Backhand Blow: Kharkov 1943

By Robert M. Citino
3/22/2012 • Fire for Effect

Last time out, we left the Eastern Front in a state of high suspense. Soviet armies were ranging wide and deep, hurtling toward the Dnepr crossings. They were maneuvering in open space, a rare thing in modern war. Wherever you happened to fix your eye on this sprawling operational map, the Soviets could see dizzying opportunities and the Germans were contemplating disaster.

Well, not ALL the Germans. One of them saw an opening, and he happened to be the one man who mattered. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was the commander of Army Group South, and if he brought anything to the table, it was an ability to spot operational opportunities. Sure, it’s easy to criticize him today. His armies were knee-deep in heinous war crimes on the Eastern Front and he was politically blind, wedded to the naïve belief that somehow, someway he could win an operational victory on his front that would force the Soviets to accept a Remis-Frieden (a stalemate peace, borrowing a term from chess). It’s easy to ask Manstein just what part of the phrase “unconditional surrender” he did not understand.

For all that, he had few if any peers in the conduct of military operations (Kriegführung, in German). While others in the high command were throwing up their hands, he had an idea: a Rochade (another term taken from chess, a “castling maneuver”). The armies on his far right in the Caucasus (4th Panzer and 1st Panzer) would shift rapidly to his left, then strike the Soviet offensive spearheads in their deep flank. Manstein had in mind a Schlag aus der Nachhand (a backhand blow), a strike that you launched once the enemy had committed himself and expended much of his strength.

And so it went. One moment, the Soviet commanders (General F. M. Kharitonov of 6th Army and General D. D. Lelyushenko of 1st Guards Army) were riding high, carrying out a form of “deep battle” that their training and doctrine emphasized—multiple echelons feeding forward along the same axis to smash their way into the enemy’s rear areas. Then, on February 21st, General Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army launched a vigorous counterattack. Two convergent thrusts—one from the south spearheaded by LVII Corps on the left and XXXXVIII Panzer Corps on the right, and one from the region of Poltava in the northwest by II SS Panzer Corps—caught the advancing Soviet armies strung out in road march, took them in front, flanks, and rear, and routed them. German casualties were minimal; Soviet casualties, by contrast, were practically total in terms of materiel and high enough in men. No wonder. Formation after formation was, quite literally, running out of fuel at the very moment of Manstein’s counterattack. Over the course of the next few weeks, the Germans kept up the momentum, with II SS Panzer now reversing course and driving north, pounding forward, fighting its way into Kharkov, and clearing the city by 14 March—69 years to the very day that I am writing these words.

Look, let me lay my cards on the table. I am an operational guy. I grew up reading the popular histories, I’ve played the wargames, and after all these years, I’m still a buff on the Eastern Front. You have to give Manstein his due. Facing a series of nearly insurmountable crises, he had coolly taken stock, weighed his options, and then engineered a dramatic revival. Against all odds, he had restored the front—give or take—to where it had stood at the start of the 1942 campaign.

But I’ve grown up, and the time has come for a colder eye. An amazing achievement, yes. But in the process, Manstein had driven his army up to a long, meandering line along the Donets river, a position he would never be able to hold in the coming year. He knew it, the high command knew it, and together they would attempt the rather desperate expedient of the Kursk offensive in summer 1943—a mere four months hence—to do something about it. Bewegungskrieg, in other words, led the Wehrmacht not to triumph in early 1943, but to the abyss.

As for the Soviet commanders, they, too, had stayed in character. Even as their momentum began to lag, they had driven on and on, ignoring their losses and their increasingly perilous logistical situation, until they imploded. They literally recognized no limits. Their faith in deep battle made them dangerous to their enemies early on, but eventually proved disastrous.

And this, I think, is the lesson of the winter campaign in 1943. Far from serving as a display of individual or collective genius, it offers us the fascinating spectacle of two armies trapped, like helpless prey, in the talons of their own doctrine.

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