Erich von Manstein was Germany’s greatest commander, and the Battle of Kharkov was his greatest victory. Why, then, did it matter so little?
War, the poet Virgil once wrote, is a tale of “arms and the man.” The outcome of battle hinges on numbers, technology, training, and other impersonal factors, not to mention weather and terrain (“arms”). No matter how dire the odds, however, the genius of an individual commander (“the man”) can still triumph.
If ever the German army needed a genius, it was during the winter of 1942–43. The German invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, had begun in June 1941 as a staggering success, with one Soviet army after another encircled and destroyed. But by December a number of factors— heavy German losses, weather, and stiff Soviet resistance—conspired to halt the German drive outside Moscow. A vast counterattack, spearheaded by winter-hardened troops of the Siberian Reserve, soon had the remnants of Hitler’s armies in full flight from the Soviet capital.
The Germans tried again in June 1942 with Operation Blue, another great offensive on the southern front, heading toward Stalingrad and the oil fields in the Caucasus Mountains. This, too, came to grief. The Soviets made a gritty stand in the ruins of Stalingrad, then counterattacked north and south of that city, encircling the German 6th Army. By the end of 1942 the entire German front in the south was on the verge of collapse, and Adolf Hitler and his chief of staff, General Kurt Zeitzler, were flailing. At the start of Operation Blue, Hitler had reassured his jittery staff that “the Russian is finished,” but those words now sounded hollow. Far from finished, “the Russian” was on a rampage. A call went out from the Führer’s headquarters to the man fellow officers regarded as the most gifted commander in the entire Wehrmacht. In the east, it was do or die time. It was time for Manstein.
FIELD MARSHAL ERICH VON MANSTEIN was a genius, and happily said so himself. It is not bragging if one can back it up, however, and Manstein could. Born as Erich von Lewinski in 1887, he was adopted as a boy by a childless aunt and uncle. Both his biological and adoptive fathers were Prussian generals, making Manstein the scion of two aristocratic families. During World War I, he served in a variety of staff and field positions, and was wounded. Despite an acerbic manner—the prerogative of many brilliant and ambitious young men—he gained a reputation as one of the army’s sharpest young officers in the years after the war. The opening of World War II expanded that reputation, bringing him fame at home and abroad. Manstein was the brains behind the unorthodox operational plan that destroyed the French army in 1940. He led the lightning drive on Leningrad in 1941. He fought a brilliant campaign in the Crimea in 1942, encircling three Soviet armies at Kerch in May and in June smashing Soviet defenses in front of the great fortress of Sevastopol.
Manstein understood modern mobile operations— particularly the employment of tanks—as well as anyone in the business. He could out-think and outmaneuver opponents with the focus of a chess player, and indeed chess was one of his obsessions. Fellow officers recognized him as a master operator. General Alfred Heusinger of the Operations Section thought that Manstein “could accomplish in a single night what other military leaders would take weeks to do.”
In late 1942, as Hitler and Zeitzler pondered the looming disaster, Manstein seemed their only hope. On November 20, they summoned the general from the Leningrad front and put him in charge of a new formation, Army Group Don. The campaign Manstein would fight would be a lesson in how a genius can impose his will on a battlefield. In the course of this most difficult conflict, Manstein’s improvisation would overcome seemingly impossible obstacles and prove that in war one man really can make a difference. But he would also find himself a prisoner of his strategic situation, reminded that even a brilliant commander has limits.
MANSTEIN AND HIS NEW ARMY group faced a daunting situation. As 1942 was ending, German forces were scattered across the southern front. One major unit, Army Group B, was strung out on a flat plain along the Don, one of the Soviet Union’s many large rivers. Army Group A stood in the Caucasus mountain region between the Black and Caspian Seas, 500 miles to the south. In the immense steppe between the two armies stood…not much. The German 6th Army had been deployed there, but as the new year dawned, the 6th was trapped inside Stalingrad. Furthermore, contact between Army Groups B and A was nil, and a mass of Soviet armies was now pouring into this vacuum. Manstein’s mission was simple to describe, but less simple to accomplish. He needed to break the Soviet ring around Stalingrad and rescue 6th Army. Then he had to plug the gap between Army Groups B and A, and re-knit the defensive front.
