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Great Patriotic War - The Second Period

The forces of the Soviet Southwestern and Stalingrad Fronts attacked out of bridgeheads across the Don and Volga Rivers northwest and south of Stalingrad on 19 November 1942, commencing the second period of war. After penetrating Romanian defenses with infantry forces, Soviet armored and mechanized corps drove deep into the German rear, linked up, and encircled the German Sixth Army and part of the Fourth Panzer Army. Although Soviet forces formed a coherent inner encirclement line around German forces, several flaws marred this first example of successful large-scale operational maneuver. Command and control was awkward because mobile corps commanders reported to both front and army commanders, and the outer encirclement line, formed by cavalry corps, was fragile and almost immediately threatened by German relief forces. Most troubling was the high attrition rate of armor in this and in subsequent stages of the winter offensive, due primarily to logistical causes.

Less than a week later, the Western and Kalinin Front's forces, under the personal direction of Marshal of the Soviet Union G. I. Zhukov, struck German Ninth Army in the Rzhev salient. Delivering a massive blow along four separate axes, six Soviet armies spearheaded by two new Red Army mechanized corps, two tank corps, and a cavalry corps tried in vain to encircle German forces in the salient. Three weeks of bloody and futile fighting produced over 300,000 casualties and once again indicated that Soviet commanders had yet to learn how to coordinate complex mobile operations by so massive a force.

During subsequent operations throughout the winter, the Soviets worked to correct the deficiencies apparent in November. In the Middle Don operation (17-30 December 1942), the Soviets employed two groups of mobile forces to attack across the Don and Chir Rivers and encircle the Italian Eighth Army. Again mobile corps commanders were responsible to both the front and army commanders, but unlike the case at Stalingrad, one tank corps (17th) formed a more durable outer encirclement line. Despite the fact that the mobile corps advanced up to 100 kilometers and destroyed the Italian Eighth Army, the Soviets again experienced major difficulties. Armor attrition rates exceeded 60 percent in the tank corps, and the corps advanced out of mutual supporting distance and well beyond the range of supporting foot infantry and artillery. German reinforcements took advantage of the weakness and dispersion of Soviet mobile forces by counterattacking and temporarily halting the advance.

In the Donbas operation (29 January-20 February), in which the Soviets sought to encircle all of German Army Group Don, the Southwest Front commander formed four of his tank corps (3d, 10th, 18th, and 4th Guards) under a single headquarters (Group Popov) as the first Soviet front mobile group. To improve the sustainability of the group, truck-mounted rifle divisions were attached to each of the tank corps. To a large degree, however, the overall weakness of the group (160 tanks) negated the group's effectiveness. The weakness of the tank corps, their propensity for being caught up in operations along their flanks, and the lack of mobility of the attached rifle divisions almost instantly fragmented the group, and Popov was unable to concentrate and achieve decisive results. Overextension and dispersion of Soviet forces provided General Erich von Manstein, commander of Army Group South, an opportunity to orchestrate a counterstroke that cut the supply lines of overextended Soviet mobile forces and destroyed them. At the same time, Manstein's forces encircled and severely damaged the 8th Cavalry and 4th Guards Mechanized Corps, which were attacking German forces in the Donbas region from the east (at Debalt'sevo and Anastasievka) and virtually cut off and annihilated the 25th Tank Corps, which had been advancing toward Zaporozh'ye.

Concurrently, the Stavka mounted an ambitious offensive by its newly formed Central Front (the former Don Front), supported by the Western and Bryansk Fronts, against German defenses along the Orel-Bryansk- Smolensk axis. General K. K. Rokossovsky, the Central Front commander, spearheaded his offensive with the 2d Tank Army, the 2d Guards Cavalry Corps, and numerous ski brigades. In heavy fighting that endured from 25 February through mid-March, Rokossovsky's forces reached the banks of the Desna River, over one hundred kilometers into the German rear area, almost severing communications between German Army Groups Center and South. However, a combination of skillful German maneuver, poor Soviet logistical support, and clumsy operations by exhausted Red Army forces, all exacerbated by deteriorating weather and terrain conditions, spelled doom for the ambitious offensive. By mid-March the Soviet offensive fell victim to Manstein's counteroffensive. Having suffered nearly 500,000 casualties, the Red Army ceased its winter campaign and dug in around what would become the infamous Kursk bulge.

