After the Wehrmacht’s withdrawal with unacceptable losses at the battle of Kursk the scene was set for a series of enormous Soviet offensives across the eastern part of the Eurasian land mass that were only to end with Germany’s surrender in Berlin. In its summer offensive after the successful defence of Kursk, the Red Army recaptured Orel, Kharkov, Taganrog and Smolensk, forcing the Germans back to the Dnieper river and cutting off the Seventeenth Army in the Crimean peninsula. Afterwards, during the autumn the Soviets retook the Donetsk basin and eventually Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.
Hitler came under pressure from Field Marshal Erich von Manstein and the Romanian dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu to evacuate the German and Romanian forces from the Crimea, which could have been used in the defence of Romania and Bulgaria. Hitler’s obstinate refusal to do so meant the fall of both countries in short order, and the eventual destruction of the army group there. Hitler had a scheme for the Crimea to become a solely Aryan colony from which all foreigners would be permanently banned. He hung on to his dream for it long after military considerations dictated that they needed to be – at the very least – postponed.
“The Russians were five times superior to us poor but brave Germans, both in numbers and in the superiority of their equipment,” complained Paul von Kleist from his Nuremberg cell after the war. ”My immediate commander was Hitler himself. Unfortunately, Hitler’s advice in those critical periods was invariably lousy.” For all of Paul von Kleist’s other legitimate complaints about his supreme commander, it was untrue that German equipment was inferior, except in sheer numbers. Technically the German equipment was, in general, superior to that of the Soviets, but also the Western Allies.
By this stage of the war the soviets already had a significant numerical advantage in manpower and equipment. In response to the german Panthers and Tigers, the Soviets produced the very heavy KV-85 tank. This was the same as a KV-1 except for having an 85mm cannon. This was enough to penetrate German middle-sized tanks such as the Panzers Mark III and IV, but could also destroy Tigers and Panthers. But it was the soviet T-34 model who turned the tide of war in the Soviet’s favor. The T stands, rather unimaginatively, for Tank. Today, the Russians are up to the T-90.
After defending Kursk and the capture of Kharkov in the summer the Red Army launched its autumn offensives in Southern Russia and the Ukraine. These offensives led to the eventual liberation of Kiev from the Germans. The defeat at Kursk had underscored how much the correlation of forces on the Eastern Front had changed. Suffering frightful casualties, German attackers barely made a dent in Soviet defenses. As Hitler shut down the Kursk battle, the German commanders in the theater had no idea what would transpire next in the east. A series of stunning defeats far beyond their most pessimistic calculations unfolded over the next months.
For Manstein and the Army Group South, the retreat back to the Dnepr came too late. By waiting so long to make a sensible operational decision, Hitler had produced two negative effects. The ferocious fighting severely reduced most of Army Group South’s divisions. Even more important, the Germans had been badly beaten. If the Führer and his generals did not understand this fact, the troops certainly did. The retreat to the Dnepr did not result in a complete collapse. In most areas the Germans were able to make an organized withdrawal, but in some areas the German forces did become unglued.
The Germans held on to a few bridgeheads east of the Dnepr, one near Zaporozhye, and one on the southernmost portion of the line which covered the land approach to the Crimea. The German forces on the new line were weakened and exhausted. The Dnepr line itself had in effect been broken even before the germans could develop and hold it. The Soviet high command had ordered all its units to make every effort to bounce the river and gain footholds on the other side. The gambit worked, and the Red Army crossed the river at several points. The were able to exploit bridgeheads seized when the Germans were being driven back to the river.
In its initial attack, Colonel General Rokossovsky’s Central Front failed to gain operational advantage. The German Second Army, informed by aerial reconnaissance where the main attack was likely to come, put up an effective defense. But instead of reinforcing failure Rokossovsky transferred two of his corps 60 miles to the south. He then threw them into a subsidiary attack that soon made significant progress against Second Army’s southern flank. As a result three of the Central Front’s armies had sundered the connections between Army Group South and Center and were approaching Kiev from the northeast.
On the Central front, the Soviet victory at Orel was followed by a major push which forced the Germans to evacuate Bryansk and Smolensk along with a large portion of the area they had held since Operation Barbarossa.