Key Point: Berlin wanted to take the whole world. But the Nazis overstretched and they would fail.
The latter half of 1943 had German forces in the east staggering under a series of hammer blows that saw the Soviet Red Army advance hundreds of kilometers westward on the central and southern sectors of the Eastern Front. After the massive battle in the Kursk salient, the Soviets launched their first great summer offensive late in July.
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In a month and a half, Smolensk, Bryansk, and Kirov had been liberated in the central sector, with German forces retreating to the Sozh River and beyond. By September 30, Soviet troops had taken most of the northern shore of the Sea of Azov in the southern sector and had recaptured key cities that included Kharkov, Stalino, and Poltava while pushing the Germans back almost to the Dnieper River.
Luckily for the Germans, the Soviets outran their supply lines and had to call a halt to operations while men and material were brought forward. Both sides had suffered horrendous losses since July 1, and although the Russians could replace theirs with conscripts from newly liberated territory, it would take time to outfit them and give them the basics of command and combat.
While German forces battled the Soviets in a fighting retreat, thousands of forced laborers and German engineers were tasked with building a massive defensive line. On August 11, Hitler signed an order calling for the construction of the so-called “Eastern Wall.” Although it went against his propensity to fight for every foot of conquered land, Hitler had to face reality for once after the post-Kursk Soviet offensive.
The Wotan Line and the Panther Line
The line was to run from the Black Sea to the Baltic States. In the south, the majority of the defenses would be along the western bank of the Dnieper. North of Kiev it would run along the Desna River to Chernihiv and then continue northward in a line east of Gomel, Orsha, Nevel, and Pskov, ending on the southern tip of Lake Pskov. Continuing north along the western shore of Lake Pskov, it would then follow the Narva River north to the Gulf of Finland.
Toward the end of August, OKH (Oberkommando des Heeres—the German Army High Command) adopted two code names for the northern and southern sectors of the line. The part of the Eastern Wall that would eventually be manned by Army Groups A and South would be the “Wotan Line,” while the area occupied by Army Croups Center and North was code named the “Panther Line.”
Once it was fully constructed and manned, Hitler hoped his Eastern Wall would be such a formidable barrier that the Red Army would bleed itself dry trying to penetrate it. In essence, it would be a throwback to the trench warfare and the battles of attrition that Hitler himself had experienced in World War I.
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There were three basic problems with the line. The first was the time it would take to construct. Soviet advances had already pushed German troops dangerously close to the proposed line, with some already occupying the half-built defenses. The second was manpower. Once the position was finally reached, some German units were so depleted that there was only one soldier to every 50 meters of front.
The third problem concerned the extreme southern sector of the Wall. Since the Dnieper curved west around Zaporizhzya to empty into the Black Sea west of the Crimean Peninsula, the line stretching from Melitopol to Zaporizhzya was constructed on land totally unsuited for its purpose since there was no river barrier to use as an additional plus for defensive positions. The Germans were forced to hold that area to protect the 17th Army, which occupied the Crimea.
The Collapse of the Wotan Line
Once reinforcements and supplies arrived, the Russians continued to batter the Germans. Kiev fell to the Red Army in November, and the 4th Ukrainian Front broke the lines of the German Sixth Army, which was holding the Melitopol area. Farther north, Soviet troops were able to establish bridgeheads across the Dnieper, taking several key positions in the half-completed Wotan Line. By the end of the year, most of the vaunted line had been overrun in the central and southern sectors of the Eastern Front.
While the situation was deteriorating in the center and the south during the summer, the sector occupied by Field Marshal Georg von Küchler’s Army Group North remained eerily quiet. The army group had been besieging Leningrad since 1941, and the front in that sector had been the object of several heavy Soviet attacks throughout the next two years, but the lines remained relatively stable.
In August, von Küchler received intelligence indicating a Soviet buildup in the Oranienbaum bridgehead—an area on the coast of the Gulf of Finland west of Leningrad that was held by the 2nd Shock Army. Farther south, in the sector held by General Christian Hansen’s Sixteenth Army, reports showed that a buildup was also occurring at the boundary of Army Group Center and Army Group North opposite the key rail junction city of Nevel.
Von Küchler responded to the possible threats by pulling five divisions out of the line to form a ready reserve to counter any Soviet attacks. Two of those divisions were lost almost immediately as Hitler, over the objections of the army group commander, sent them south to prop up other sectors of the front.
As Army Group Center withdrew to the Panther Line, Army Group North acquired General Karl von Oven’s XLIII Army Corps, which had occupied the northern flank of the retreating army group. This gave von Küchler three more divisions, but it also made him responsible for another 77 kilometers and the towns of Nevel and Novosokol’niki, which were the key communications centers between Army Group Center and Army Group North.
Making Gaps in the German Line
During the first week of October, a heavy overcast prevented further German aerial reconnaissance from taking place. This gave an opportunity for General Andrei Ivanovich Eremenko’s Kalinin Front (renamed the 1st Baltic Front on October 12) to move into attack positions without fear of German discovery.
On October 6, Lt. Gen. Kuzma Nikitovich Galitskii hit the 2nd Luftwaffe Field Division, which was occupying the northernmost sector of Army Group Center, with four rifle divisions and two tank brigades from his 3rd Shock Army. The 21st Guards Division and 78th Tank Brigade sliced through the German division, scattering its forces. Following units of the attack force poured through the lines of the disintegrating division and swung northeast toward Nevel. The poor showing of the 2nd Luftwaffe and other Luftwaffe field divisions prompted Hitler to approve the transfer of most of them to the Army, where they were known as feld (L) divisions. The neighboring 4th Shock Army also pushed forward, and by mid-afternoon the town was in Soviet hands.
Trying to restore the situation, von Küchler ordered his three remaining reserve divisions to attack the Russians around the town. Those units arrived piecemeal and had little effect in stopping the superior Soviet force, which had opened a gap of 24 kilometers between Army Groups North and Center.
Elements of only one reserve division were in the fight. Movement of the other two divisions had been disrupted by partisans, who had blown up the rail lines running directly to the town. With the resulting delay, von Küchler ordered German forces around Nevel to go into a defensive posture.
At the same time, the Soviet commanders called a halt to their offensive. The success of the initial assault had surprised the Russians, who had expected heavier enemy resistance. They now started to fortify their flanks, having learned bitter lessons in the past about the German tendency to let a salient develop before launching counterattacks that could, and in many cases did, trap and destroy the foremost elements of Soviet assault forces.
The impasse continued until November 2. Advancing under the cover of heavy fog, the 3rd and 4th Shock Armies hit Army Group Center’s Third Panzer Army, causing a 16 kilometer gap in the line. This allowed the 3rd Shock Army to turn northeast and hit Hansen’s Sixteenth Army flank. Von Küchler reacted by sending six battalions from General Georg Lindemann’s Eighteenth Army to Hansen, who used them to bolster his right flank. With the arrival of those troops the flank bent but did not break.
A Weak German Counterattack
By now, Hitler was livid. Not only had the Nevel salient remained intact—the new Soviet assault threatened to unhinge the entire front in the northern sector. He demanded that a counterattack eliminate the new bulge with a concentrated action by both Army Groups North and Center beginning on November 8.