AN INTERPRETATION BY FIELDMARSCHAL ERICH VON MANSTEIN.
A little known example illustrates the omnipresent transcendence of logistics and the line of communication (more or less branched out) in operations and their final results. Between January 29 and mid-March 1943, the Soviets developed an operation called Donbass at the southwest of the Donetz. This operation forms part of what the Germans called the battle of the Donetz. And was Marschal von Manstein’s last strategic success. Which wasted by Hitler in Kursk.
General Nikolai Fiodorovich Vatutin, commander of the Southwest Front, created a mobile corp (under the command of general Markian Mijailovich Popov) in the Soviet Front, to exploit the break its armies had achieved at the south-east of Kharkov. The Corp was like an Army of tanks (the Soviets had five Armies of tanks in their battle order). It was integrated by 4 tanks Corps of limited capacity (3rd, 10th, 18th and 4th of the Guard), each of which was reinforced by an infantry mobile division (in trucks). For support it had the mobile Front reserve, the tanks Corps (full up) 25th and 1st of the Guard. These reserves would, at the beginning of February, pursue a exploitation direction different from that of the Popov Group. Assimilating those tactical subordination divisions into the mechanized Corps, thus making them stronger in men and heavy equipment, was hoped to compensate for the specific lack of infantry and artillery of the Soviet tanks Corps.
Popov Group initially crossed the Donetz from a southwest direction. Its 4th Guard tanks Corp reached Krasnoarmeiskaia on the morning of February 12, after a night march of 60 kilometers from Kramatorsk. During this march, the Corp used one of its tanks brigades, the 14ª of the Guard, as an “advanced detachment”, to eliminate the “tactical rubbing” in its advance sector and thus maximize its speed of advance.
On February 15, General Vatutin employed his two reserve Corps in the Pavlograd-Zaporozhe direction, towards the mouth of the river Dnepr on the Black Sea. Zaporozhe was the Headquarters for the Don German Group of Armies (this Group had been called South until February 1, 1943) and the 4th Air Fleet (led by Marshal Von Manstein and General Von Richtofen, respectively) which were located in the low Dnepr.
The efforts of the Russians were aimed at trying to reach the coast and to cut the Germans’ land communications. But the Russians also stubbornly insisted on boasting. Their supporting forces (the rest of the Armies of the southwest Front, especially the 6th infantry and 1st infantry of the Guard) were not defending the advance sectors of their mobile forces. And these forces, advancing as fast as they could toward their ideal operational-strategic aim, stretched their communications lines to the maximum. And made them increasingly vulnerable by extending its length and, thus, the coverage required by antitank and anti-aircraft weapons supported with infantry.
The Soviets acted as if the speed of reaching the objective could, by itself, unhinge the German deployment, by cutting it off from its general Order of Battle and lines of communications towards the West. In reality, they were not given full credit to their enemy’s maneuver capacity, his ability to create and improvise resources and his still relatively powerful combat capacities, especially among his mobile and crack forces, in the operational zone.
THE SUPREME SOVIET COMMANDER.
Yet much of the pressure for a rapid advance came from Stalin. Probably through the Stavka, Stalin incited Vatutin to spur on Popov and the other mobile corps. Ultimately, this led to Stalin’s disenchantment (to the point of leading him to request a peace through Swedish diplomats) when the planned operations concluded. See Gerhard L. Weinburg. A World at Arms. Cambridge, 1944.
For their part, the Germans had difficulties in containing the Soviet’s winter offensive concentrated at the south of Belgorod. In the operational strategic zone of the Don Group of Armies, the Soviet forces overcame the Germans at a proportion of 8 to 1, whereas, in the case of the German Center and North Groups of Armies, that ratio was only 4 to 1.
Von Manstein maintained a front that was 750 kilometers long with 30 divisions. This left him vulnerable to envelopment on the north flank, in a maneuver that could reverse his front or turn his forces back in his operational or strategic rear. Or his forces could be broken through by a forceful action in any zone and he would be left without sufficient available mobile forces to launch an operational strategic counterattack. It was necessary to readjust the front, anchoring it on natural obstacles; and to push back the Soviet offensives toward Kiev (north flank) and the Black Sea or the Azov Sea, creating for it the necessary mobile reserves. Hitler, probably affected by the fall of 6th Army at the end of January in Stalingrad, compromised with Manstein’s requests to yield land in order to gain safety and mobility.