An even more grisly fate befell the Voronezh Front's 3d Tank Army operating in the Khar'kov region. This tank army was encircled and annihilated by counterattacking German forces in early March 1943, and its parent front was forced to abandon Khar'kov and withdraw to positions south of Kursk and east of the Northern Donets River. In the Donbas, Khar'kov, and Orel-Bryansk operations, the Soviets took a calculated risk to win a major strategic victory before spring rains interrupted operations. Soviet mobile forces shared in that risk and suffered the consequences. While the winter campaign demonstrated what operational maneuver forces could achieve, it also vividly demonstrated the problems that had to be overcome if they were to realize their full potential. Soviet armored forces would require six more months to accomplish the goals the Stavka assigned them in February 1943.

After the winter campaign, a three-month lull set in across the Eastern Front, during which both sides planned summer strategic operations. During this period the Soviets exploited lessons learned in the winter and reconstructed their mobile forces to make them more powerful and sustainable. Simultaneously, they refined mobile operational and tactical techniques to improve the operational maneuver capability of front and army commanders. Soviet strategic plans for the summer of 1943 increasingly relied for success on the operations of these refined mobile groups. The premier Soviet mobile forces were the five new tank armies created by a January Stavka order, each consisting of two tank corps, an optional mechanized corps, and a variety of mobile support units. The new armies fielded over 500 tanks each and were soon augmented by newly formed self-propelled artillery units. Similarly, the Soviets refined the structure of separate tank and mechanized corps by adding more combat and combat service support units. By July 1943 the Soviets fielded twenty-four tank and thirteen mechanized corps. The Soviets scored a a great victory during the largest tank battle in history -- the July 12, 1943, Battle of Kursk that involved a total of 1,200 tanks.

The new tank armies and augmented tank, mechanized, and cavalry corps provided operational maneuver capabilities to both front and army commanders. In all major operations, the Stavka allocated one or two tank armies to front commanders and one mechanized or tank corps to army commanders operating along main attack axes. These mobile units conducted operational maneuver under direct control of their parent headquarters. On difficult terrain or in bad weather (spring), cavalry corps served as front or army mobile groups, and by the fall of 1943 front commanders in these circumstances employed cavalry-mechanized groups (usually one mechanized or tank corps and one cavalry corps) to perform operational maneuver. In theory, rifle forces, supported by an increasing array of artillery and engineer units, penetrated enemy tactical defenses to a depth of 8-12 kilometers, and then army mobile groups began the operational exploitation. The front commander then committed his operational maneuver force to develop the offensive into the enemy's operational rear area. In practice, however, rifle forces seldom completed the tactical penetration. That task fell to the army mobile group as it advanced to begin the exploitation. As a result, the army mobile group was often significantly weakened before the exploitation phase began. Thus, the success of deep exploitation depended on the skill of commanders whose tank armies were serving as mobile groups.

The first "modern" Soviet operations in terms of operational maneuver occurred during the Kursk strategic operation (July-August 1943). Soviet strategic plans called for a temporary defensive phase to weaken German forces, diversionary attacks to draw German operational reserves to other sectors of the front, and two major counteroffensives, spearheaded by mobile groups, against weakened German forces, the first at Orel and the second near Belgorod. The Orel offensive by the Western, Bryansk, and later the Central Front began on 12 July 1943, just as the Germans' Kursk assault ground to a halt. Tank corps (1st, 5th, 20th, and 1st Guards) of attacking Soviet armies joined the struggle on the second day of the operation and were later joined by two tank armies, 3d and 4th Guards, attacking under front control on the eighth and fourteenth days of the operation. Heavy German defenses and quick reaction by German reserves prevented significant Soviet advances, and the operation evolved into a slugging match between both parties.

The German offensive was code-named Operation Citadel and led to one of the largest armored clashes in history, the Battle of Prokhorovka. The German offensive was countered by two Soviet counter-offensives, Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev and Operation Kutuzov. For the Germans, the battle was the final strategic offensive that they were able to launch on the Eastern Front. Their extensive loss of men and tanks ensured that the victorious Soviet Red Army enjoyed the strategic initiative for the remainder of the war.

The Germans hoped to weaken the Soviet offensive potential for the summer of 1943 by cutting off a large number of forces that they anticipated would be in the Kursk salient. The Kursk salient or bulge was 160 miles long from north to south and 99 miles from east to west. By eliminating the Kursk salient, the Germans would also shorten their lines, nullify Soviet numerical superiority in critical sectors and regain the initiative from the Soviet Union.

