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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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Observations and Conclusions

As had been the case a year before, in the winter of 1942-43, Stavka offensive expectations during their Winter Campaign far exceeded the Red Army actual capabilities. The Stavka was inspired by its November victory at Stalingrad and emboldened by its subsequent seemingly endless series of successes. Consequently, in February 1943 the Stavka broadened its initial strategic aim of destroying German forces in southern Russia to encompass the destruction of German forces in central Russia, in particular, its old nemesis, Army Group Center. This over-optimism was not unprecedented. The Stavka routinely strove to accomplish too much too fast during its earlier campaigns and operations. Unfortunately, the Red Army’s soldiers inevitably paid a bloody price for the Stavka’s over-ambition. Although the Soviet military leadership displayed greater planning skill in early 1943 than before, planning was usually hasty. The rapidly changing military situation impelled the Stavka to make decisions too quickly without considering such factors as force fatigue and deteriorating weather conditions. As a result, the forces moved, regrouped, and concentrated at glacial speeds, and forces could not achieve the combined-arms mix requisite for conducting successful operations. In particular, tank and artillery support was inadequate, and logistical support often totally failed. In short, the Stavka still had to master the art of the possible in terms of establishing realistic aims and in planning and conducting large-scale operations34.

Archival materials vividly underscore the problems the Red Army encountered during Rokossovsky’s failed offensive. First and foremost, the Stavka and field commands required Red Army soldiers, who were exhausted by months of near constant combat, to perform tasks far beyond their capabilities. The high losses and immense human suffering that resulted was predictable. The combat records of the 13th Army’s 15th Rifle Division serve as a gruesome example. The division participated in the Voronezh-Kastornoe operation, helped capture Maloyaroslavets in late February, and then fought for a month northwest of the town. From 13 January through 20 February 1943, the division suffered 683 men dead, 1,581 wounded, and 542 missing, or about 25 percent its original combat strength. Nor did its heavy losses cease. The division lost an additional 119 dead, 243 wounded, and 53 missing by 28 February in heavy fighting at and north of Maloyaroslavets. The division’s agony continued right up to the end of the operation, as typified by a division daily report dated 17 March that noted the loss of 28 men dead and 164 wounded35. The division finally went over to the defense on 20 March. The 15th Rifle division’s losses, which ultimately reached about 50 percent of its original personnel strength, were typical for most rifle division and brigades serving in the 48th, 65th, and 70th Armies.

The Central Front command was especially upset by the unnecessary and excessive losses by the 70th Army, particularly those that the division suffered during its attacks west of Trosna against the German 18th Panzer Division between 8 and 17 March. Central Front Decree #00116, dated 4 April, sharply criticized the army, stating:

The unsuccessful offensive operations by the 70th Army to seize and hold the Svetlyi Luch, Novaya Ialta, Rzhavchik, Muravchik, and height marker 260.2 region and the suffering of huge losses numbering 8,849 men and material in this operation is explained by: the unsatisfactory preparations for this operation on the part of the Military Council and, first and foremost, by Major General Comrade Tarasov, the army commander; the weak organizational role and unsatisfactory control on the part of the staff; and the perfunctory attitude of the formation and unit commanders to the organization of combat...

On 30 March 1943 the army was missing (in addition to the combat losses) 7,802 rifles, 2,145 heavy machine guns, 326 submachine guns, 556 PPSh, 20 45 mm guns, 44 82 mm mortars, 93 50 mm mortars, and 240 antitank rifles36.

The troops in the supporting armies fared little better. We have already cited the 138,577 casualties suffered by the Kalinin and Western Fronts during their pursuit of German forces from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient. Among these were the 1,381 dead, 2,765 wounded, and 21 missing in the 20th Army, suffered primarily during its 4-5 March assault on defending German rearguard forces37. Although records are fragmentary regarding specific losses in individual divisions, loss figures for Soviet divisions that were defeated by von Manstein’s counteroffensive are instructive. For example, the Southwestern Front’s 38th Guards Rifle Division lost 1,997 men dead, 9,740 wounded, and 548 missing out of an original strength of less than 10,000 men during operations from December 1942 through 1 March 194338. By mid-March 1943, only 2,557 men from the Voronezh Front’s 350th Rifle Division remained in the field out of its original 10,000 men39. The same front’s 184th Rifle Division fielded 400 surviving riflemen out of its original strength of about 8,000 men40.

