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Who Killed Citadel?

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: February 05, 2011 
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On July 13th, 1943, Adolf Hitler called the Army Group commanders currently involved in Operation Citadel to his headquarters, the Wolfsschanze in Rastenburg, East Prussia.  There he gave Field Marshals Erich von Manstein (Army Group South) and Günther von Kluge (Army Group Center) some bad news:  the battle of Kursk  was over and it was time to revert to a defensive posture on the eastern front.  Manstein argued with him.  Things were looking up on the southern front, he told the Führer.  His assault had already smashed the Soviet strategic reserve at Prokhorovka, and a breakthrough was imminent.  Kluge held a different and more pessimistic view.  The assault from the north by 9th Army had failed to make anything more than a local dent in the defenses, and the Soviets were clearly massing for some sort of counterattack against the Orel salient.  In fact, there were early reports that it had already started.    

Hitler had made his decision, however, and that was that.  He now presented his reasons.  The Allies had invaded Sicily three days before, he told his commanders, and the sizable Italian forces on the island–some 200,000 men– had apparently already collapsed.  The Axis alliance itself was in peril.  It was going to be necessary to transfer major forces from the Eastern Front to the west in order to shore Germany's collapsing strategic position. 

From our later perspective, Hitler's reasoning can appear flimsy, if not altogether specious. Was this really possible?  Could a landing by a mere seven Allied divisions on a faraway island achieve what hundreds of Soviet divisions and nearly two million soldiers of the Red Army had been unable to do:  halt the German suffer offensive at Kursk?  Did Italy really matter that much?

In fact, once we study a more precise timeline, the Führer's position seems entirely plausible.   World War II was a long conflict, embracing nearly six calendar years and seven campaigning seasons, and it covered the earth like a Sherwin Williams advertisement.  Occasionally, however,  the history of the conflict requires an analysis on the micro level. 

Let us travel back to the summer of 1943 for a moment.  Let's call it "nine days that shook the world."

Tune in next time.

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10 Responses to “Who Killed Citadel?”


  1. 1
    Bill Nance says:

    Could it also be that Hitler may have realized that his grand offensive was turning into a bloody fiasco, and HUSKY gave him a domestically "face-saving" opportunity for calling off ZITADELLE? I know there has been some research done (though I couldn't name the books) that suggested that Hitler's hold on power may not have been as tight as has been suggested. Thus, he could claim that it was the Allies that forced him to abandon his offensive, not necessarily that the plan to which he had staked so many hopes had utterly and miserably failed?

    Of course, the Soviets would have their own plans, which would throw the Germans into some pretty serious disarray, making Hitler's face-saving an even worse course of action.

    All told – this time is a perfect example of the challenges faced when fighting a multi-front war with rather limited resources. I look forward to the next installment.

  2. 2
    Luke Truxal says:

    Maybe it was a little bit of everything. The threat of an Italian collapse proved to be very real, but it did provide a face saving opportunity, like Manstein requesting 12 divisions. Citadel did fail, but now Hitler could claim the Allies forced him to divert forces to Italy. However, we will never know how things would have worked if Hitler didn't intervene in Italy, because he never allowed Italy to swap sides. In the end Hitler made the right decision for the Italian campaign.

  3. 3
    bb says:

    what a tragedy for the German army. The Soviets didn't have too much left there on the southern face of Kursk, and , what was the name of that group of troops, Kempf (sorry, doing this from memory), was about to make an appearance on the Prokhorovka front. Had that been allowed to continue, i do believe the Germans would have broken through and really rolled up the Kursk front. They let a victory slip away.

    That said, I don't think in the long run it would have made a difference, just prolonged the Eastern Front war a little longer. Maybe the Western Allies would have taken Berlin in this case.

  4. 4
    Bill Nance says:

    bb – You're thinking of Army Detachment Kempf.
    I suggest reading Glantz and House's new work "The Battle of Kursk" They are writing with access to Soviet archival material from the time. From their evidence, the Germans were not that close to success in the south, and even if they had acheived a clean breakthrough (very doubtful), there would have been nothing left for exploitation.

