Timing is everything, as they say.
And that is precisely the reason why the year 1943 doesn’t get a lot of respect from World War II historians. Crammed in between the drama of 1942 and 1944, it will probably never receive the attention it deserves. The former year, of course, saw the Wehrmacht smashed at El Alamein and Stalingrad. The latter was the year of the great D-Day landing in Normandy, which for Americans, at least, was the main event of the war; for aficionados of the Eastern Front, 1944 was the year of Operation Bagration, the massive Soviet offensive in Byelorussia, which smashed not only a German army, but an entire army group, and remains one of the greatest victories in the history of land warfare.
By contrast, 1943 saw few events that we might consider decisive. The western Allies spent the year slogging around the Mediterranean: Tunisia, Sicily, Italy. In the east, there was the failed German offensive at Kursk (Operation Zitadelle). Once virtually unknown in the west, it became the subject of a great deal of interest in the postwar era, and, indeed, one of the things that I learned in graduate school was that Kursk was “the greatest tank battle of all time.” Today, however, historians have been cutting Kursk down to size, reducing it from an all-out attempt at a strategic breakthrough on the 1941-42 model to a spoiling operation designed to smash the build-up of Soviet strength on the central front, and thus to retain the initiative in the East.
But let’s think a bit harder about how 1943 might have looked to the German army, from Hitler on down to the field commanders. They knew they had weathered a storm in 1942–a big one. The new year had begun with German armies running for their lives: 1st Panzer out of the Caucasus and Rommel’s Panzerarmee from El Alamein. A third force (6th Army) couldn’t run; it was trapped at Stalingrad. The Germans lost 6th Army, of course, but the other two had mastered their respective crises. Indeed, by the end of the winter 1942-43, the Germans had re-established a very respectable front and even re-taken Kharkov, hard to believe when you look at a situation map from a few months earlier. The massive post-Kursk Soviet counteroffensives had inflicted a great deal of pain on the Wehrmacht and forced it into retreat once again, this time back across the Dnepr. Field Marshal Manstein’s mobile defense was inflicting its share of pain on the Red Army as well, however, and at any rate, it is a long, long way from the Dnepr to Berlin. Likewise, the western Allies had had their successes in 1943, above all in Tunisia. By the end of the year, however, they were well and truly mired in Italy, and they too were a long way from where they wanted to be.
Sure, we all know what happened next, but that’s the advantage of history! In 1943, no one knew. Is it just possible that there were some in the German military–and not just Hitler–who looked around at the end of 1943, took a deep breath, and began to hope that with a little more effort here, a little more will-power there, and perhaps with a bit of luck, they might actually survive their ordeal?
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