Hitler believed that a victory here would reassert German strength and improve his prestige with his allies, who were considering withdrawing from the war. It was also hoped that large numbers of Soviet prisoners would be captured to be used as slave labor in the German armaments industry.

The Soviet government had advance intelligence of the German intentions, provided in part by the British intelligence service and Tunny intercepts. Aware months in advance, the Soviets built a defense in depth designed to wear down the Germans. The Germans delayed the offensive while they tried to build up their forces and waited for new weapons, mainly the new Panther tank and larger numbers of the Tiger heavy tank. This gave the Soviet Army time to construct a series of deep defensive belts. The defensive preparations included minefields, fortifications, artillery fire zones and anti-tank strong points Soviet mobile formations were moved out of the salient and a large reserve force was formed for strategic counter-offensives.

The Battle of Kursk was the first time in the Second World War that a German strategic offensive was halted before it could break through enemy defenses and penetrate to its strategic depths. Though the Soviet Army had succeeded in winter offensives previously, their counter-offensives following the German attack at Kursk were their first successful strategic summer offensives of the war.

The decision to draw the Germans into the costly and disastrous attack at Kursk in July 1943 attested to the increased maturity of Soviet military art. At Kursk, Soviet use of a sophisticated defense as a prelude to a powerful counteroffensive yielded rich results. The Soviet offensives of July and August 1943 at Orel and Belgorod-Kharkov marked a turning point in Soviet offensive operations. The two counteroffensives occurred after an extremely short prepar'ltion period. The Orel offensive took place while the German assault at Kursk was developing to a climax. The Belgorod-Kharkov offensive occurred three weeks after the German offensive tide broke against the Soviet defenses. The Belgorod-Khar'kov operation better characterized deep operations and more clearly reflected what the Soviets hoped to accomplish. It began on 3 August 1943, after German operational reserves (the XXIV Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps) had been drawn away to other sectors of the front by Soviet diversionary offensives. The attacking armies of the Soviet Voronezh and Steppe Fronts advanced directly against the nose of the Belgorod salient to penetrate German tactical defenses. Once penetration was achieved, the army and front commanders were to commit both separate tank and mechanized corps or multiple tank armies to conduct operational maneuver and seize the Khar'kov region.

Before noon on 3 August, the Voronezh Front's 1st and 5th Guards Tank Armies advanced through the 5th Guards Army into the penetration, with a forward detachment leading each of their four subordinate tank corps. By late afternoon, the four corps had penetrated thirty kilometers to begin an operational exploitation. Separate tank corps of adjacent Soviet armies also advanced on the first day of attack but had to deal with more extensive German defenses before exploiting into the operational depths. The operational exploitation of the 1st and 5th Guards Tank Armies lasted seven days and thrust to a depth of 110-120 kilometers. On 11 August German operational reserves, returned from other sectors of the front, intervened and within days halted the precipitous Soviet advance. After heavy fighting, which severely eroded the strength of both Soviet and German mobile forces, Khar'kov fell on 23 August, signaling the end of the operation.

Despite the early deep advance and the favorable outcome of the operation, severe problems emerged for Soviet mobile forces, which they would have to remedy in the future. The tank armies and mobile corps outran supporting forces by a factor of several days, thus exposing themselves to German counterattacks. As a consequence, the Soviets recognized the need to provide them more mobile combined-arms support. Moreover, some link had to be established between armor and mechanized forces operating deep and slower follow-on forces. The Soviets remedied this problem by fielding and employing more forward detachments at army, corps, and division level.

After the Kursk strategic operation, Soviet forces launched offensives along the entire Eastern Front and forced the Germans to withdraw to its newly created Panther Defense Line, which the Germans had constructed along the Sozh, Pronya, and Dnepr Rivers. Soviet forces pursued vigorously, with operational maneuver forces leading the advance to secure crossings over these river barriers. During the pursuit the Soviets secretly shifted the 3d Guards Tank Army southward from Orel. Together with numerous separate tank, mechanized, and cavalry corps, the tank army raced forward parallel to withdrawing German units, reached the Dnepr River before the Germans, and, with forward detachments from rifle armies, seized small bridgeheads near Velikiy Bukrin, south of Kiev. Because the absence of heavy bridging equipment prevented passage of the river by the army's armored elements, for the first time the Soviets attempted a major river crossing operation employing a large-scale airborne drop. The attempt failed when hastily assembled German forces thwarted both the airdrop and Soviet attempts to enlarge the bridgehead. The operation, although unsuccessful, was an attempt to fulfill Marshal of the Soviet Union M. N. Tukhachevsky's dream of combining ground and vertical aspects of operational maneuver.