Overall, the Bryansk Front suffered 134, 903 casualties between 1 January and 12 March 1943, when the front was disbanded. These casualties included 37,423 men lost in the Voronezh-Kastornoe operation and almost 100,000 men lost during the February-March offensive. After 13 March the losses of the front’s former armies were counted in Western and Central Front loss figures. The Central Front, which played the greatest role in the offensive, lost 762,536 men between 24 February and 31 December 1943. Subtracting the 428,546 men it lost during the subsequent Kursk, Orel, Chernigov-Pripiat’, and Gomel’-Rechitsa operations and the intervening periods, the front lost approximately 300,000 men including about 90,000 dead, captured, and missing and 210,000 wounded in its February-March offensive41. Thus, while ignoring the losses suffered by the Voronezh Front’s 60th Army in its Lgov and Rylsk operations, the combined losses of the Kalinin, Western, Bryansk, and Central Fronts during the February-March offensive was approximately 500,000 men.

Given these heavy losses, the most vexing question was how the armies and divisions maintained any combat capability at all. The fact that they sustained the offensive as long as they did attests to the effectiveness of the Soviet personnel replacement system that ruthlessly refilled its armies’ rank with fresh levies from the newly liberated regions. For example, in late March the 60th Army’s 121st Rifle Division reported:

The division took part in the battles for Voronezh, Kursk, and Lgov. The division suffered heavy losses in the battles for the Lukashevka and Soldatskoe line due to the unskillful leadership of the former division commander, Bushin, for which the division commander was relieved from his duties. On 25 March 1943, the division had a strength of 7,025 men, of which 5,573 joined as replacements by means of a mobilization on the territory of Kursk region that was liberated from the German invaders42.

At roughly the same time, a status report by 60th Army’s 248th Student Rifle Brigade stated:

[The brigade] joined the 60th Army on 30 January 1943. It took part in the battles for Kursk and Lgov. The brigade operated especially skillfully and energetically during the Lgov operation. Dispatched far forward along the Nizhne Chupakhino and Konoprianovka line (along the western bank of the Svapa River) on the army’s flank, the brigade threatened Rylsk from the north and, by doing so, resolved the outcome of the operation for possession of Lgov. During that period U-2 aircraft supplied the brigade with ammunition and the division obtained its foodstuffs from local resources. The strength of the brigade on 25 March 1943 was 2,389 men, of which 774 joined as replacements by means of a mobilization conducted in the Kursk region, which was now liberated from the fascist invaders, and from the disbanded Drozdov Partisan Detachment43.

Although the brigade had lost about half of its combat strength, the report concluded, "The brigade is fully combat ready. Materials are being assembled for the awarding of a guards banner for [its] exemplary fulfillment of combat missions in the destruction of the German invaders while displaying good organization and firm discipline."

Despite the effective forced levy for Red Army replacements, some reports indicated that the army’s blocking detachments, which were used to prevent desertions, were not always fully effective. For example, on 16 March the 13th Army issued specific orders to its three blocking detachments requiring that they remedy the problem. The order stated:

Replacements are joining the ranks of the Red Army from regions liberated from the enemy’s forces. In the struggle against possible instances of desertion and the avoidance of military service, THE ARMY COMMANDER ORDERS:

  1. Strengthen the blocking duties of army blocking detachments;

  2. Systematically conduct universal inspections of the entire male population in all population points;

  3. Comb all forests and orchards thoroughly and examine all haystacks, uninhabited buildings, and especially dugouts situated along the lines of the old defenses;

  4. Strengthen the inspection of documents of those passing through the populated points and suspicious persons.

Report on all implemented measures by 25 March 1943.

Major General Petrushevsky, the chief of staff of the 13th Army’s44

This draconian Soviet replacement system did not always improve unit discipline. For example, a report by the 121st Rifle Division, prepared on 12 March during the height of the 60th Army’s unsuccessful attempt to seize Rylsk, touched on the problem and provided a glimpse of a pettiness that masked real morale problems. In part, it stated:

The discipline of the [division’s] personnel fell precipitously during the period of offensive combat operations. The soldiers and commanders…no longer maintain their required military bearing…[they] neither tuck in [their boots] nor salute their seniors in rank. Consequently,

I ORDER: Organize one hour of military training daily for all personnel in all of the division’s units. In military training, first and foremost, work out [the troops] external appearance (the correct wearing of headgear, the tucking in of greatcoats, waist belts, equipment, leg-wrappings, etc.)...45