On the map, Army Group Don seemed to fill the hole, but reality fell far short of that. The units in Manstein’s force were wretched, mostly ad hoc Gruppen—groups of varied size, hastily tossed together and named for whichever officer happened to be available to take command. Rather than divisions and corps, Manstein’s order of battle included Group Stahel, Group Stumpffeld, and Group Spang among many others. Their ranks consisted of rear-area supply troops, stragglers, remnants of destroyed formations, and a new breed: Luftwaffe field divisions made up of air force personnel pulled from bases at the rear, given rudimentary infantry training, and hustled to the front to fight on foot. While some of these units bravely defended their positions, too many melted away at their first contact with Soviet tanks.
Given these difficulties, Manstein’s attempt to relieve Stalingrad—Operation Winter Storm—was a long shot from the start. The army was so threadbare that Manstein could assemble only a single corps, the 57th Panzer, for the relief offensive. The corps had two divisions: the 6th Panzer, just transferred from France, and the battered 23rd Panzer, which had seen a great deal of hard fighting and badly needed a refit. Together these two groups, which probably added up to a division and a half, were to launch a 90-mile drive to Stalingrad in the teeth of strong Soviet opposition.
The offensive opened on December 12. Assembling southwest of Stalingrad at the railway town of Kotelnikovo, the two divisions drove straight up the rail line, with 6th Panzer to the left of the tracks and 23rd to the right. Although the assault lacked real surprise and any attempt to maneuver, it penetrated the Soviet defenses on day one. Under the command of one of the army’s most aggressive tankers, General Eberhard Raus, 6th Panzer led the attack and made its presence felt. Its partner, 23rd Panzer, had only 30 tanks to its name and barely kept pace.
The German tempo slowed. By day two, Soviet reinforcements were hammering the attackers’ flanks. The adversaries were locked in tough fighting for individual ridges and villages, with heavy losses all around—the very type of engagement the brittle German force had to avoid. The weather went from good to terrible, German tanks ran out of fuel, and the Soviets resisted fiercely. General Raus and his panzers ground forward, but never came close to penetration and slowed to a halt 35 miles from Stalingrad. On December 23, Manstein canceled Winter Storm and left 6th Army to its fate.
Manstein had failed at Stalingrad. Or had he? Even a genius has needs—men, supplies, and vehicles—and Manstein came up short. He made no obvious mistake in Winter Storm, but in that context an error-free effort hardly mattered. His task was to reopen a supply line, perhaps in concert with a breakout by 6th Army from inside the city, and that did not happen.
Manstein rationalized his failure in a postwar memoir, Lost Victories. The pertinent chapter, “Tragedy of Stalingrad,” likens 6th Army to the legendary 300 Spartans who sacrificed themselves at Thermopylae to give Greece time to organize defenses against the Persians. He justified the sacrifice of 6th Army as a necessary diversion to draw Soviet strength from Army Group Don, buying time while he scrambled to rebuild the shattered front. “The officers and soldiers of this army have built a monument to valor and duty for the German soldier,” Manstein wrote. “It is not made of earth or rock, but it will live for the ages.”
Neither argument—the operational or the poetic— made sense. In the language of Manstein’s beloved chess, 6th Army was not a pawn to be thrown away to gain position. As one German staff officer put it, “An army of 300,000 men is not a machine gun nest or a bunker whose defenders may, under certain circumstances, be sacrificed for the whole.” The loss of 6th Army was a catastrophe, pure and simple. These passages reveal an inglorious side of Manstein, as do his repeated attempts in Lost Victories to cast blame on others—whether Hitler or 6th Army’s commander, General Friedrich Paulus. Convinced of his own genius, however, perhaps Manstein could not have done otherwise.
With Winter Storm’s failure, the campaign entered its second stage. For the moment, the Red Army was ascendant, launching a series of huge offensives west of Stalingrad: In December, Operation Little Saturn smashed the Italian 8th Army. January’s Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh Offensive (named for the towns that were the initial objectives) targeted the Hungarian 2nd Army. Operation Gallop saw Soviet armies hurtling full bore across the Donets River to the south and southwest. And Operation Star, in early February, came close to destroying the German 2nd Army. This collective strategic offensive sought nothing less than to smash all of Germany’s armies on the southern front.
