The Death of the Kursk Offensive: Sympathy for the Devil

By Robert M. Citino
3/31/2011 • Fire for Effect

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?

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