25 June 2011

The Biggest War in History, Part Five: The crumbling of the Citadel

"To the West!" -  Soviet propaganda poster (via Wikipedia)

Part Four

As today is Armed Forces Day in the United Kingdom, it seems appropriate to start this entry with a discussion of the small, but significant British role in the Great Patriotic War - namely the Arctic Convoys.

Between 1941 and 1945, British merchant ships carried thousands of tons of supplies from the UK to northern Russia. This was one of the riskiest assignments of the war and a number of convoys were cancelled because of the losses. Most of the route was inside the range of German shore-based aircraft, even skirting around occupied Norway. Many of the convoys were carried out in the depths of the Arctic winter, where equipment froze up and sometimes even men. If you ended up in the sea, chances are you were going to die from hypothermia in fairly short order. However, supplies did manage to get through - helping the people of the USSR continue to fight against the Germans.

100 ships were sunk and almost 3,000 British sailors died - most of whom have no grave but the sea. May they never be forgotten.

Following the German defeat at Stalingrad, the Soviets started to fight their way back towards Germany; a dangerous gap for the Germans now opening up in their lines. The Red Army took Kharkov, but following the confusion that ensued after that, the Germans, thanks to a German general (von Manstein) getting his way for once, managed to take the city back in a successful counter-attack in February 1943, which broadly stabilised the situation.

Then the spring thaw turned the roads into slush and mud, bringing things to a bit of a halt, allowing both sides to take stock and try and gain the initiative. The Soviet lines now had a salient (a bulge in their lines) around Kursk, with several Armies in it. The Germans spotted an opportunity. Using 9th Army from the north and 4th Panzer from the South, both aiming for Kursk, they would cut the troops off in a pincer attack and hopefully eliminate a large amount of the Red Army.

However, Stavka (the Soviet High Command, sometimes incorrectly capitalised) were not idiots by any stretch of the imagination and they realised Kursk was the likely German target. Marshal Zhukov (the only man to have gained 4 Hero of the Soviet Union awards legitimately) persuaded Stalin and Stavka that this would need to be dealt with first rather than resuming the offensive, putting together a large reserve to deal with this.

Both sides used the spring to prepare; the Germans transferring a huge amount of their armour to the area (roughly 70%, including some of their newest tanks like the Panther) and the Soviets setting up an elaborate deception plan, while building up vastly improved defences.

On 4 July 1943, Operation Citadel, as the Germans called it, began with the usual air and artillery bombardment, something which didn't exactly take the USSR by surprise as they had good intelligence on German intentions (including ULTRA decrypts of Enigma and Lorenz signals traffic). As to be expected, both advances soon ran into heavy resistance and both would end up in failure, as the Soviets threw their reserves.

In the north, the Germans got about 10 miles before the grinding to a halt. By 10 July, they couldn't advance any further, having worn themselves out on the Soviet defences and with a vulnerable left flank.

In the south, the Germans were more successful but still had problems getting through the Soviet lines. In the end, neither offensive would even get a third of the way through the Soviet defences.

On 12 July, the key engagement of the battle took place. 2nd Panzer Corps met 5th Guards Tank Army in the biggest tank battle of all time - Prokhorovka. After initial bombardments, the battle turned into a full-blown tank-on-tank melee that air support couldn't get involved with for fear of blue-on-blue, to use the current parlance. What precisely happened isn't entirely clear, particularly in terms of numbers, but the battle must be considered a draw - neither side succeeded and suffered heavy losses. The battle was, however, a massive propaganda victory for the USSR - they had stopped the cream of German army in its tracks.

On the same day, the Red Army launched a counter-offensive to the north of the salient (Operation Kutuzov), but in the end, other events would also intervene. On 10 July, having successfully hoodwinked Germany into believing that Crete would be the target via Operation Mincemeat (the one involving a dead tramp), the US and UK invaded Sicily. With the need to divert forces there, Hitler cancelled the Citadel operation on 17 July.

Thanks to the superior numbers, tactics and planning of their opponent, the last major German offensive on the Eastern front had failed. Many of their tanks were destroyed and they'd lost a lot of men. So had the Red Army, but they could recover.

The Germans fell back over the rest of the year and by the start of 1944, the Soviet forces were back into Ukraine.

Part Six

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