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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