Given the length of the campaign, the high casualties, and the seemingly endless combat, it is quite understandable that the morale of officers and men alike began to flag. Among the many manifestations of this problem were the growing instances of drunkenness and self-mutilation among the troop and even the officers. This fact was recognized in a 31 March order of the 60th Army’s commander to his men. The report read:

Recently, many instances, which are inadmissible to Red Army soldiers and commanders, have been observed in the division’s units – including drinking binges, which have spread to a great degree among the command personnel. Instead of ceasing this unnecessary phenomenon, in some instances units and sub-unit commanders encourage these persons and often themselves participate in the brawls, which lead to a loss of Red Army’s soldiers state of mind and, in other instances, to the divulging of military secrets. Persons in an inebriated state use weapons in all instances of drunkenness, and, as a result, unnecessary and completely unwarranted losses occur. On 27 March 1943, while in an inebriated condition and without cause, Senior Lieutenant Remizov, the commander of an automatic weapons company in the 383d Rifle Regiment, shot two Red army soldiers in a burst of submachine gun fire.

The 121st Rifle Division commander Major General Ladygin
The 121st Rifle Division chief of staff Lieutenant Colonel Generalov46

A similar breakdown of discipline was noted in 65th Army Order #4 dated 25 March 1943, which read:

The presence of unstable elements that have carried out various crimes motivated by cowardice have appeared in our army’s units during the course of active military operations. Among these crimes, self-mutilation [self-inflicted wounds] is found to have been especially widespread. During the first half of March 1943, 22 men have been exposed and judged as self-mutilators in the 246th Rifle Division alone, of which the largest part appear in the 908th Rifle Regiment. Self-mutilation is the most widespread in the 37th Guards, 246th, and 354th Rifle Divisions...

Commander of the 65th ArmyMember of the Military Council
Lieutenant General BatovColonel Luchko
Chief of staff of the army Major General Glebov47

Archival records also extensively critiqued the conduct of the operation and provided lessons-learned so that the forces could improve their performance in the future. While these reports addressed a wide range of topics, they focused in particular on the conduct of combined-arms operations in harsh winter conditions and spring thaws. For example, during the early stages of the operation, the 13th Army issued an order to its divisions signed by the army chief of staff and the chief of the operational department which stated, “The army commander orders: Cease employing infantrymen in attacks without artillery support”48 . The Bryansk Front chimed in on 3 February with sharp criticism of its armies’ infantry tactics, noting:

The experience of the initial battles indicates that a number of unit and sub-unit commanders are violating the Infantry Combat Regulations. During the attack, some portions of the commanders are situated in the general lines and, sometimes, even in front of their sub-units. As a result, units have suffered unnecessary losses of command personnel…[They] lose command and control, and [this] reduces the offensive tempo...Thus, in the 132d Infantry Division, the division lost 167 mid-level commanders alone during three days of combat operations. In addition, two deputy division commanders, the chief of staff of a regiment, a deputy regimental commander for political affairs, and a number of other were put out of action.

All formation and units commanders in combat will lead stringently according to the Infantry Combat Regulations. There will be severe punishment for deviating from the Regulations during offensive operations.

Colonel General Reiter, commander of the Bryansk Front’s forces
Major General of Tank Forces Susaikov, member of the Bryansk Front’s Military Council
Major General Sandalov, chief of the Bryansk Front’s staff49

Sometimes orders seemed to be contradictory. For example, a day later on 4 February the same front criticized its 13th and 48th Armies for the reverse problems, stating:

The 13th, and in particular, the 48th Army’s offensive combat experiences indicate that the weak command and control of forces on the battlefield results primarily from the fact that division and even battalion commanders are directing the battle from warm peasant houses in populated points with the help of telephones... rather than from their command posts, from which they would be able to see the battle on the main axis.

Division, regiment, and battalion commanders to direct battle exclusively from their command posts so that they can better see the field of battle on the main axis and respond to the situation in more timely fashion...

Inform the division, regiment, and battalion commanders of this directive without delay.

Colonel General Reiter, commander of the Bryansk Front’s forces
Major General Susaikov, member of the Bryansk Front’s Military Council
Major General Sandalov, chief of the Bryansk Front’s staff50

Other combat reports evidenced the decaying troop discipline during the operation and increased cases of looting. For example, a 1 February Bryansk Front order noted:

It has been determined that the chiefs of the armies’ rear services and the corps and division commanders do not immediately appoint garrison chiefs and commandants and do not establish required military order when occupying populated points liberated from the enemy. In light of this situation, railroad stations, public and state property, trophy property, and other material of value are not being protected at all, and property is being plundered.

