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PRELUDE TO KURSK: Soviet Strategic Operations February-March 1943

Впервые опубликовано 25.09.2005 19:01
Последняя редакция 13.01.2016 11:09
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Soviet Strategic Planning (November 1942-February 1943)

In terms of its overall objectives, the Stavka’s strategic planning from spring 1942 through February 1943 was remarkably consistent. Long convinced of the vital importance of the Moscow axis, the Stavka concentrated its most powerful forces in that region in the spring of 1942. While accepting defense on the Moscow axis, Stalin impatiently attempted to regain the strategic initiative by conducting preemptive offensives at Kharkov and in the Crimea in May 1942. Both operations, however, ended in stark disaster. The subsequent German onslaught in southern Russia, which began on 28 June, surprised the Stavka but did not negate Soviet faith in the decisive importance of the Moscow axis. Henceforth, while the Stavka sought to halt and defeat German Army Group South (soon named “A” and “B”), it also contemplated future offensive action along the Moscow axis.

In early July 1942, the Stavka launched the first of many attempts to halt the German juggernaut. In early July its new 5th Tank Army struck German forces advancing toward Voronezh on the Don River, but the attack failed. Late in the same month, the Stavka struck again with a coordinated attack by its reinforced 5th Tank Army west of Voronezh and its 1st and 4th Tank Armies in the great bend of the Don River along the distant approaches to Stalingrad. These attacks also failed, although at greater cost to the advancing Germans. Beginning in early August, the Stavka ordered a series of lesser counterattacks designed to halt the German advance and stabilize the front on the immediate approaches to Stalingrad3. While these Soviet counterstrokes unfolded in the south, the forces of Marshal Zhukov’s Western Direction launched counterstrokes against the Army Group Center’s defenses in the Rzhev salient (July-August) and against German defenses at Zhizdra north of Orel (July-August). Throughout this period, the Stavka never abandoned its hopes for renewed large-scale offensive operations both in the center and in the south.

German offensive momentum in the south was ebbing by late September 1942. Its forces were spread deeply into the Caucasus region, while the bulk of its powerful Sixth and Fourth Panzer Armies were locked in costly street fighting for the city of Stalingrad. Of necessity, the Germans deployed armies of its allies (Rumanians, Hungarians, and Italians) to defend their over-extended flanks along the Don River and south of Stalingrad. At this juncture the Stavka formulated plans for twin operations code-named MARS and URANUS, mutually supporting strategic offensives designed to envelop forward German armies in the Moscow (Ninth Army) and Stalingrad (Sixth Army) regions. Subsequently, expanded operations (JUPITER and SATURN) would damage or destroy German Army Groups Center and “B”4. Initially, MARS was scheduled for 28 October, and URANUS would follow. Poor weather, however, forced the Stavka to postpone MARS until 25 November.

The Soviets launched operation URANUS on 19 November 1942. Within days Soviet optimism soared as their forces linked up near Kalach-on-the-Don, encircling all of Sixth Army and the bulk of German Fourth Panzer Army. While pondering how to digest the encircled force whose size exceeded Soviet expectations, the Stavka ordered implementation of plan SATURN to seize Rostov and isolate Army Group “A” in the Caucasus. However, heavier than expected combat on the approaches to Stalingrad and the prospect of German relief attempts toward Stalingrad prompted the Stavka to truncate operation SATURN into LITTLE SATURN, with correspondingly scaled-down objectives. Meanwhile, operation MARS had spectacularly aborted by the end of November. As a result, the strategic reserves earmarked for MARS now poured south in an expanding torrent where they could reinforce success. The stage was set for wholesale expansion of the Winter Campaign.

The Soviets conducted operation LITTLE SATURN from 16-29 December, at the same time the Germans were launching their ill-fated attempt to relieve Stalingrad from the southwest. LITTLE SATURN drew German operational reserves (XXXXVIII Panzer Corps) away from the German relief effort at the most critical moment and caused it to abort. In operation LITTLE SATURN and the subsequent Kotel’nikovo operation (24-30 December), Soviet forces destroyed Italian Eighth Army, defeated German LVII Panzer Corps’ attempt to relieve the Stalingrad garrison, and, even more importantly, threatened the safe withdrawal of German Army Group “A” from the Caucasus.

Exploiting the success of the LITTLE SATURN and Kotel’nikovo operations, in early January the Stavka planned a new series of offensives. This time its targets were Hungarian and German forces defending northward along the Don River and the remnants of German and Rumanian forces now clinging desperately to the land bridge east of Rostov, through which Army Group “A” would have to pass to reach the safety of German lines. The Voronezh Front conducted the first of these new offensives, the Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh’ operation, from 13-27 January 1943, severely damaging the Hungarian Second Army and creating an even wider gap in the German strategic defenses. Then, on 24 January, the Voronezh and Bryansk Fronts turned on German Second Army, which was defending the Voronezh sector of the once vaunted but now shattered German defense line along the Don River. In the ensuing Voronezh-Kastornoe operation, the German Second Army escaped encirclement, but just barely, and by 5 February Soviet forces were approaching Kursk and Belgorod5. At the same time, Soviet Southwestern and Southern Fronts’ forces unrelentingly pressed German forces back toward Rostov.

Even before the Voronezh-Kastornoe operation commenced, the Stavka was planning to expand the strategic offensive’s scope. While Soviet forces were advancing westward along the Voronezh and Rostov axes, on 20 and 23 January, the Stavka ordered the Voronezh and Southwestern Fronts to conduct two new operations code-named STAR and GALLOP, respectively. In STAR the Voronezh Front’s forces were to attack on 2 February, capture Kharkov, and, if conditions permitted, exploit as far as Kremenchug on the Dnieper River. In GALLOP the Southwestern Front’s forces were to advance on 29 January, seize Voroshilovgrad and Stallion, and reach Zaporozh’e on the Dnieper and Mariupol’ on the Sea of Azov. The Stavka’s strategic aim was nothing short of the destruction of already weakened German Army Group Don and the encirclement of German Army Group “A” in the Rostov and Mius River regions.

The preparations for operations STAR and GALLOP established a new planning pattern for the Winter Campaign. Given the severe time constraints and the extremely fluid situation, the Stavka formulated its new operational plans from the march while current operations were being prepared or conducted. True to this pattern and because of the spectacular successes achieved by Soviet forces around Voronezh, on 26 January the Stavka added Kursk to the list of objectives to be captured in operation STAR.

At least initially, the twin operations developed spectacularly. By 6 February Soviet forces had created huge gaps in the Germans’ defenses north and south of Kursk and between Kharkov and Slavyansk and were approaching Kursk, Belgorod, Kharkov, Slavyansk, and Voroshilovgrad. Although both German First and Fourth Panzer Armies had escaped to Rostov, thus avoiding entrapment in the Caucasus, now Rostov too was threatened and soon abandoned6. It seemed to the Stavka that the German position around Kursk and Kharkov and in the Donbass would become untenable if Soviet forces could accelerate their offensive actions. More important still, it seemed as if the entire German defense in southern Russia was in jeopardy of collapse. If this was so, then German Army Group Center’s southern flank was also vulnerable. Given the damage Soviet forces had already inflicted on that army group during their failed MARS offensive in the fall, there was every reason to be optimistic about prospects for expanding the Winter campaign to encompass operations against Army Group Center.

At this juncture and for these reasons, the Stavka revived its strategic hopes that had been dashed by the Germans, first in the winter of 1941-1942 and later in November 1942. Believing victory in the south was assured, it began thinking of ways to expand that victory to embrace its old nemesis, Army Group Center.

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