    In fact, a continued offensive in the south would simply have pushed the few remaining German forces with offensive capability left deeper into a pocket as the Soviets conducted their own counter-offensives against the Orel and Kharkov areas. Additionally, the continued fighting to achieve a breakthrough would have eaten those units up, leaving the Germans in even a worse condition to respond to the Soviet counterthrusts.

    All in all, when your enemy absorbs your best shot with most of your best divisions, then is capable of launching army/army group size offensives immediately afterwards, it's a sign that continued attacking in that sector is not going to work. An operational victory didn't slip away at Kursk, it was never there to begin with. The best the Germans could have achieved would have been to tear new salients that would have been quickly destroyed with even greater loss of men and material.

    • 4.1
      bb says:

      Bill:

      I have read Glantz' fantastic book on Kursk (and will re-read it shortly). One of the best books ever, no? However, I'm not sure I'm convinced the Soviet sources are all that reliable as far impartiality. I feel the Soviets were out of reserves on the Southern Kursk front, and, though the Germans had suffered great loss, the Soviets were losing "worse". I agree with you that there would not have been any kind of great victory of any sort. Nevertheless, it seems foolhardy to have embarked on such an offensive, and cancel it at the very crucial moment when they had a breakthrough shot.

      • 4.1.1
        Bill Nance says:

        I agree, a great book, though Citino is coming out with a book on 1943 that should have some good thoughts too.

        Also, agree that the Soviet sources may not have been the most objective in the world, but think about the timeline. After Prokorovka, the Germans are badly bloodied (to be fair, so are the Soviets). But within a week of the battle, the Soviets are launching a multi-front level counteroffensive against Army Group South. That's not the sign of a side that is losing "worse". Also, what was the exploitation force for a penetration by II SS Panzer Korps? They WERE the exploitation force, and spent themselves in the attempt at a breakthrough.

        I agree on the foolhardiness of the offensive as a general rule, it tore up a lot of reserves that could have been used to better effect elsewhere. As to canceling the offensive, sometimes, it's better to cut your losses than double down.

        All the best.

    • 4.2
      bobe says:

      I read the book of GLANTZ THE BATTLE OF KURSK, it has so many wrong information that makes it unusable.
      If you believe STALIN PROPAGANDA and all the absurd AND LIES that goes with it , then read GLANT'S THE BATTLE OF KURSK.
      The soviet suffered CATASTROPHIC LOSSES in the south, but according to GLANTZ(and his soviet records????LOL) even tank regiment that was annihilated (181st), was deemed INTACT, it is not just inconsistence it is outrageous lies.
      I suggest you to read instead of GLANTZ ,the related articles below "BATTLE OF KURSK; GERMAN'S LOST VICTORY IN WWII"
      Secondly the soviets had no reserve left in the south ROTMISTROV'S 5th guards tank were the reserve forces , ZHUKOV panicked (with reason) and had to use them early, it was almost annihilated because of fact that so many tanks in the field created such dust that visibility blinded those T34/t70s, they were almost completely knocked out by the hundreds by the experienced and well trained WAFFEN SS.
      LLOYD CLARK has a new book this 2011, about KURSK "THE BATTLE OF KURSK CLASH OF THE TANKS(also on related articles bellow ) in it there is a t34 tank commander that describes PROKHOROVKA please read it and enlighten yourself, you will be surprised.

  5. 5
    TRDG says:

    It should be interesting to see what the other parts of this will lay out for us to ponder.

    If I recall most those extra divisions called for after the Allied landing in Italy did not go there in the end.??

    As for the success of the Southern front IF the Germans pressed on then maybe some of the counter-attacking Russian reserves might have been put/pulled here and perhaps weaken the attack to follow on Orel and Kharkov. Perhaps then leading the Germans in the South to hook around and help out the Northern sector, but who really nows.

