the man himself and of the current Soviet system. The Soviet leader wished to know what was wrong with the Voronezh Front, and ordered the strengthening of front’s military council from the political as well as military aspects. Zhukov and Vasilevsky were to report there. Zhukov was with Timoshenko at the North-West Front when he was telephoned by Stalin on 16 March with the information that the Stavka had decided to replace Konev, currently commanding the West Front, with Sokolovsky. The position in Ukraine was discussed. According to his own account, Zhukov suggested that Konev should assume command of North-West Front, making Timoshenko available to go to southern Ukraine as the Stavka representative and take the necessary measures to restore the situation. Stalin agreed but ordered Zhukov to return to Moscow from where, after discussion and an early morning meal, he departed by air for the Voronezh Front. Golikov was replaced by Vatutin. Zhukov requested the allocation of another three armies from the Stavka reserve, and Stalin allotted him the 1st Tank Army, the 21st Army and the 64th Army. Ultimately, the combination of the three reinforcing armies from the interior and the mud attendant on the spring thaw made it possible for the Soviets to stabilise the position. The limited offensive undertaken by the Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had robbed the Soviets of the initiative which they had enjoyed on the southern sector of the Eastern Front since Vatutin had attacked the Romanians across the Don river during November. It was claimed that von Manstein’s extraordinarily daring attack had cost the Soviets more than 40,000 casualties and the loss, merely in captured equipment, of 600 tanks and 500 pieces of artillery. Their success left the Germans in undisputed control of the area bounded by the Donets river and Mius river, very much the same line as they had held in the winter of 1941/42. The defeats inflicted on the Soviets were limited inasmuch as they were only temporary and in no way decisive, but had saved Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ from destruction and indeed had earned it a measure of respite. The credit for the German successes belongs to von Manstein and von Kluge, who had finally been able to persuade Hitler to permit a shortening of the front and thus make possible a withdrawal of troops from the shorter line, and then to use of the initiative provided by the reserve thus created, rather than to continue with Hitler’s preferred operational and tactical reliance on a rigid defence. Considerable credit must also be given to Hoth, who at the tactical level made superb mobile use of his limited strength. The decisive element, however, was Hausser’s SS Panzer Generalkommando, which comprised the experienced, well-equipped and rested SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’, SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Das Reich’ and SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Totenkopf’, all of which were vastly superior to the scattered, poorly supported and badly supplied Soviet troops, who had by then outrun their strength.

So ended the successful Soviet offensive of the winter of 1942/43. The strongest of the German armies had been totally destroyed in Stalingrad and four armies of German allies had been scattered. Some critics have faulted the Soviet strategy on two counts: firstly, that the three offensives against the Romanians, Italians and Hungarians should have been made concurrently rather than consecutively, but this criticism can be justified only if the Soviets had possessed sufficient air power, artillery and motor transport to support all the offensives; and secondly, that the Soviet high command failed to make thrust of sufficiently determination and strength to Rostov-na-Donu and the Sea of Azov in order to sever the line of withdrawal for Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and part of Heeresgruppe ‘Don’. This latter is relevant as a successful penetration of this type would have endangered both German army groups. Yet a strong thrust to the coast of the Sea of Azov would have failed at the operational and strategic levels if it had required the weakening of the Soviet forces encircling the 6th Army in Stalingrad. Moreover, the bridges over the lower reaches of the Don river in the area of Rostov-na-Donu were not the only exits from the Caucasus, as proved by the fact that it later proved possible to maintain Heeresgruppe ‘A’ in its ‘Gotenkopf’ lodgement across the Strait of Kerch, and it was for this very reason that Stalin had pressed the Black Sea Group to cut off the German withdrawal route across the Taman peninsula. Unless the Taman peninsula route could have been blocked, it would have been better for the Soviets to secure the lower reaches of the Dniepr river and the Perekop isthmus linking Crimea with Ukraine rather than to thrust on Rostov-na-Donu. The taking of the Perekop isthmus would have blocked the exit from the Crimea and completely cut off both Heeresgruppe ‘A’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, and it was this which Stalin attempted. As a result of the Germans’, or rather Hitler’s, lack of realism, the Soviet strategy for the winter of 1942/43 was probably more successful than Stalin and the Soviet high command had hoped it could be.