When occupying a populated point, the garrison chief and commandant will fulfill their responsibilities and establish revolutionary order without delay51.

Logistical support became an Achilles heel for advancing Soviet forces and one of the primary reasons for the failure of the offensive. Among the numerous documents identifying this problems was a Bryansk Front order issued on 6 February to all of its subordinate units, which stated in part:

Demand that rear service units be more agile in the supply of units with all necessities. Do not simply note the fact that foodstuffs, ammunition, and fuel are absent, but instead implement yourself all measures necessary to supply the units with all necessities and, by doing so, support the successful offensive battles.

Colonel General Reiter, commander of Bryansk Front forces
Major General Susaikov, member of the Bryansk Front’s Military Council
Major General Sandalov, Bryansk Front chief of staff52

Ten days later, a Bryansk Front directive, dated 17 February criticized the poor cooperation between tank and infantry forces and once again linked this recurring problem with associated persistent logistical difficulties. It declared:

The employment of the front’s tank forces during the recent combat period shows that a considerable number of tanks are not taking part in the battles because of insufficient fuel and ammunition. This has resulted from the snowdrifts and the considerable gap between the tank units and the armies’ forward supply bases. The combined-arms commanders with which the tanks are cooperating are not evidencing concerns about their support and are not providing them with assistance. By failing to do so they are violating NKO USSR’s Order #325.
The responsibility for combat support of the tanks is to be placed on the combined-arms commanders with which the tank units are cooperating and on the commanders of the tank units.
Employ all types of transport, including the cart [horse] transport of the rifle divisions and regiments for the support of tank units with POL and ammunition54.

Sometimes, the congestion along the few and snowbound roads caused commanders to take the easy way out and place their headquarters together in convenient town and villages. This indiscretion created lucrative targets for the Germans and costly command casualties. Bryansk Front Order #4, dated 17 February documented one such case in the 48th Army during the fighting east of Maloyaroslavets, noting:

Contents: Concerning the inadmissibility of [having] a great number of formation and units staffs in a single populated point. The headquarters of the 137th Rifle Division, the headquarters of the 12th Artillery Division, and the headquarters of a guards mortar regiment gathered in the village of Markino on 11-12 February... On 12 February enemy aircraft bombed the village of Markino... We had intolerable losses in men and weapons.

1. Do not permit the placement of several headquarters in a single populated point. Formation and unit commanders will place their headquarters in the offensive sector of their own formation/unit;
2. When placing headquarters and forces in a populated point, carefully conceal them from the air;
3. In all cases, the chiefs of staff will provide antiaircraft measures and organize the repulsion of enemy air raids with not only existing weaponry but also with infantry weapons (rifles, machine guns, antitank rifles, etc.).54

A 13th Army order to all of its formation, prepared on 2 March, a week after the army’s second major attack north of Maloarkhangelsk, catalogued some of the recurring command deficiencies in that army’s conduct of tactical combat, stating:

The offensive combat conducted by the army’s units revealed a number of deficiencies in the forces’ tactical operations.

  1. The established requirement that battalion commanders be granted 2-3 hours of daylight for the organization of cooperation on the ground between tanks and artillery and within the battalions was forgotten... The attack against the enemy was delivered without the concentration of forces and weaponry on the necessary axes at the requisite moment of combat...

  2. The requirement for continuous reconnaissance was entirely forgotten.

  3. The attack was carried out in disorganized fashion, there was no impetuosity and camouflage, and the charges [rushes] were excessively long...

  4. The unit commanders often forgot to develop their sub-units’ success in timely fashion, they did not exploit weak places in the enemy’s defense for decisive movement forward and the envelopment of his strong points.

  5. Recently, separate instances took place of nothing less than unwarranted withdrawals by separate sub-units and even units under attack by counterattacking enemy battalions and companies.

  6. The enemy is very sensitive to night attacks and fears them; nevertheless, often the night attacks have no success. This can be explained by the absence of the element of surprise and the weak discipline of a night attack (clamor and noise).

  7. There is insufficient employment of assault groups during combat for populated points and inadequate practice in direct firing from artillery weapons...

  8. Infantry weapons and antitank rifles are seldom used to combat low-flying aircraft, and when they are they are employed in disorganized fashion…Infantry weapons can successfully conduct combat with enemy aircraft.

  9. The regulations require the elimination of all possible intervals between the end of the artillery preparation and the beginning of the attack.

