The 1943 autumn soviet offensives
Russian forces attack German positions in Russia and Ukraine
24 August - 22 Decembrie 1943
author Paul Boșcu, December 2016
After the German failed attack at Kursk the Red Army staged a series of attacks across the Eastern Front. The Soviets manged to retake the cities of Kharkov, Orel, Kiev, Bryansk and Smolensk.

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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.

For all the advances made against the Germans in the west between D-Day and the crossing of the Rhine it was on the Eastern Front that the war against Germany was won. Between Operation Barbarossa and December 1944, the Germans lost 2.4 million men killed there, against 202,000 fighting the Western allies. The cost of inflicting such casualties was uneven: between D-Day and VE Day (Victory in Europe Day), the Russians suffered more than 2 million casualties, three times that of the British, Americans, Canadians and French fighting forces put together.

Heavy fighting on the Eastern Front prevented the Germans from devoting much of their resources to the struggle with Britain and the United States. The need for Germany to leave large forces in the west and south, and to defend her home industries against Allied air attack, relieved the pressure the Third Reich could bring to bear on the Soviet Union.

For the German soldiers on the ground, in their long, bitter withdrawal from their highwater mark at Kursk, survival took on greater meaning than any lingering hopes of victory. For the Russians, liberating their cities and towns involved discovering the horrors of the German occupation. At Orel, which was a typical example, half the buildings and all the bridges had been destroyed. There were only 30,000 survivors from a pre-war population of 114,000. The rest of them were sent to Germany as slave labour or shot, or died of disease or starvation.

The Red Army hardened its already rock-like heart still further against the enemy, encouraging it to see them as subhuman, and instilling a determination to punish all Germans – civilians as well as military – now that the jackboot was on the other foot. The innocence or otherwise of individual Germans was immaterial, because it was not so much they who were being punished as their husbands, fathers and sons. Human pity was now beside the point.

It was to take a further eighteen months of unimaginable horror and slaughter before the war finally came to an end. The blame for this can largely be put down to the efficiency, determination and obedience of the Wehrmacht. Had Hitler passed over ultimate decision-making to a committee of its best brains, and appointed Erich von Manstein as supreme commander of the Eastern Front, all that it would have meant at that stage was that the defeat would have taken longer and cost many more German and Russian lives.

British historian Alan Clark has pointed out that from December 1943 the Führer had been aiming at breaking the Allied coalition through emphasizing “the apparent impossibility of its task and the incompatibility of its members”. Seen in this context his defence of every inch of territory in the east was explicable. Stalin had been making speeches about Hitler’s aim of using fear of Communism as a way of splitting the Grand Coalition against Germany. The Soviet Information Bureau (Sovinform) had been issuing statements lauding Russia’s alliance with the Western Allies. There is plenty of evidence for how this was reciprocated in Britain and America.

If Hitler had had a better understanding of the true nature of the alliance against him, he would have realized that its desire to extirpate him and his New Order would always be greater than any mutual suspicions and antipathies within it. To believe anything else was mere desperation, for as he had written in Mein Kampf: “Any alliance whose purpose is not the intention to wage war is senseless and useless.”

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.

Colonel Nicolaus von Below wrote of this period: “Hitler foresaw threatening developments on the Eastern Front earlier and with greater clarity than his military advisers, but he was determined with great obstinacy not to accede to the request of his army commanders to pull back fronts, or would do so exceptionally only at the last minute. The Crimea was to be held at whatever cost, and he refused to entertain Manstein’s arguments in the matter.” A quarter of a million troops were therefore lost to the German line. It did not affect the outcome of the war.

Given enough warning, the Wehrmacht was in fact excellent at strategic withdrawals. It made thorough preparations improving roads, bridges and river crossings. It camouflaged assembly areas and made precise calculations about what equipment could be moved and the amount of transport necessary, and about what needed to be destroyed. Then command posts, headquarters, medical and veterinary posts were established to the rear before the withdrawal began. The problems were of course multiplied once the Wehrmacht was forced back on to German soil, because millions of panicky refugees wanted to escape the Red Army too.

The decision not to evacuate Crimea, according to its own lights was a strategic error. Like the decision to leave German troops on the Kerch peninsula in order to try to recapture the Caucasus one day, it was actuated by Hitler’s hope for a new assault on the southern USSR, long after such an attack was rationally possible.

