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PRELUDE TO KURSK: Soviet Strategic Operations February-March 1943

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Military historians have long credited German Field Marshal Eric von Manstein with staving off disaster on the German Eastern Front in the winter of 1943, when the Red Army was exploiting its unprecedented victory at Stalingrad. To do so, von Manstein had to overcome two seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The first was an obstinate Hitler who, failing to comprehend the magnitude of the Stalingrad catastrophe, refused to permit his generals to conduct a maneuver defense. The second was a Red Army, which, inspired by their Stalingrad victory, was poised to exploit that victory by attacking incessantly everywhere. Von Manstein mastered both obstacles, inflicted a stunning defeat on the advancing Soviet host and temporarily restored stability to the southern wing of the Germans’ Eastern Front.

History has fairly assessed that von Manstein’s feat was indeed remarkable and probably thwarted ambitious Soviet plans for achieving spectacular victory in southern Russia. New archival evidence, however, now indicates that von Manstein’s victory was far more important than previously believed. The evidence indicates that von Manstein’s victories in the Donets Basin (Donbass) and around Kharkov were far more significant than historians have previously supposed. This is so because Soviet strategic aims in the winter of 1943 went far beyond the defeat of German forces in southern Russia. Instead, the Soviet High Command (Stavka) sought nothing less than the complete collapse of German defenses across the entire Eastern Front.

A multitude of sound histories document Soviet strategic intentions in the winter of 1942-43 and the contributions von Manstein made to the restoration of German fortunes in the East1. These histories claim that the Stavka firmly believed they could exploit their Stalingrad victory, and they did so by conducting a winter campaign consisting of continuous offensive operations which endured from December 1942 to February 1943. Accordingly, the winter campaign developed in three distinct stages. First, in late November and early December, the Stavka tightened its encirclement ring around Stalingrad and successfully parried German attempts to relieve its forces beleaguered in the city. The Stavka did so by artfully maneuvering strategic and operational reserves (in particular, the 2d Guards Army) to block German relief attempts. Second, in mid-December, the Stavka launched a series of consecutive offensives aimed at clearing German and Allied forces from the south bank of the Don River and the southwestern approaches to Stalingrad. From 17 December 1942 through late January 1943, Red Army forces attacked and severely mauled the Italian Eighth, the Hungarian Second, and the German Second Armies in rapid succession. Although Soviet forces failed to seize and the isolate German Army Group “A” in the Caucasus region, they did savage German and Allied forces along the Don River and tore a gaping hole in German defenses in southern Russia. The Stavka began the campaign’s third and culminating stage in late January 1943 by hurling massive forces (the Voronezh and Southwestern Fronts) westward into the Donbass and Kharkov regions. Their aim was to collapse remaining German defenses, reach the Dnieper River and Sea of Azov, and destroy German Army Group Don2. During the planning for this final stage, the Soviets added the city of Kursk to their formidable list of strategic objectives.

History has recorded that, in February 1943, increasingly threadbare Soviet forces, operating at the end of overextended logistical umbilicals, advanced with abandon into a trap set by von Manstein. Having obtained Hitler’s reluctant permission to resort to a maneuver defense, von Manstein then struck back. Skillfully regrouping and maneuvering his forces (in particular, his First and Fourth Panzer Armies and the newly arrived SS Panzer Corps), he launched twin brilliant counterstrokes. From 20 February through early March 1943, his forces smashed the overextended Soviet Southwestern Front and drove its remnants back to the Northern Donets River. Subsequently, from 6 through 23 March, von Manstein’s panzer corps struck the Voronezh Front’s overextended armies south of Kharkov. The furious attack collapsed the Soviet front, propelled German forces to Belgorod, and compelled the Stavka to abandon its ambitious winter campaign. The defeated and chastened Soviet forces erected hasty defenses along the Northern Donets River and along what would become the south face of the famous Kursk Bulge.

While historians have since argued over whether von Manstein’s forces could have done more in March 1943, they agree that this sequence of events set the stage, geographically and strategically, for the ensuing famous Battle of Kursk.

Already, some aspects of this conventional interpretation of the Soviet Winter Campaign require fundamental reassessment. For example, we now know that German relief efforts at Stalingrad were futile, since Paulus’s force had limited capabilities for breaking out and Soviet strategic deployments (principally of the 2d Guards Army) rendered breakout and linkup exceedingly unlikely. We also know that, in early December 1942, the Soviet High Command was already formulating plans to smash large elements of Army Group “B”, seize Rostov, and isolate and destroy Army Group “A” (in Operation Saturn). However, Soviet miscalculation of German strength at Stalingrad forced alteration of this plan. We also now know that Soviet overconfidence and outright ineptitude, in particular regarding the interpretation of intelligence information, and not just Soviet force weakness conditioned von Manstein’s victories in the Donbass in February and March. Finally, we know that Marshal Zhukov, exultant over the success of the Soviet offensives, added Kursk to the list of Soviet objectives in late January.

Hence, historians have concluded that Soviet strategic planning throughout the winter of 1943 focused on the southwestern axis, the strategic line extending from the Don River north of Stalingrad through Kharkov and Voroshilovgrad to the Dnieper River and Sea of Azov. The campaign’s aim, they believe, was the total destruction of German Army Groups “A”, Don, and the southern wing of Army Group “B.” This interpretation, however, ignores a second Soviet strategic axis that became equally important as the winter campaign developed. This new strategic axis extended from Voronezh through Kursk to Bryansk and beyond. Soviet military historians have written much about Soviet operations along this axis in January 1943. They have described in detail the January-February Voronezh-Kastornoe operation and provided a sketchy outline of the February operation to secure Kursk. There, however, Soviet accounts have abruptly ended, seemingly subsumed by the more important events taking place to the south.

German archival data and fragmentary accounts found in Soviet memoirs and unit histories have long indicated the increased importance of this strategic axis. Now newly released Soviet archival materials indeed reveal the vast scope of Soviet strategic ambitions in their Winter Campaign. In short, they sought nothing less than the defeat of German Army Group Center. In February 1943 the Stavka formulated and attempted to carry out strategic plans, which, if realized, would have torn German defenses in the East in two and hastened the collapse of the entire German Eastern Front. The fact that these planned Soviet offensives did not succeed elevates the significance of von Manstein’s successful counterstrokes to strategic proportions, specifically, to the stature of a strategic counteroffensive.

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