Indeed, these requirements are not being observed. Often the infantry are late in launching the attack (such as the 148th Rifle Division), and the enemy regains his senses and meets the attackers with organized fires.

Commander of the 13th Army Member of the Military Council
Lieutenant General PukhovMajor General Kozlov
Chief of staff of the 13th Army
Major General Petrushevsky55

These problems persisted until the very end of the operation, contributing to the continuing high casualty rates. For example, a 13th Army’s order prepared on 21 March declared:

Of late, combat operations have been limited to only night reconnaissance raids by small number of scouts. However, force losses remain considerable despite the lull along the front. The army has lost 555 men, including 108 command personnel, and 59 horses during the period from 1 through 20 March 1943. The main reasons for this situation, which will be intolerable in the future, are the absence of required order in the forward edge of the defense, non-observation of elementary maskirovka [camouflage] measures, and the absence of a struggle against senseless losses in combat personnel.

Major General Petrushevksy, the chief of staff of the 13th Army
Colonel Grechikhin, the chief of the 13th Army’s operational department56

The Central Front’s records also cast considerable light on the employment of penal units and sub-units in combat, which was apparently extensive. Thus, an 18 March directive lamented the failure of the front’s armies to employ penal units properly throughout the operation, stating:

An investigation has established the following facts regarding treachery to the Homeland that took place in the 13th, 70th, 65th, and 48th Armies:
Weak discipline and unsatisfactory organizational work in the training and education of the personnel in penal companies and battalions and a flagrant violation of NKO USSR Order #227 on the employment of penal sub-units. Especially intolerable was the fact of the desertion to the Germans side of 19 men of the 179th Penal Company of the 13th Army’s 148th Rifle Division, who had been sent on reconnaissance by Major General Mishchenko, the division commander. The commander of the 148th Rifle Division grossly violated the NKO USSR’s Order #227, which envisioned the employment of penal sub-units for particularly difficult missions with obligatory blocking detachments allocated to follow after them. This was not done in the 148th Rifle Division. The penal troops displayed cowardice, a portion of them fled from the field of battle, and 19 men surrendered to the enemy. The command personnel in that company did not train its personnel satisfactorily, and, evidently, the representatives of the special department [osobyi otdel’] worked ineffectively, since the squad’s timely preparations for treachery remained unknown to them.

The front Military Council demands that:
Penal sub-units be employed only in situations that permit blocking detachments to be deployed immediately after them.

General Rokossovsky was even blunter in his criticism of his front’s operations, in particular about the dismal performance of General Tarasov’s 70th Army. He spelled out his complaints in an 18 March directive to his armies, a copy of which was sent to the Stavka along with his personal request that Tarasov be immediately relieved from command.

The harshness of Rokossovsky’s criticism was justified, for General Tarasov had long displayed his unfitness for command. Only months before, in November-December 1942, when he commanded the Kalinin Front’s 41st Army in Operation Mars, his poor leadership and ineptitude in combat became apparent when his 41st Army suffered serious defeat in the Belyi region. This time the Stavka recognized their mistake and heeded Rokossovsky’s advice. Although it relieved Tarasov, however, the damage was done.58

The vast amount of archival materials on the February-March offensive vividly underscore the fact that the Red Army was not capable of achieving the many tasks the Stavka assigned to it in February 1943. Its command cadre lacked the necessary experience, its forces were fatigued after months of successful offensive action, its equipment had suffered heavy attrition, and discipline and morale in the ranks had begun to weaken. Most important, the Stavka itself had yet to understand its forces’ true capabilities and reflect those capabilities in its strategic plans. It is now abundantly clear that the offensive aims the Stavka established for its forces on 6 February 1943 were excessive.

Given the situation, however, the Stavka’s decision to expand the offensive was understandable and bold. The Red Army’s military successes in the south were striking and seemingly limitless. Numerous and powerful new armies were available after the surrender of the German Stalingrad group, and these new armies could be employed in a variety of ways. At the time, it seemed prudent to employ them to reinforce an already successful offensive against a German force subject to collapse at any moment. The alternative was to retain them for summer operations and, in the meantime, provide the German Army with the opportunity for restoring its defenses in southern Russia. The Soviets chose the former option. However, force and weather conditions forced the Stavka to employ its new strategic reserves piecemeal rather than en mass, and this limited their impact on the ensuing operations. When all is said and done, while the reserves were insufficient to guarantee greater strategic victory, they did prevent even greater defeat.