“A series of withdrawals by adequately large steps would have worn down the Russian strength, besides creating opportunities for counter-strokes,” General Kurt von Tippelskirch stated of this immediate post-Kursk period. “The root cause of German defeat was the way her forces were wasted in fruitless efforts, and above all, fruitless resistance at the wrong time and place.” Manstein did his best with a mobile defence across southern Russia that seems to have been too subtle for Hitler. The Fuhrer constantly issued “Stand or die” orders freezing the defensive lines, such as at Kharkov after the Soviets broke through on.

It took no fewer than seven conversations for Manstein to get Hitler’s permission to retreat to the line of the Dnieper. Falling back there, Manstein ignored Hitler and allowed Kharkov to fall. This was felt further down the line of command: General Friedrich von Mellenthin, Chief of Staff of the 48th Panzer Division which was retreating to the Dnieper, complained bitterly of the way that “During the Second World War the German Supreme Command could never decide on a withdrawal when the going was good. It either made up its mind too late, or when a retreat had been forced upon our armies and was already in full swing.”

The Wehrmacht was also expert in the policy of scorched earth, of which Army Group South’s retreat to the Dnieper was the exemplar, For this operation Manstein received an eighteen-year jail sentence in 1949. He served only four years. “The wide spaces of Russia favour well-organized withdrawals,” recalled Mellenthin. “Indeed if the troops are properly disciplined and trained, a strategic withdrawal is an excellent means of catching the enemy off balance and regaining the initiative.” Yet, for all its expertise, Hitler gave the Wehrmacht as little time as possible to organize such retreats, on those rare occasions when he authorized them at all.

Almost throughout this period the Germans inflicted higher casualties on the Russians than they received, but crucially never more than the Soviets could absorb. Attacks were undertaken by the Red Army without regard to the cost in lives, an approach which German generals could not adopt because of a lack of adequate reserves.

“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.

Guderian, who wrote the work “Achtung-Panzer!”, believed that two different types of tank were necessary in any attack, one to deal with tanks and the other with infantry. The five-man Panzer Mark III, was used against other tanks, but its gun was not powerful enough against the British Matilda tanks in Africa. Rommel used anti-aircraft guns against them there instead. Hitler ordered the production of a 50mm, Mark III, which the manufacturers watered down to a 47mm gun. These, as well as self-propelled assault guns, were used in Barbarossa. Afterwards the Germans started producing Mark VI (Tiger) and then Mark V (Panther) tanks.

Although the Russian tanks used diesel, only one German tank (the enormous Maus) did so, all the others being petrol-fuelled. Petrol was far more costly, flammable and rapidly consumed, yet Germany for some reason stuck to petrol for her tanks. The Panther was a bigger and heavier copy of the Russian T-34, with a sloped front that encouraged ricochets. It entered the front line at Kursk, but faced a number of problems, mainly electrical and hydraulic. Some 6,400 were produced, along with the Panzer VI, known as the Tiger I, of which the Henschel company made 1,355. These were formidable weapons indeed.

he Tiger I weighed 58.9 tonnes, had an 88mm gun, five crew and a cruising speed of 24mph. At the Museum of Tank Construction at Kubinka, 40 miles south of Moscow, one can see a Tiger tank that has been fired upon by a T-34 at around 300 yards’ range, which merely left a 2-inch dent in its frontal armour. Except at point-blank range, or firing at its side-tracks, or unless a lucky shot hit the area between the hull and turret, the Tiger tank was well placed to smash the T-34.

The heaviest tank deployed in combat during the Second World War, at 68 tonnes, was the Tiger II. This had a five-man crew, a maximum speed of 22mph, no less than 150mm of armour (180mm on the front) and an 88mm cannon. Some 487 Panzer VIB Tiger II or King Tiger tanks had been produced, using the same chassis specifications as the Panther. Unfortunately for the Germans, these therefore inherited many of the problems of the Panther. The 88mm gun could be found on the Elefant or Ferdinand assault gun, which had also been deployed for the first time at Kursk. Fortunately for the Russians, only ninety of these were ever built.

The lack of armour on the top of tanks – even Tigers had only 18mm – made them highly vulnerable to air attack and in built-up areas where they could be attacked from rooftops, as the Germans discovered in Stalingrad. The 20mm SHAK-20 cannon on Soviet fighter planes could penetrate tank roofs, although the planes needed to attack almost vertically downwards in order to do so. For example, with the Luftwaffe swept from the skies of Belorussia in the latter part of the autumn campaign, the German tanks there were immensely vulnerable. Tank for tank, however, they were still the best in the world.

