Operation Wotan-Stellung

Wotan Position

This was a German defensive position in the Nogai steppe for Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s 6th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ against the advance of General Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s South Front (from 20 October 1943 4th Ukrainian Front) (October 1943).

Associated with the ‘Panther-Stellung’, the position extended from Zaporozhye to Melitopol with a southward extension to Kirillovka on the north-west coast of the Sea of Azov.

The combined ‘Panther-Wotan-Stellung’ was a defensive line whose construction was started, but never completed, by the Germans in 1943 on the Eastern Front. The ‘Panther-Stellung’ referred to the short northern section between Lake Peipus and the Baltic Sea at Narva, and ‘Wotan-Stellung’ to the rest of the line. With these defences Adolf Hitler hoped to repeat the success of the ‘Hindenburg-Linie’ defences of the West Front in World War I: the construction of this line allowed the Germans to shorten their line and release many troops for operations elsewhere.

In this case the German army lacked the strength and equipment to undertake a decisive strategic offensive against the Soviet forces, so with the ‘Panther-Stellung’ and ‘Wotan-Stellung’ Hitler perceived an opportunity to create a defensive position so strong that he would be able to reach a conclusive draw with the USSR before the Western Allied armies became a major threat in North-West Europe.

The construction of the two defensive positions on the Eastern Front indicated that Hitler now wished a return to attritional warfare of the type prevalent between late 1914 and early 1918 in World War I on the Western Front. Hitler’s order to construct the line in August 1943 following the German defeat in ‘Zitadelle’, and Dr Joseph Goebbels’s ‘total war’ speech delivered on 18 February 1943 thus implicitly revealed Hitler’s abandonment of the Blitzkrieg concept and his tacit admission that the German forces were now incapable of launching large-scale offensive operations against the Soviet forces, instead opting for the process of ‘bleeding’ the Soviet forces to a standstill.

Hitler now hoped the USSR, which had lost huge numbers of men and vast quantities of matériel in 1941/42 to the Germans’ early Blitzkrieg offensives, would now suffer comparable losses in trying to breach an ‘impregnable’ German defensive line.

Most of the line extended along the Dniepr river from a point just to the west of Smolensk southward to the Black Sea, and in September 1943 Hitler stated to his senior army commanders that this defensive line was to be the last barrier against Bolshevism. The line left the banks of the Dniepr river only where one of its major tributaries offered similar defensive capabilities and, in the south, where the Dniepr curves to the west and thus did not offer protection to for the Perekop isthmus and therefore provided no security for Crimea.

In the north the line of the ‘Panther-Stellung’ was to have been built approximately from Vitebsk to Pskov, whence it was then to follow the western bank of Lake Peipus and its outflowing Narva river to the Baltic Sea at Narva.

When the construction order was signed on 11 August 1943, the German armies held positions hundreds of kilometres to the east of the proposed defensive line, generally along the Donets river in the south and along a line roughly from Smolensk to Leningrad in the north. Any retreating to the line would mean sacrificing much German-held Soviet territory, including major cities such as Smolensk and Kharkov, which had only recently been recaptured, as well as smaller cities including Kholm, Novgorod, Orel and Bryansk; in addition, the siege of Leningrad would have to be abandoned.

Confidence in the new line’s efficacy was decidedly limited in Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, whose commander, Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler, refused even to refer to the line by its name, fearing it would instil a false sense of security among his troops. The line had been completed only in part when a general withdrawal was ordered on 15 September 1943.

The Soviets immediately attempted to to deny the forces controlled by the Oberkommando des Heeres the opportunity to complete the line and develop a plan a long-term defence based on it, launching the 'Lower Dniepr Strategic Offensive Operation' (26 September/20 December 1943) along a 185-mile (300-km) front. The line was particularly weak in the area just to the north of the Black Sea, which allowed General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s South Front to breach it with relative ease, thereby isolating Generaloberst Erwin Jaenecke’s 17th Army in Crimea and denying it the possibility of any overland retreat. By 1 December, the line had been broken over its extent from Velikiye Luki in the north to the Black Sea in the south, with the line to the north of Velikiye Luki ignored by the Stavka planners on the assumption that it would be abandoned under the threat of encirclement.

The only part of the line to remain in German possession after the end of 1943, therefore, was its extreme north, namely the ‘Panther-Stellung’ between Lake Peipus and the Baltic Sea at Narva. This small portion of the line was assaulted during the Battle of Narva within the 'Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive' (14 January/1 March 1944), with the Baltic States and the Gulf of Finland remaining in German hands well into 1944.

The last sections of the ‘Panther-Wotan-Linie’ were overrun or surrendered unconditionally early in 1945.