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Deep Battle: The Drive to the Dnepr, Winter 1943

By Robert M. Citino
3/8/2012 • Fire for Effect

When last we left the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht teetered on the brink of disaster. Well planned Soviet attacks had first encircled an entire German field army (the 6th, under the unfortunate General Friedrich Paulus) at Stalingrad, then systematically dismantled the Allied armies serving alongside the Germans: first the Romanians (hit in the initial offensive north and south of Stalingrad, code-named Operation Uranus); then the Italians defending up the Don (Operation Little Saturn); followed by the Hungarians upriver (the “Ostrogozshk-Rossosh operation”); Operation Gallop, targeting German forces on the Donets river and into the Donets basin (the Donbas) itself; and finally, Operation Star on the extreme Soviet right, tearing great gaps in the defensive front of the German 2nd Army.

All across the southern portion of the massive front, Soviet offensives were churning forward, reaching out ever farther to the west and south, seeking the German flank over the middle Donets river, and indeed, threatening the crucial crossing points over the mighty Dnepr river itself at Kremenchug, Dnepropetrovsk, and Zaporozhye. For the first time, the Soviets were going deep on the Wehrmacht, and the stakes were high. If the Soviet crossed the Dnepr, they would succeed in smashing Army Group South itself—an operational victory that might well have strategic consequences. Confidence was high in all levels of the Soviet command, and that confidence extended all the way up to Moscow.

As the Book of Proverbs tells us, however, “pride goeth before a fall.” At the very moment that the Soviets were riding high, driving all before them and motoring into the clear, the wheels were already beginning to come off of their offensive. Each mile that their tank divisions “went deep” was another mile away from their own supply bases. Their mighty T-34s were wearing down, treads and transmissions above all; the lines of communication were no longer delivering replacements in a timely fashion; and even soldiers who were accustomed to pushing beyond their limits, as the men of the Red Army certainly were, were beginning to succumb to fatigue.

Of course, none of this would have mattered in the absence of an enemy. Unfortunately, the Soviet drive to the Dnepr had to contend with a German army that, no matter how battered and bruised, still retained some formidable operational skills: veteran tank crews who hung together even when losses had reduced their battalions to battle groups (Kampfgruppen); infantry who fought with the courage of desperate men a long way from home who still hoped to get there; and, above all, ruthless commanders trained to maneuver boldly on the operational level—i.e., in large formations like divisions, corps, and armies—in order to win battles even when they happened to be outnumbered.

Exhibit A in that last category was the new commander of Army Group South, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. Despite the godawful situation maps laid out in front of him, he could still perceive some old truths. He had an enemy lunging forward at top speed, while his own formations were falling back on their supply bases over the Dnepr. At some point, the iron laws of war told him that the Soviets would begin to wane while his own strength would be waxing. All he had to do was predict the precise moment.

His biggest worry were the German formations still lying far to the east in the Caucasus region, the legacy of an exceedingly ill-fated campaign in late 1942. They needed to be recalled, and soon, but Manstein knew that he had to tread carefully there. Asking Adolf Hitler to issue retreat orders rarely ended well for anyone, he well knew. The situation was so dire this time, however, that even the Führer had to agree, and soon, 1st Panzer Army (General Eberhard von Mackensen) was scurrying back to the west as far as a bad road and network would permit.

What Manstein had in mind was nothing less than a Rochade, what a chess player would call a “castling” move. Mackensen’s 1st Panzer Army and the 4th Panzer Army of General Hermann Hoth had, up until now, formed the extreme right wing of the German battle array. They now received orders to hurry clear over to the other side of the theater to form the German left. If they arrived in time, Manstein would deploy them facing north, a position from which they would have a clear shot at all those immense Soviet formations fighting deep battle and driving helter skelter towards the Don river crossings to the west.

It wasn’t a sure thing. The German formations to the south were advancing over ground that was soggy from the early thaw, while the Soviet armies to the north were still motoring over good, hard frozen ground. Nothing about war is ever a sure thing, however, and this was about the only shot that Manstein had. If 1st and 4th Panzer Armies arrived in time, his plan just might work.

A big if.

More next week.

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7 Responses to Deep Battle: The Drive to the Dnepr, Winter 1943

  1. Derek Weese says:

    I always found this particular segment of WWII history the most interesting (the Eastern Front in particular but especially 42-43) and my mind is still amazed at the brilliance of Von Manstein. However, my question is do you think that even after stabilizing the front which Manstein accomplished, could the Wehrmacht have pulled out at least a political victory in the East in 43 given the Red Army’s new found professionalism?

  2. ADTS says:

    Professor Citino:

    What strikes me most about this post is the sheer empathy you display for the commanders about whom you write. I am sure you have no deficit of topics about which you wish to blog. That said, I’d be curious if you’d care to reflect on any emotional attachments you’ve built toward the people you’ve studied.

    To provide one academic, essay-style prompt, for example: has your attitude toward those whom you’ve studied, and about whom you’ve written, changed as you’ve learned more about them? What would be behind those changes – the emotional changes we all go through (I think) as we mature and grow older, reading different perspectives by other historians, the emergence of alternative and new primary sources, etc.?