Manstein had minimal ability to resist the Russian onslaught. Essentially managing chaos, he shifted units hither and yon as emergencies arose, and inserted meager reinforcements as they arrived. In his few spare moments, he tried to talk sense into the high command—i.e. Hitler—urging the evacuation of the Caucasus and consolidation of Germany’s weak forces. He met only frustration, as did most officers who tried to get the Führer to approve a retreat. Only after a month of browbeating by the persuasive General Zeitzler did Hitler agree to withdraw Army Group A from the Caucasus.
The late January evacuation of the Caucasus led this sprawling campaign into its third stage. The Soviet offensives were reaching what the great philosopher of war Karl von Clausewitz called a “culmination point,” at which energy flags, friction rises, and the machine stops. Soviet supplies—especially fuel—were running low, Russian tank corps were losing their cutting edge, and men were near exhaustion. It had been an amazing ride for the Red Army: starting at Stalingrad, it had crossed two major rivers and driven 500 miles into the vast open spaces of the southern Soviet Union. In all, it was one of the most successful military campaigns ever. But the ravages were starting to show, and Soviet fighting strength was half what it had been at the offensive’s start.
WHILE THE SOVIETS WERE wearing down, Manstein’s forces were strengthening. His small groups were coalescing into provisional armies—multi-corps formations commanded, as before, by whoever was available. Provisional Army Hollidt now stood in place of 6th Army, Provisional Army Fretter-Pico occupied the ground where the Italian 8th Army had been, and Provisional Army Lanz was forming a mobile command around Kharkov, the fourth-largest Soviet city. These formations were still short on administrative personnel, artillery, and transport, but months of working together had bred confidence among the ranks. Adding to the German renewal was the arrival of reinforcements from the home front: the II SS Panzer Corps, comprised of three new divisions bursting with fresh manpower, equipment, and self-confidence.
Soviet overstretch, German revival: it was Manstein’s moment, the instant when “arms” yield to “the man.” Sitting on the defensive had eaten at Manstein. (“For me,” he said with considerable understatement,“it went right against the grain.”) He knew the Soviets were not supermen and that his time would come. He welcomed the arrival of II SS Panzer Corps to his army group, but even so, Soviet numbers dwarfed his own.
Manstein had a solution, however. Although German armies had withdrawn from the Caucasus, they were on a line that stretched east toward the city of Rostov. Manstein called that position a balcony because it jutted at right angles from the main defensive position. He drew up a plan to pull back from this forward location and shorten the line—the only way to free troops for a decisive counterattack.
But what sort of counterattack? Ever the chess player, Manstein envisioned a Rochade—the castling move in which a king and a rook exchange places. A player typically uses the maneuver to improve his overall defensive position and protect his king, but also to free his rook, one of the most powerful pieces on the board and one of the few able to carry out deep, mobile strikes. Manstein wanted to transfer the armies from the portion of the balcony on his extreme right—the 1st and 4th Panzer Armies—to his left, wielding them like a massive armored rook. Once redeployed, the two armies would launch a counter blow against Soviet forces driving to the west. It was a typically bold stroke, one Manstein called a backhand blow—a well-timed strike against a committed enemy far from its base and low on supplies.
After Manstein sold Hitler on the idea during a face-to-face meeting on February 6, the pullback from the eastern balcony began, followed by the change in position. In the next few days, 1st Panzer, under General Eberhard von Mackensen, came up into the line on Manstein’s left wing. A week later, 4th Panzer, under General Hermann Hoth, fell in on 1st Panzer’s left. The entire German array, consolidated under Manstein and renamed Army Group South, now faced north—at the Soviet armies hurtling west for the Dnepr river crossings. The stakes were enormous. If the Soviets were the first to reach the Dnepr bridges, they could trap Manstein’s entire force east of the great river. The Germans had lost an army at Stalingrad. Now they were threatened with a super-Stalingrad of the entire German southern wing, and perhaps the end of the war.
The campaign had boiled down into a race. The Soviets were driving west and the Germans were desperately trying to keep pace. For weeks in late February, the situation hung in the balance. Manstein had an advantage, since his forces were falling back onto their supply bases while the Soviets were leaving theirs behind. The Soviets had their own advantage, however. They were far enough north that the ground was still frozen hard. The Germans, over a hundred miles to the south, were motoring on terrain that had started to thaw, and the muddy roads seriously hindered their movement.