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.

At a meeting with General von Thoma before Christmas Eve, Halder was told that the OKH had “Scanty information on Russian tanks”, which nonetheless were felt to be “Inferior to ours in armour and speed. Maximum thickness of armour 30mm. The 4.4cm Ehrhard gun penetrates our tanks at range of 300 metres: effective range 500 metres; safe at over 800 metres. Optical sights very bad; dim, limited range of vision. Radio control equipment bad.” Yet none of that was true of the new T-34 tank. Just as the Spitfire and Hurricane can be said to have saved Britain, so the T-34 tank saved Russia at Kursk and thereafter.

The Lend-Lease’s program greatest impact undoubtedly was felt in the realm of logistics. Over the course of the war, the Western Allies shipped 11,800 locomotives and railroad cars to the Soviets, along with 409,000 cargo trucks, and 47,000 jeeps. All of this equipment proved of inestimable value in maintaining the forward impetus of Soviet offensive operations. Could the Soviet Union have survived without Lend-Lease? Most probably. But the cost of the war for the Soviets would have been considerably higher.

First coming off the production line before the war, the T-34/76 was easy to produce because the designer had created a welding tool for its armour sheets that women and children could also use. Its 6,000 parts were also reduced to 4,500 over the coming years. Before Kursk, the T-34/76, the standard Soviet medium tank, had to get within 250 yards of a German tank with its gun and hit it from the side. A German Tiger tank could destroy T-34s at a range of over a mile.

After Kursk, where the Russians took heavy losses before they were able to close with the enemy, they changed the calibre of the T-34’s 76mm gun to 85mm. This made a considerable difference. Keeping the same chassis, and thus the same powerful 500hp engine and most of the same spare parts, the T-34/85 also had five rubber wheels on each side rather than two. The new model, crucially, had an enlarged turret that allowed the crew to be increased to five. This permitted the commander to direct operations, without having to double as a loader as in the T-34/76. This allowed the T-34/85 to fire from six to eight times per minute.

The length and height of the two T-34 models were much the same. Every T-34/85 had a radio, whereas only the command tanks of the original version had been equipped with one. The 45mm armour thickness on its sides and 90mm on the front made the T-34/85 heavier than the earlier model. Its powerful engine meant that it could reach a top speed of 20mph, not much slower than the 21.4mph of the T-34/76. The later model also had two 7.62mm machine guns. When it was produced in enough numbers, therefore, Stalin finally had a campaign-winning weapon.

The Red Army enjoyed a significant numerical superiority over its German opponents: 5,755,000 Soviet soldiers, 7,855 tanks, and 21,050 anti-tank guns, against 3,064,000 German soldiers with 2,088 tanks and 8,063 anti-tank guns. The Soviets also possessed considerable advantages in intelligence-gathering, deception, and the execution of operations. Soviet attacks at times displayed tactical rigidity, a cavalier attitude toward logistics, and an over-reliance on firepower. Soviet commanders executed their offensives with growing competence and confidence as the war on the Eastern Front ground on.

A good portion of the Soviet military’s success reflected the impact of the Lend-Lease program. Allied foodstuffs covered the gap between the Soviets’ current production and the levels formerly produced in the vast grain belt of the Ukraine. Western machine tools and raw materials supported the production of arms and ammunition. Military equipment from the West was probably of less significance. By this time the Soviets were producing rugged, easily maintained aircraft, though American and British aircraft were useful to the Red Air Force, particularly for transport.

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.

As the war on the Eastern Front deteriorated, Hitler did order construction to begin on a defensive line. But throughout the remainder of the summer he displayed no disposition to authorize retreats to more defensible positions or to shorten lines. With strong German forces on his flanks, Colonel General N. F. Vatutin turned in against Eighth Army to force the Germans out of Kharkov. Heavy fighting by Vatutin’s forces allowed Konev’s front finally to liberate Kharkov. Nevertheless, the Soviets’ concentration on that city gave Manstein an opportunity to plug the gap between the Fourth Panzer Army and the Eighth Army.