    At the risk of being patronizing, a very enjoyable post that, once more, demonstrates an extremely remarkable command of the operational and strategic difficulties confronting the German commanders referenced.


  3. Rob Citino says:

    Derek–This was one of Manstein’s beliefs, that if he won a sufficiently large operational victory, he might be able to bring the Soviets to a “Remis-Frieden” ( a “stalemate” peace, one again using a chess term!) It’s an interesting notion, but it can’t be said that Manstein based it on any real evidence, and he certainly didn’t base it on any intelligence gleaned from agents in the Soviet camp. It was, rather, an article of faith, and we might add, misplaced faith! –RC

    • Derek Weese says:

      I agree that Manstein’s hopes of a ‘stalemate’ peace were mis-founded. I believe that the Soviet Union was fighting very nearly a ‘holy’ war of sorts against the Germans and their allies and no matter the cost or the amount of setbacks I do believe they would have fought to the bitter end: either the German’s or theirs.

      • Rob Citino says:

        Derek–I agree. Can we not say that this is often what happens when one great power invades another? Is the result not war to the knife, ie, “guerre à l’outrance”, total war, war until death? Not always, witness France in 1940. But usually–witness France in 1914?

        I just can’t recognize the preconditions for a Remisfrieden in 1943. –RC

  4. Rob Citino says:


    Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad to read that you enjoy the column!

    Have I gone through a sort of “learning process” the more I read, study, contemplate, etc? Absolutely. I guess it is a kind of empathy (the word you used in your post), but I wouldn’t use that term in its usual emotional sense. Rather, I might call it situational empathy. The one thing I might have learned after all these years of study–as a civilian scholar, rather than a military professional–is that none of this stuff is as easy as it sounds, that Clausewitz is right when he calls war the “province of uncertainty and chance”, and that rarely are the generals in charge as much as historians like to think they are. As a result, while the buck stops with them in terms of victory and defeat, and some get decorated while others get mocked, we need to be wary of boiling war down to a simple contest of “mano a mano” generalship. Systemic factors, many of them well beyond the ability of any single individual to control, often have a lot more to do with who wins and loses. Thanks! –RC

  5. LouisvonDoren says:

    Forgive me if I’m being a bit thick out this. I see that the beginning of the overall well done article as saying it is about the winter of 1943 and also about Von Manstein’s “Backhand Move” beginning in March of 1943. Between the article and the letters if you will, it sometimes is confusing to tell which German recovery that is being written about.
    The famous Von Manstein comeback in 1943 or one in early 1944.
    By the new year of 1944 any hope of a negotiated peace with Stalin to even get a “draw” and then decide on what lines will both armies be stationed once the draw is put officially on paper as most likely it would have been an armistace. The one most discussed is between Von Mansteins backhand in early ’43 and the timing of either trying for a defensive victory using a war of movement that Manstein favored and let the Soviets strike first in 1943 then unleash the panzer divisions that had been reinforced by stripping most of the rest of the German forces in Russia. It was the thinking of some German Generals in the spring of 1943 to let the Russians attack first in that year and wear themselves out by attacking somewhat built up German infantry divisions but keeping the main force of equally built up by stripping other Army Groups in Russia to bring up to near full strength the German panzer divisions. Then in the summer of 1943 after the Soviets had run to about their end of logistics lines again, unleash Von Manstein’s armour once again and sweep the Russians all the way back to the Dnepr while causing maximum damage to all Soviet units possible especially armoured. That if what I understood Manstein to write, was in his mind the only way that even a draw could be obtained in Russia on lines to be determined I’m sure by the two
    *honest* Foreign Ministers for both Germany and the Soviet Union.
    Only in that fashion could the Germans have brought enough units not gone through the meat grinder completely to the Western Theater for the Cross Channel Invasion defense. Though it would be a big if that both dictators to agree to an armistance say on the Dnepr line. However the Germans would and I’m sure Hitler would still have to leave plenty of German divisions in Russia to hold off the Soviets. To hold them off long enough when Stalin broke the pact, until the German forces sent west had time to have defeated the cross channel invasion and then return to Russia in time to stop the Soviet offensives which by then would have gained a very large amount of ground. Much of both fronts would have depended on timing if an armistace was signed in 1943. The Germans would have known that Stalin would eventually break the pact as the Germans did break theirs with the Soviets in 1941. It would be a delicate balance of time vs Germans defeating the western cross channel invasion and getting those armoured forces back east before the by then rampaging Soviets had gone too deep towards the rest against the mostly infantry German defense divisions. Though infantry had become a major problam for the Germans ever since the first winter in Russia.
    They never recovered from those losses and then again the deadly too high losses in the ’42-’43 Fall Blau, Uranus and other plans unleashed in the Summer and Autumn of 1942. After the German 6th Army and most of 4th PZ Army were destroyed in early 1943 the German infantry numbers in Russia were in dire straights ever since.

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