Several other factors combined to limit the usefulness of the new strategic reserve (the “Stalingrad” armies). First, the German forces encircled at Stalingrad held out until 2 February 1943. This prevented Rokossovsky’s armies from deploying into their new operational sectors in the period specified by the Stavka’s ambitious offensive timetable. Second, the harsh weather conditions and the early rasputitsa [thaw] wrought havoc with the Russian road and rail system and made all movement difficult if not impossible. Consequently, strategic redeployments were agonizingly slow, and offensive operations were repeatedly delayed. When they did occur, operations developed in uncoordinated fashion and with only partially assembled forces. Third, German strategic decisions had a critical impact on the outcome of the Soviet Winter Campaign. The most important of these decisions was Hitler’s appointment of von Manstein to command Army Group Don (later South) and his belated decision to permit von Manstein to conduct a maneuver defense. In addition, the German decision to abandon the Rzhev-Vyazma salient upset Soviet offensive plans and released enough forces to tip the military balance in the Orel region in the Germans’ favor.

Finally, the imaginative and impulsive counterstroke launched by von Manstein in mid-February and the skill with which German forces carried out von Manstein’s plans spelled doom for the ambitious Soviet strategic venture. If the Germans had not struck back at the time they did, the Soviet strategic offensive would likely have achieved greater success. If the 21st Army had been able to join the Central Front’s March thrust, the Germans Orel position would certainly have become untenable. Further, the Soviet 64th and 62d Armies, which reached the Belgorod and Kharkov regions in early March, could have also reinforced Rokossovsky’s offensive, making the German strategic position even more perilous. Finally, the 24th and 66th Armies, which deployed from Stalingrad to Voronezh in early April, were waiting in the wings. Thus, von Manstein’s counterstroke, which has long been credited with temporarily restoring German fortunes on the Eastern Front, had significantly greater implications than previously believed. In fact, measured by its achievements, von Manstein’s operations had strategic rather than operational impact. Thus, in essence, his counter-stoke was a counteroffensive.

The failed Soviet February offensive left a powerful legacy. First, it had a significant impact on the Stavka’s subsequent strategy. While planning its Summer Campaign, for the first time in the war, the Stavka displayed prudence, patience, and restraint. The ensuing plan included an initial defensive phase followed by a series of counteroffensives whose objectives were realistic and, hence, achievable. Not coincidentally, the ultimate Soviet strategic objective was the Dnieper River line. This was because the Red Army had rehearsed that scenario in the winter of 1943, and, as a result, they now had a clearer understanding of the art of the possible.

Second, the failed February offensive taught the Stavka and the Red Army’s front and army commanders indelible operational (and tactical) lessons. For example, Soviet counteroffensive planning in the summer focused on defeating the powerful German forces deployed in the Belgorod-Kharkov and Orel salients instead of the weaker German defenses at the western edge of the Kursk Bulge. While some Soviet commanders urged the Stavka to repeat its February plan by attacking directly to the west and the Dnieper River, Stalin and the Stavka, however, well understood what had occurred in February and March. Thus, they insisted on striking and eliminating the German forces in the Orel and Belgorod regions as a prerequisite for subsequent offensive success

Finally, the February offensive had an effect on subsequent German operations and fortunes. First, the plan for Operation CITADELLE attempted to replicate von Manstein’s February counterstroke on an even greater scale. Ultimately German forces would attack the base of the Kursk Bulge from both north and south along the Belgorod, Kursk and the Orel, Kursk axes. The assumption was that von Manstein’s February thrust could be resumed in July with equally lethal effect. The fact that it could not evidences how much the Red Army learned from its February experiences. Second, and less important, after the failed February offensive, sizable Soviet partisan and former cavalry forces remained encircled in the Bryansk forests behind German lines. Although the Germans tried to clear this region before their July offensive, large German forces (including elements of the 4th Panzer Division) were still involved in mopping-up operations near Bryansk and were not available to participate in the Kursk offensive. The Soviet forces encircled south of Bryansk also likely provided valuable intelligence data about the forthcoming German offensive.

In the end, the Stavka’s February-March offensive was a bold gamble that failed, and the expected victory turned into embarrassing defeat. The price of that boldness was the loss of 500,000 Red Army soldiers. While the Stavka succeeded in stabilizing the situation on March, it would be seven months before the Red Army would reach the Dnieper to stay. To do so would require the Battle of Kursk, the most immense Red Army strategic offensive effort to date, and the sacrifices of another 3.5 million Red Army soldiers.

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