IN THE COVER OF «TIME» NEWSMAGAZINE…
Thus, during the first fortnight of February, the Hollidt Army moved back from the low Donetz, following the Rostov and Tangarov route and dug in again along the river Mius, approximately 80 kilometers to the west of Rostov. The 48 panzer Corps that were in action at the east of Rostov, moved to the north of Stalino, to join the 4th panzer Army of General Hoth and to form part of the mobile counterattack force.
In the middle of February, despite Hitler’s orders to resist at any price, the SS Army Kempf (formerly Lanz) evacuated Kharkov, when its north flank was enveloped by the Soviets from the direction of Belgorod. Meanwhile, the 4th panzer Army was moving back from the low Don toward positions to Stalino’s northwest. This was a difficult march of more than fifteen days over poor road conditions and railroad connections and lines. For its part, the 1st panzer Army, formerly part of the A Group of Armies in the Caucasus, could have moved back through Rostov, thanks 4th panzer Army hold on the front in the low Donetz area. And was taking positions in a front from north-east of Stalino up to the north of the Mius river.
THE GERMAN FIELDMARSCHAL’S COMMAND BATON.
With these maneuvers the Germans left the projecting in their front formed by the Don and Donetz rivers, readjusted their defensive front and managed to create an important operational maneuver force, formed by all three mentioned armies. It is important to emphasize that the Germans were not reacting to the Russians; they were adapting to the general conditions and the forces relations existing, with the expectation that they would act positively when the opportunity arose. This is probably the secret behind their operational blow (like a scythe blow) and the operational and strategic “stunning waves” that they were to unleash on the Soviet Armies, which reached the enemy’s Supreme Commander.
On February 22, the two armored Corps (48 at the right side and the SS panzer at the left side) of the 4th panzer Army of Hoth initiated an offensive movement in the northwest direction on the communications lines of Popov Group and both independent Soviet tanks Corps of the southwest Front.
The terrain was highly favorable for using armored vehicles. Its surface was slightly wavy, allowing for extensive sight control. The narrow creeks that interlaced it were frozen.
Simultaneously there was a convergent attack by the SS Army Kempf from the west, completing the operation of the other five panzer divisions (reduced). This Army also had to prevent the advance on the Dnepr of forces from other Soviet Fronts, either around Krasnograd and Dnepropetrovsk or around Poltava and Kremenchug. This soviet attack, that was aimed at Kiev, was of a larger scope and, therefore, had scantier prospects for success before the spring thaw. The army SS Kempf had limited capacity to reject it.
It is worth emphasizing that, at the time, the 4th Air Fleet of General Richtofen enjoyed air supremacy over the operations zone and his aircraft could support the objective of cutting the enemy’s communications with up to 1,000 daily sorties.
THE FÜHRER ADOLF VISITS HIM IN ZAPOROZHE, TO CALM DOWN.
The Russian armored vehicles and truck columns were moving back toward the north and north-east at a distance of between 15 and 20 kilometers from the Germans, making them prey to the German divisional and army Corps artillery and aviation.
It was not a question of the “surrounded bag”-style operations that the Germans had carried out in 1941. The area being covered was larger, the German combat capacity (mainly based on infantry forces with artillery and antitank weapons) was scanty and the Soviet forces were elite mobile units with great fire and shock capacities. And knew the danger presented by the loss of its logistical support, at least their commands.
On February 23 both armored army Corps (the SS and 48th) of the 4th panzer Army were converging on Pavlograd. They cut the communications line of the Popov group, which was situated around Grishino, and of the 25th and 1st of the Guard tanks Corps (the mobile reserve of the Southwest Front) which were already approaching Zaporozhe, although not yet in full force. Likewise, the Germans severely struck the 6th infantry Army (at the west of Isyum), following the Front’s mobile reserve, and the 1st infantry Guard Army, which was behind the Popov group, before they cross the Donetz, moving back to their rearguard.
This temporarily liquidated the combat capacity of the Southwest front (General Vatutin). Unless that front focused on reorganizing and re-equipping itself and covering its casualties. And also tried to revive its combat morale by encouraging cohesion and retraining its units and small units.
(TO BE CONTINUED)