In the center and north, the Soviets proved less adept. A major offensive against Army Group North in late August failed dismally. A series of attacks on Army Group Center were no more successful, since the Germans had fallen back to a fairly well-prepared defensive position. But these attacks kept the Germans pinned down and prevented either army group from providing reinforcements to the rapidly deteriorating situation in the south.

More offensives would be launched by the Soviet Union in August even as the Red Army was liberating Orel. The German Army had thrown its best units and most modern weapons against an exposed Soviet salient and had been beaten back with heavy losses. Certainly Soviet losses were also huge. The battlefield would be littered for years with burned out German and Soviet tanks. But the signal to the world which Hitler had expected from a victory at Kursk had indeed been given—it was a signal of the triumph of the Red Army over the Wehrmacht in a slugging match of enormous size and ferocity.

The Kuban bridgehead on the Taman peninsula fell leaving the Caucasus safe for the Soviets and effectively turning the Sea of Azov into a Russian lake once more. “Towards the end of 1943 at the latest it had become unmistakably clear that the war had been lost,” wrote General Halder. “Would it not have been possible even so to beat off the invasion and thus provide the basis for a tolerable peace? Had the “Fortress Germany” no hope of consuming the enemy’s strength on its walls? No! Let us once and for all have done with these fairy tales.” He was right; having taken on four of the world’s six greatest powers, Germany was doomed.

In late summer the Soviets were following a pattern in operations quite different from the deep-encirclement operational concept the Germans had used before. The overall pattern represented a series of fluid offensives in which, when thwarted in one area, Soviet fronts rapidly shifted the axis of advance or reinforced areas where their forces had been more successful. This continual pressure kept the Germans permanently off balance, always responding to one desperate situation after another and never able to prepare an operational response of their own.

While Manstein’s left flank was now up in the air, he was confronting equally disconcerting news on his right. The First Panzer Army, pulled back from the Donets River line as the Sixth Army fell back on the Kalmius River, lost its grip. Having closed rapidly on the retreating Germans, the Southwest Front hit the First Panzer and Sixth Armies with a major attack three days after they had arrived in their new positions. Within two days, General Rodion Malinovsky’s forces were 100 miles behind German front lines. The desperate situation finally forced Hitler to order a pullback of Army Group South to the Dnepr and Army Group Center to the Panther Line.

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 crossed the Dnepr at a relatively small number of places. While the Soviet forces pursuing them had also suffered heavy losses in the fighting, they could aim at the Dnepr across its entire length. Thus, as the Germans pulled back through their major crossing points, the Soviets bounced the Dnepr and established several bridgeheads on the river’s left bank. The Steppe Front, seized three small bridgeheads between Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk. Then the front expanded into a single major enclave on the west bank. The Soviet bridgeheads meant that the Germans had lost control of the Dnepr before they even had a chance to hold it.

The Germans had been pushed back on average 150 miles on the whole 650 miles of the southern front, with the Soviet Union thereby reclaiming very important industrial and agricultural areas, the most valuable portion of the country which the Germans had seized. Furthermore, although the retreating Germans were able to escape being encircled, they suffered very heavy casualties and materiel losses. When they reached the Dnepr line, even the reinforcements provided by the evacuation of the Kuban could not make up for the weakening caused by the defeats of summer and fall.

The Soviets called a short halt to operations in early October to reorganize, refit, and resupply units involved in constant fighting over the past three months. For the rest of October into early November, the northern portion of the Dnepr front settled into an uneasy calm. By now STAVKA had decided that Soviet operations would focus on driving the Germans out of the Ukraine. They would leave Army Group Center for a later reckoning. A major breakout attempt from the Kremenchug bridgehead allowed Ivan Konev’s forces to take Krivoi Rog in mid-October, only to lose that Ukrainian town to a German counterattack.

In theory the wide Dnepr river would have made an ideal defensive line for the Germans. But there were two great disadvantages. In the first place, the course of the river heading southeast from Kiev and then going southwestward to the Black Sea meant that they would be in an enormous bulge open to the sort of encirclement that had brought on the Stalingrad disaster. In the second place, not only had the Red Army secured several bridgeheads across the river in the September offensive, but the hundreds of miles of the Dnepr line which the Germans did hold had not been prepared for defense in the two years that the Germans had occupied the area.

The assumption had always been that Germany would seize and hold vast stretches of territory east of the Dnepr. By the time the river line became significant as a possible barrier for the Germans to utilize, there was no interval left to establish the needed defensive positions. And the Red Army was determined not to let the Germans have that time. Not only had several of the Fronts pushed bridgeheads across the stream, but the Stavka was building up the armies in several sectors where assaults were to be mounted at a rate which made it possible to attack still in the fall.