To the north, after clearing German Army Group Center forces from the Smolensk and Bryansk regions, in early October the Kalinin, Western, and Central Fronts began a major operation to envelop and defeat German Army Group Center from north and south, capture Minsk, and liberate Belorussia. Soviet forces hammered German defenses from Nevel' southward through Vitebsk and Orsha to Gomel' in massive offensives that pierced German defenses in the Nevel' and Gomel' region but failed to collapse German strategic defenses. The Kalinin Front succeeded in driving a wedge between Army Groups North and Center near Nevel', and the Central Front severed communications between Army Groups Center and South in a deep thrust along the Rechitsa-Bobruysk axis. However, numerous separate violent Soviet offensives against Vitebsk and Orsha failed, and by mid-December a German counterstroke restored the front in southern Belorussia. By 31 December Soviet forces threatened Vitebsk and occupied sizable bridgeheads across the Dnepr River near Rechitsa and Chernobyl'. Once again, the Stavka failed to achieve its strategic ends largely due to the weakness of operational maneuver forces in the three attacking fronts. Since the Stavka had been forced to withdraw its tank armies for refitting after the heavy losses they had incurred during the Battle of Kursk, only separate tank and cavalry corps were available to spearhead the advance into Belorussia. The Stavka would try again to smash German defenses in Belorussia during the following winter but would fail once again. The German bastion in Belorussia would not fall until the summer of 1944.

In the southern sector of the front, the Steppe and Southwestern Fronts advanced on the Dnepr and secured a large bridgehead south of Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk in October. However, despite constant heavy fighting throughout November and December, the fronts' forces failed to capture their objectives, the cities of Krivoy Rog and Nikopol', and drive the Germans from the Dnepr River's eastern bend. At the same time, the Southern Front employed a cavalry-mechanized group to conduct deep operations and drive German Army Group South back through Melitopol' toward the Dnepr River and Crimea. Clumsy employment of a mechanized corps (the 4th Guards) and a tank corps (the 19th) led to the bloody failure of four separate Soviet attempts to crush German defenders of the Nikopol' bridgehead.

In late fall 1943, Soviet forces wrestled with the problem of breaching the German's Dnepr River defenses near Kiev. In five separate offensives during early October, the Central Front's left wing (the 13th and 60th Armies) and the Voronezh Front's 27th, 38th, 40th, and 47th Combined-arms Armies and the 3d Guards Tank Army failed to crack German defenses near Chernobyl', Gornostaipol', Lyutezh, and Velikiy Bukrin. These failures occurred despite Soviet massed employment of the 3d Guards Tank Army and three separate mobile corps in the Bukrin region. After these bloody failures, in early November the Soviets finally employed operational maneuver masked by successful deception to solve the strategic dilemma. Between 29 October and 3 November 1943, the Soviet 1st Ukrainian (formerly Voronezh) Front secretly redeployed the 3d Guards Tank Army northward into the small Lyutezh bridgehead north of Kiev, and on 3 November the front assaulted out of the bridgehead.

Subsequently, the 3d Guards Tank Army advanced over one hundred kilometers southwest of Kiev before being halted by redeploying German reserves. The operation bore many similarities to the Belgorod operation, for the 3d Guards Tank Army's two forward detachments were destroyed in the German counterattacks. Subsequent German counterattacks failed to drive Soviet forces back to Kiev. During the waning stages of these counterattacks, the Soviets again secretly regrouped under the cloak of an effective deception plan and prepared a new offensive, this time spearheaded by two full tank armies (the 1st and 3d Guards). While German forces attacked what they falsely assumed to be the main Soviet concentration northwest of Kiev, on 24 December the new Soviet blow struck weakened German defenses southwest of Kiev. In the ensuing Zhitomir-Berdichev operation, Soviet operational maneuver forces advanced 120-130 kilometers before being halted by redeployed German armored forces.

After August 1943 Soviet operational and tactical techniques matured as theory and practice converged. In late 1943, in 1944, and in 1945, the Soviets slowly realized the hopes and aspirations of Tukhachevsky. Operations were of grander scope, coordination of all arms more thorough, results more impressive.

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Page last modified: 14-06-2019 18:03:43 ZULU