Soviet Advantages in Intelligence and Reserves
The two foremost causes of the German defeat were the lack of surprise and the enormous number of men and amount of equipment at the disposal of the defenders. Prior to the start of Operation Citadel, the Soviets were receiving excellent intelligence from British sources and their own spy network in Germany and Switzerland. British intelligence was indirectly sharing its intercepts from the German Enigma coding machine and gave the Soviets advance knowledge of the German plans. The Soviets also had a spy known as “Werther,” who provided the starting date of Operation Citadel and locations of the German attacks. To this day, the identity of “Werther” is unknown, but some speculate that it was either Hitler’s personal secretary Martin Bormann, chief of German intelligence, the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, or a high-ranking officer in the communications section at Hitler’s headquarters.
Whoever Werther was, he had immediate access to the German high command since much of the information he passed on to the Soviets was timely, sometimes coming the day after the Germans issued the order. It is interesting to note that most of the command decisions made during Mainstein’s Counterstroke originated from Mainstein’s headquarters, not Hitler’s. This lends credence to the prospect that a spy lurked in Hitler’s inner circle or at least somewhere in the German high command. Further, it is reasonable to assume that since orders originated in Manstein’s headquarters rather than Hitler’s during the German counteroffensive, the Soviets were blinded and deceived into thinking the Germans were in full retreat rather than preparing a counteroffensive.
Even after two years of horrific battlefield losses, the Soviets still had considerable reserves that could be fed into the battle and wear down the Germans. After committing the 5th Guards Tank Army from the Steppe Front, the Soviets had four infantry armies, three cavalry corps, and three other mechanized corps—nearly 950 tanks and about 350,000 men still in the Steppe Front—as reserves. Had the Fourth Panzer Army broken through in the south, it would still have had to fight these overwhelming reserves.
The Soviet advantage in reserves is striking when compared to the available German reserves. The 24th Panzer Corps contained three understrength panzer divisions, of which only two were available for Operation Citadel. The two divisions (23rd and SS Wiking), with a total of 97 tanks and 12,000 men, only started to move up to the battlefield on July 12. The third division of the corps was still involved in combat operations with the 1st Panzer Army to the south. The Germans were too weak and stretched too thinly to be caught in a slugfest with the Soviets at Kursk.
Forehand vs Backhand
In February 1943, Manstein put forth two operational proposals for the coming summer. The first, known as the Forehand Proposal, had the Germans initiating a limited offensive as soon as the rainy season ended, with the intent of crippling the Soviets so that they could not mount major offensive operations for the rest of the summer.
The second option was known as the Backhand Proposal. This plan would let the Soviets launch their major summer offensive and then use the superiority of the German panzer forces to attack the enemy flanks and encircle the attackers. It would require mobile operations and giving up large expanses of captured Soviet territory to encircle the Soviet forces. Of course, giving up any captured territory was totally against what Hitler wanted. The proposal was doomed from the beginning. After further discussions and the masterful counterstroke by the German forces in March, the Forehand Proposal was accepted, and it eventually became known as Operation Citadel.
Two other operations, known as Habicht and Panther, were also discussed as precursors to Operation Citadel. Their objective was to eliminate a bulge in the front line near Izyum that was threatening the industrial complex near Kharkov. Hitler seriously considered these operations but dismissed them in favor of launching just one operation, Citadel. By themselves, these two operations would have occurred on a smaller scale than Operation Citadel and would not have significantly changed the course of the war on the Russian Front. However, depending upon the success or failure of these operations, Citadel may never have been launched.
In addition, another operation briefly discussed was the elimination of the Kursk Salient by attacking it from the front near the town of Rylsk. German forces would capture Kursk and spread north and south to encircle the remaining Soviet forces inside the bulge. However, the road network and terrain around Rylsk were not suitable for transporting large numbers of men and their heavy equipment. This variation of the offensive offered little advantage since the Germans would still face the same defensive belts and Soviet reserves.
The Soviet Union’s Increasing Material Advantage
Any hope of winning the war against the Soviet Union was lost at Stalingrad. But in July 1943, the German Army was still capable of inflicting serious losses on the Soviets if properly led. Could all the other factors have fallen in place to change the outcome of the war with Russia to something other than total defeat?
The Germans could not recover from the losses incurred during the previous two years of campaigning, and Soviet resources seemed limitless. Soviet industrial output was several times that of the German war industry, and the Germans were at a significant manpower disadvantage even after the horrendous Soviet losses from the previous years of fighting. As an example, in August 1943, the 5th Guards Tank Army and the 1st Tank Army lost nearly 800 of their initial 1,000 tanks in a series of battles near the town of Bogodukhov. Both of these armies had been badly mauled during Operation Citadel, but the Soviets were able to replace the losses within of a month. The Soviet advantage in tanks, aircraft, artillery, and men would only get worse for the Germans in the remaining years of the war, especially after the Western Allies landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944. The Germans had no chance of competing with such overwhelming Soviet forces unless they used superior strategy and tactics.
Could the Backhand Proposal Have Succeeded?
The outcome of Operation Citadel might lead one to believe that Manstein’s Backhand Proposal might have been more successful. This was the proposal favored by Manstein and General Heinz Guderian, another expert on tank warfare who was then serving as Inspector General of Panzer Troops. Backhand would have been a replay, but on a larger scale, of the successful March counteroffensive that utilized the German panzer force’s superiority in mobile operations and tactics. If Backhand had any chance of changing the course of the war against Russia, the Germans had to inflict serious losses on the Soviets—and it would have to be done without direction from Hitler and his spy-infested headquarters. A successful Backhand strategy with an orderly retreat to shorter and more defensible positions along the Dneiper River would have prolonged the war against Russia.
The Opportunity For a Separate Peace?
In January 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met at Casablanca in North Africa and agreed that the only option for the Axis was unconditional surrender. Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, who did not attend the Casablanca summit, voiced his displeasure from the beginning but followed suit for the rest of the war. However, the agreement was made between untrusting partners. Roosevelt was afraid that Stalin would make a separate peace with the Germans and leave the Western Allies bearing the full weight of the German war machine. Churchill did not completely agree since it would leave out any possibility of negotiations with the Germans that could help keep the Soviets out of Eastern Europe. Stalin had always been leery of the Western Allies and thought they had underlying motives against Russia. After the German defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943, Stalin even implied that peace negotiations with Germany could be possible if Hitler and his Nazi regime were removed.
A significant German victory in Russia during 1943 in conjunction with peace “feelers” that had been initiated with Russia in late 1942 may have been able to convince Stalin to accept a separate peace. Obviously, many things would have had to occur for this to happen. However, the possibilities did exist for any outcome besides a total German defeat in Russia.
This article by Valor Dodd originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
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