The Russians did not repeat the error which the Germans had made in the spring, when repeated postponements of the summer offensive had afforded the Red Army time to recover from its spring set-back and to construct effective defensive lines. The two Army Groups, South under von Manstein and Army Group A under von Kleist, were not allowed the time either to recuperate or to dig in before the Red Army Fronts attacked.

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.

The Third Ukrainian Front drove in the Zaporozhye bridgehead in fighting that was very costly for both sides. The major Soviet break came in the far south. Fourth Ukrainian Front began a major attack on against Sixth Army’s defenses surrounding Melitopol. Soviet attackers required two weeks to capture the city and create a breakthrough. Once again Hitler refused to make a hard decision, this time whether to pull Seventeenth Army out of the Crimea. Afterwards the Soviets reached the Black Sea and cut off Seventeenth Army.

The remnants of Sixth Army fell back on the southern reaches of the Dnepr. Hitler demanded that First Panzer Army hold Nikopol as a jumping-off point for a counterattack to recreate links to the Crimea. The soviet thrust had chased the new 6th Army back to the Dnepr and cut off the German and Romanian forces in the Crimea. In spite of pleas from the 6th Army commander there and from Marshal Antonescu, Hitler would not allow the evacuation of the Crimean forces.

Hitler did not allow a retreat from Crimea because he feared repercussions on Turkey, as well as air attacks from there on the Romanian oil fields. He hoped that a thrust of German armored forces south from the central Ukraine could reestablish land contact with the 6th Army. These hopes were to prove vain. Even as the Crimea was being cut off, 2nd Ukrainian Front launched a smashing attack across the Dnepr between Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk, ripping open the front of 1st Panzer Army and threatening the rear of 6th Army.

The Germans were able to drive back the most threatening Soviet spearhead, which reached the railway, mining and supply center of Krivoy Rog. But by the end of October the Red Army was deeply into the Dnepr bend area and had removed any possibility of the Germans holding the river line.

Manstein’s hopes of gaining another success by a counterattack similar to his victory at Kharkov in the spring foundered on greater Soviet sophistication at the tactical and operational levels. The Germans gained some local successes in heavy fighting throughout the rest of November and into December. In one case they managed to destroy a portion of 1st Guards Cavalry Corps, which had liberated Fourth Panzer Army’s liquor supply and was not exactly in fighting trim. But the Dnepr Line was no longer defensible.

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.

Nikolai Vatutin attempted to take Kiev from the Bukrin bridgehead, but the German defenders thwarted the breakout attempt. Vatutin immediately shifted to the Liutezh bridgehead. Only by buttoning T-34 tanks up and running them through river crossings at full speed (many of them did not make it) were the Soviets able to assemble sufficient armored forces in the swampy bridgehead. The Germans never expected the Soviets to strike from such an area, but strike they did, achieving a clear breakthrough that almost immediately led to the liberation of Kiev.

In the south, the winter was more varied and mild than usual, but the mud caused by the periodic thaws did not hamper the movements of Soviet forces as much as it hindered the Germans. Soviet tanks were equipped with substantially wider treads and were therefore able to move more easily. And, in addition, the Red Army was by this time equipped with thousands of American trucks far more likely to keep going than the German ones. The greatly increased gasoline consumption characteristic of vehicles churning their way through the deep mud imposed a more serious burden on the oil-short Germans than on the Soviets.

Russian forces crossed the River Dnieper in several places along a 300-mile stretch from the Pripet Marshes to Zaporozhe. When Kiev fell the northern flank of Army Group South’s defence of the river’s great bend was threatened too. After Christmas Manstein begged Hitler that the bend be given up, thereby shortening his line by over 125 miles. He was refused permission to do so. “I am worrying myself sick for having given permission for retreats in the past,” Hitler replied. After New Year’s Eve, the Russians had advanced north of Kiev and were about to cross the prewar borders of Poland.

The fall of Kiev also wrecked whatever chance the Germans had of making a stand on the Dnepr. Once again Manstein had to rush his weary mechanized forces to stem another crisis. Vatutin’s spearheads captured Fastov—the crucial center on which much of the logistical system of Manstein’s Army Group depended—before German defenders could arrive. The XLVIII Panzer Corps gave the lead Soviet spearheads a severe beating near Fastov but failed to retake the city.

