The Death of the Kursk Offensive: Sympathy for the Devil

Last time we presented a “microhistory,” a detailed look at nine days in World War II. Days in which, frankly, a lot of things happened: Kursk, Sicily, Orel. For the Germans, hope was raised, dashed, raised, and dashed again. We’re looking at a specific question: why did Hitler decide to call off Operation Citadel, the offensive towards Kursk, a military undertaking usually described as the “greatest tank battle of all time.” Let us pick up where we left off:

Two points emerge from this micro-chronology. The first is the immense burden of command in World War II, with reports coming in non-stop from the four corners of creation, bearing sketchy first impressions of vast operations, reports that will often prove to be wildly inaccurate. Administration, signals, and intelligence-gathering and estimation require the service of thousands of highly trained personnel. Hitler and his tiny staff (and the equally tiny staffs of all the other high command echelons of the Wehrmacht) would have been entirely inadequate to the purpose even if Hitler himself had been a much more gifted strategist and commander. In 1943, for example, the Operations Section of the German General Staff contained precisely 17 officers. Thinking back on it later, one of its members, General Johann Adolf Graf von Kielmansegg, exclaimed, “People today don’t believe this number!” He would later go on to serve as the postwar Supreme Commander of NATO forces in Central Europe. He remembered one day counting the number of officers on his staff, and was astonished again: “You would have to hang a zero on that 17, and it still wouldn’t be enough.”

Second, clear strategic and operational links exist, far stronger than generally assumed, between Citadel and Husky, the massive clash of armor deep inside the Soviet Union and the great amphibious operation coming up out of the Mediterranean. The two worked symbiotically, rather than in isolation. Launching the battle of Kursk was the immediate problem, a great battle staring the Wehrmacht in the face in early 1943. The high command could see it and take comfort in the fact that it was preparing, arming, and planning for it. Citadel was essentially an operational question, a tough one, to be sure, but comfortable conceptual ground for an army used to this sort of thing.

Husky was the more mysterious terror. Where? When? How large? That tiny cadre of staff officers we have just mentioned could stay awake deep into the night debating such questions, and they often did just that. Moreover, Husky touched on issues of international politics, coalition warfare, perhaps even ideology. In that sense, it might have kept Hitler awake at nights, too. These were areas in which his officers had remarkably little interest, but which he viewed, quite rightly, as central to the war.

Today, western historiography reduces the question of Italian participation in the war to a series of anecdotes of military incompetence and political stupidity. That is certainly not how it looked to Hitler in 1943. Not to call forth any sympathy for the devil, but running this war was a bear, and it was completely beyond the demands of any one man. Back in late 1942, Hitler had dismissed General Franz Halder as the Chief of the General Staff, over what appears today to be a sequence of quite trivial disagreements over the operation in the Caucasus. On that occasion he had spoken to the Chief of the Operations Department (Operation-sabteilung), General Adolf Heusinger. In the course of their conversation, Heusinger had requested a field command, something he had been desiring since 1937, when he first joined the staff. Hitler refused, and Heusinger responded by offering his resignation. Hitler refused to consider it. “Your refusal troubles me,” Heuasinger had replied. Hitler’s retort was pithy and direct, a rare thing in such a voluble and unstable individual. It was moment of insight, and one that still held true a year later, in the summer of 1943: “A lot of things trouble me,” he told Heusinger. “Believe it.” (“Auch mir fällt vieles schwer, das können Sie mir glauben…”) [continued next page]

Indeed, in the summer of 1943, a lot of things were bothering Hitler, the staff, and the entire Wehrmacht. The ongoing debate among historians over the question of who killed Citadel needs to take the broadest possible view, rather than relying on einseitig (one-sided) argumentation. Operation Kutuzov, the Soviet blow against the Orel salient, was certainly a massive blow, but reports about it had just started to come in and the high command was only starting to sift through them. Did it play a major role in the cancellation of Citadel? Of course. Based on the conformation of the front, with one salient curling around another, it had to. So, too, did the collapse of the Axis alliance, a grave blow to Germany’s strategic position.

What killed Citadel? Given the chronology we have just examined, and the requirements of a multi-front war, the only possible answer is: a lot of things.

Next week: let’s analyze this microhistory. And let us ask the question, which is more important? Operations or strategy?

For more discussion of the war, the latest news, and announcements, be sure to visit World War II magazine’s facebook page.


One Response

  1. bobe

    Hitler killed CITADEL to help MUSSOLINI, just shows how delusional and out of touch with reality he was then, he sends SS panzer division LAH to ITALY just to bring them back by october, just crazy.
    Albert Speer says that Hitler stopped listening to his generals by 1943, that explains much about everything.
    If HITLER was a brilliant strategist instead an idiot like Manstein once said about him, we probably would be driving mercedez benz/audis/bmws/porsche and speaking german by now. lol.
    It is my belief that HITLER was Germany’s worst nightmare, he got so much power and took so many tasks that made impossible to manage that fine tuned German war machine, i just feel sorry for such incompetent person to destroy whole generations of young germans, in a speech to the Hitler youth he says”i am not saying cheap talk to you, you will inherit the world,etc……and that seems to be the case just cheap talk, soon those kids will be dying in huge numbers first at the BATTLE OF MOSCOW, without artillery, and winter clothes in 40 bellow zero temperatures while the nazi party celebrates the fall of Moscow in BERLIN even newspapers printed the victory soon to come, then at STALINGRAD again making same mistake of ignoring soviet WINTER OFFENSIVE like they did year ago at MOSCOW.
    I could say without any doubt that HITLER was the most incompetent commander in chief in history, if was due to his health condition or his behavior or the amphetamines his doctor gave him or all together, i can only guess.
    Manstein believed that a victory at KURSK would take the soviets to the table to negotiate some armistice, but it was too late Hitler’s blunders had cost already 1/4 of Germany’s armies.
    Unlike the czar in WWI Hitler took all the tasks to himself without knowing much about military strategy/tactics and logistics of a war, ignoring his generals ( like GUDERIAN) somehow believing that he was the best german that ever lived and that he would lead Germany to victory, but in reality doing the opposite. And he would not relinquish power even in the final days of the war.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.