Warfare in Russia continued to be influenced, and in many cases dictated, by the nature of the terrain, the distances involved and the exigencies of the weather. In November 1942 the Germans had become fully extended and effectively at the end of their resources, and the scales therefore tilted in favour of the Soviets. The successful Soviet counter-offensive threw the Axis forces back nearly 500 miles (800 km) from Stalingrad and even farther from Grozny. The scales then tilted back once more toward the Germans. Weakened and disorganised by the fighting, the distance and the weather, the Soviets could not hold the tired and under-strength German divisions committed against them. It was in the course of the Soviet offensive in the first weeks of 1943 that a change first became apparent in the composition and relative strength of the German and Soviet armies. Germany had launched ‘Barbarossa’ with experienced, notably efficient and well-equipped Panzer and motorised forces, though these represented only a comparatively small proportion of the German army as a whole. German tactical air support was excellent. The Soviet army of the time was in no way short of tanks, aircraft or equipment in numerical terms, but it was in no way a modern motorised army and was not even a match for the German marching infantry divisions with their horse-drawn guns and wagons. By 1943, however, German organisation and the quality and scale of equipment, instead of being improved to keep ahead of those of its opponent, had fallen behind it. By March 1943 the German armies on the Eastern Front were collectively 470,000 men short of establishment, and the German high command attempted to make a virtue of going without. Obsessed by numbers of divisions, Hitler was constantly created new formations and steadfastly refused to refresh, reinforce or re-equip existing divisions to the extent that they became little more than cadres. The effect of this was that nominal Panzer divisions had only between 30 and 40 tanks: thus, while the German army had entered western Russia with 3,300 tanks in 1941, on 23 January 1943 it had only 495 tanks fit for battle over the whole of the Eastern Front. With the exception of a handful of PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tanks, no new tank models had entered service although the PzKpfw III medium and PzKpfw IV medium tanks had been improved by the addition of skirting plates to shield the upper parts of the tacks, face-hardened armour and longer guns providing increased muzzle velocity and therefore enhanced armour-penetration capabilities. German divisional organisations also underwent alteration: the divisional title remained, but the number of regiments in the division and the number of battalions in the regiment were both reduced, resulting in a further reduction in the divisions’ fighting strength.

The Soviet forces’ transformation over the same period, on the other hand, had been altogether to the better, and the Soviet air force, though still operating warplanes inferior to those of the Luftwaffe in terms of performance, had effected significant improvements in the quality of its aircraft. The KV heavy and T-34 medium tanks were technically superior to the PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV, and were now being manufactured and delivered in large numbers. Among other factors, this had made it possible from the middle of 1942 for tank and mechanised corps to be grouped into powerful tank armies. Another very significant change in the Soviet army during 1943 was its rapid motorisation, which was to make it feasible for the Soviet high command to plan and execute deep penetration operations even in the depths of winter and at the time of the thaws. This motorisation was the result largely of the introduction of trucks of US manufacture.

Within two-year period the German army, once the best equipped in the world, had been relegated into a technically obsolescent force forced to rely on declining quantities of weapons and equipment outmatched at the technical level by those of its opponents. The German equivalent to the Soviet quarter-ton Jeep for commander or messenger remained the horse, and its counterpart of the 2.5-ton Studebaker or Dodge truck with six-wheel drive was the horse-drawn panje wagon. The efficiency of German field formation staffs and the quality of the German fighting man were still superior to those of the Soviets, but the German army had become one of the poorer armies of the world.

Germany had thus lost the initiative on the Eastern Front, and now planned to wrest it back from the USSR with the ‘Zitadelle’ operation to pinch off the great westward bulge of the salient centred on Kursk.

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The sub-components of this major undertaking were the ‘Salsk-Rostov Offensive Operation’ (1 January/4 February), ‘Mozdok-Stavropol Offensive Operation’ (1/24 January), ‘Novorossiysk-Maykop Offensive Operation’ (11 January/4 February) and ‘Tikhoretsk-Eisk Offensive Operation’ (24 January/4 February).