One german soldier in the “Großdeutschland” Divizion remembered a crossing near Kiev in the following terms: “We heard the sounds of gunfire and explosions coming closer, punctuated by bloodcurdling screams. Men suddenly plunged out of the pale, enveloping fog, and disappeared like ghosts into the black water. From the sounds of the splashing, we guessed they were trying to swim. We felt petrified by fear, and stayed where we were. A terrible growling mass of machines passed by close to us, shaking the earth and water, and a penetrating headlight pierced the fog. We couldn’t see where it was going, only that it was moving . . . We could hear the sounds of machine guns ripping into the air very close to us, over the grinding roar of the tank treads. And always, terrifying screams, as the tanks drove a bloody furrow through the tightly packed crowds paralyzed by terror and darkness. A little higher up, two other lights, barely visible in the gloom, were seeking out other victims.”

In the subsequent weeks, substantial German armored reinforcements, some of them divisions brought in from the West, cut off Soviet spearheads at Zhitomir. But here too the Dnepr line was gone beyond recall and important territory returned—with much of its population and resources—to Soviet control.

A very large part of the Ukraine and the whole Northern Caucasus had been cleared of German troops and a substantial combined German-Romanian garrison effectively cut off in the Crimea. And as both sides knew from prior experience, it was the Red Army which launched offensives in the winter. The Soviet winter offensives in the Ukraine and in the north are really a portion of the preparation for the following year's operations. It is necessary to note that on the central portion of the front, the Soviet victory at Orel by no means ended either the heavy fighting or the summer successes of the Red Army.

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.

The German Army Group Center still had more soldiers, proportionally, than those either to the north or the south, although it was obliged to transfer some divisions to von Manstein's Army Group South. The converse of this situation was that, having committed itself to a major series of offensives in the south, the Soviet high command did not have at its disposal the massive reserves which would have been required to drive back the Germans quickly on the Central front.

These obvious signs of continuing military strength by the Soviet Union made it clear that the Red Army could hold and even advance in the summer as well as the winter. But the continued strong resistance of the Germans, including their counter-attacks which sometimes succeeded in blunting Soviet advances, also demonstrated that a bitter fight lay ahead if the Red Army was to free all the previously occupied territory and drive on into the heart of Germany.

The Red Army slowly pushed back Field Marshal Kluge's Army Group Center to the "Panther" position, a line about thirty miles east of the upper Dnepr, which the Germans had prepared in the preceding weeks and hoped to hold. In practice this did not work as well for the Germans as it did in theory. Rokossovski's Belorussian Front drove into the southern flank of Army Group Center. While unable to score a decisive breakthrough, the Belorussian Front pushed the Germans out of Gomel and across the Dnepr.

The absence of the forces of the Western Allies from the continent of Europe until the Italian invasion made the burden of fighting the bulk of the German army and a large share of its air force a particularly heavy one. This point had been driven home to Stalin most dramatically by the German counter-offensive of March culminating in the loss of Kharkov.

Simultaneously, at the northern flank of Army Group Center, where it joined Army Group North, a Soviet local attack at Nevel crushed one of the newly formed air force field divisions. This opened a gap which the Red Army was unable to exploit fully because of commitments elsewhere but which the Germans could not close. The Nevel gap was in fact enlarged by the Red Army so that by the end of the year the main northern anchor of Army Group Center, its defensive positions around Vitebsk, remained dangerously exposed. This was a situation on which the Russians were to capitalize in the following year.

The Russians were also aided by two aspects of Hitler's control of the German military effort. With an invasion in the West anticipated by the Germans, the basic strategy of the Third Reich, looked to a successful defeat of that invasion before troops and equipment could be turned to the East. As codified in Hitler's general directive Number 51 for the conduct of the war this strategy required that for the time being the Eastern Front would have to take care of itself while Germany concentrated her newly mobilized men and manufactured weapons on defending Western Europe against Allied assault.

Minor deviations from the German policy of defeating the western Allies first were required by crises on the Eastern Front in the spring of the following year. But on the whole this policy was adhered to because, as Hitler’s Directive Number 51 put it: "In the East the size of the German-controlled space is such as to allow if worst came to worst even large losses of space without deadly danger to German survival." This was not the case in the West.