    As we all pretty much know now plowing through the very stout and in depth Russian defences at Kursk was the worst thing to do in the end. And if the Germans did in fact know about it before and still went on with some success in the Southern sector is still pretty incredible and they did a lot of damage. But the Russians could afford the losses while the Germans could not in the end.

    Cheers

    Tom

  6. 6
    bobe says:

    Operation Citadel was going according to MANSTEIN designs, at PROKHOROVKA the soviet reserves of ROTMISTROV"S 5TH GUARDS TANKS suffered catastrophic losses , the germans had still reserves XXIV Panzer Corps with 3 divisions .
    Hitler was not sure about KURSK offensive, and he got an excuse to get out of it even with german tactical victory at PROKHOROVKA,i am sure that there is a fog of war, no side knew the real strenght of the enemy or who was wining, but to call off the offensive at CITADEL was another of HITLER'S BLUNDER.
    The bulge of soviet forces was concentrated on the North but Model was cautious and he had suffered less losses than the south.
    To me Hitler didn't understand such complex operation like CITADEL he didn't interfere but when he did he did again the worst decision possible took the bait from the allies with this FALSE SECOND FRONT, so laughable. To remove all those forces and move them to ITALY would take a month at least anyway.
    The truth is that HITLER again like a child with adults, had no idea of what he was doing,he exercised his ABSOLUTE POWER once again to help the soviets to give ZHUKHOV (who felt weakness on part of germans) the initiative and he certainly took advantage of it and bluffed with 4 counteroffensives. I am sure ZHUKOV intended to finish the germans at KURSK , didn't happen because of WAFFEN SS, the new TIGER TANKS and superior training and skills of german forces involved in that battle, his PLAN A failed, but HITLER gave him opportunity to regain initiative even suffering catastrophic losses in men, airplanes and tanks, much more than the german's losses.
    I truly believe that MANSTEIN was right even if he couldn't see through that immense carnage, he was on the right track.
    The battle of KURSK if had gone accordingly to MANSTEIN PLANS wouldn't have change the outcome of WWII but it certainly would have given precious time to the germans, instead gave all the advantage to the soviets who even took all new german tanks knocked out and brought them to the factories to make the new heavy soviet tanks( like the STALIN TANK that never saw combat).

  7. 7
    Mark S says:

    Bobe above makes for some great assessment and I would like to add the flank preparations that the Soviets made to attack on the Mius south of Kharkiv which would have been screened if they were goignt o be \surprise\ flank attacks and not designed to draw support away from the southern fork of the Kursk attack. It was certainly Hitler who was duped into drawing forces away from the key point of decision being made by Kemf, Hoth and von Manstein where the Panzers where at the point of breaking into real open ground…where the kill rates of the panzers would sky rocket as they had done in earlier summer campaigns. In fact the Germans had the same force levels at thebeginning of Kursk as they had on the 3th of July given the remarkable recovery work being done and the fact that they were in control of the ground and able to fix their tanks etc. I don't believe the southern flank attack being prepared at the Mius was significant but a feint. I do believe that Von Mansteins Genius art if you want would have driven through into open ground and the Soviets would have had to wheel back their remaining tank forces from orel to counter that…Open ground quick radio contact, it would have been a turkey shoot, in fact it would have been similar to a strike through france in 1940 but instead of going through the ardennes with the majority tank force Manstein was doing the pincer from Kharkiv drivingtowards the newly constructed defensive lines behind Orel. I suspect this is what Manstein had in mind as he new the soviets would fall for the Orel pull-back and he would be able to close the cauldron and break them up against the defensive line (alla English Channel) trapping a million + men and destroying 60-70% of the Soviet tank force on the eastern front…could have been done absalotely…held the initiative, controlled the air and was into open country…even better weather than the turn around he conducted just 3 months before where the odds were 8:1 against him!!



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