The Soviets hit their high-water mark on February 19, when a column of T-34 tanks seized the town of Sinelnikovo, only 30 miles from German headquarters on the Dnepr. Making matters worse for the Germans, Hitler himself had just flown in to consult with Manstein. The news that enemy tanks were an hour away, “without a single formation between us and the enemy,” as Manstein put it, led to a scramble. By noon, Manstein’s staff officers had trundled the Führer onto a plane back to Germany.
The Soviets had no idea how close they had come to Hitler, but their intelligence was reporting massive German troops movements to the west that were choking roads with men, vehicles, and guns, as well as the abandonment of heavy equipment and forward air bases. Soviet commanders, reading these signs to mean that the Germans were making a wild run for the Dnepr crossings, urged their men on with redoubled urgency. The Wehrmacht was in flight, and this was no time to ease up.
Two days later, the Soviets realized how wrong they had been. On February 21, Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army erupted in a counterattack. Two convergent thrusts— one from the south, with 57th Panzer Corps on the left and 47th on the right, and one from the northwest by II SS Panzer Corps—caught the Soviets by surprise from all directions and vaporized them. German casualties in these opening days were minimal. The Soviets, however, lost nearly all their tanks, and many men. And no wonder: at the very moment of the German counterattack, unit after Soviet unit was running out of fuel.
Manstein knew he had drawn blood. After the tensions of the last month, it was his moment of liberation. With two German armies driving north and the Soviets melting away, the time had come to drive the blade in deeper. It must have seemed like 1941, or even 1940. The campaign climaxed when the II SS Panzer Corps slammed into Kharkov and, after three days of gritty street fighting from March 12–14, cleared the city. From Kharkov, German forces hopped less than 50 miles north to Belgorod, taking that city on March 23. By then the entire front had thawed, the muddy season had arrived with a vengeance, and no one was going anywhere.
MANSTEIN WAS JUSTIFIABLY ECSTATIC over what he had achieved. “No cold, no snow, no ice, no mud could break your will to win,” he told his troops. Hitler echoed the sentiment, calling Kharkov “a turning point in the fortunes of battle,” and granted extra leave to formations that had fought there.
But there were two sides to the Kharkov campaign. Manstein proved he was a master of war, but at many moments war had clearly mastered him. In the first phase, the attempt to relieve Stalingrad, he had been helpless. He had a single panzer division, a 90-mile drive, and a front that was leaking everywhere. Likewise, in the middle phase—the Soviet lunge west from Stalingrad—Manstein’s makeshift battle groups and hapless Luftwaffe divisions had minimal impact. He had to be patient, biding his time and plugging whatever hole the Soviets had blown in the dike.
As with most campaigns, the time came when an individual could make a difference, and Manstein picked his with skill. He devised a simple but elegant plan, timed his blow perfectly, and executed it ruthlessly. In the end, he achieved the seemingly impossible: he re-established the German front in the south where it had been torn open by the debacle at Stalingrad. Even more remarkable, he restored that front to nearly where it had stood at the start of the 1942 campaign, before Stalingrad. The achievement was almost surreal compared to the disastrous situation that had existed only a few weeks earlier.
It was Manstein’s greatest victory—but it was tragically incomplete. In driving to Kharkov, Manstein rode his armies hard, propelling them to a long, meandering line along the Donets River—approximately midpoint between the Don, where the Soviet offensive had begun, and the Dnepr, where it had ended. This left the Germans at a forward position of great breadth that they would not be able to hold in the coming year. Manstein recognized this; so did Hitler and the staff. The end of the winter campaign found them all deep in thought, mulling ways to keep the initiative for the rest of 1943.
So Manstein’s great victory ended nothing. A mere four months later, in July 1943, the Wehrmacht would launch an outnumbered and ill-advised offensive, Operation Citadel, aimed at a large bulge in the Soviet line around the city of Kursk. For all of Manstein’s genius, he had only delayed disaster, and the victory at Kharkov led inexorably to defeat at Kursk.
The German dominance at Kharkov was a display of personal genius—a virtuoso performance. For a few weeks “the man” made an entire front dance to his tune. But as the war showed repeatedly, even the greatest general must bow to strategic limitations, and the realities of the battlefield always reassert themselves.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.