To fully understand Germany’s inability to mount strategic offensives following the Battle of Kursk in 1943, it is essential to understand the status of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front in 1942 – along with the state of Germany’s capabilities and resulting ground efforts following that pivotal year. After the realization that a blitzkrieg through the vastness of the Soviet Union was not going to replicate the same quick, successful, walk though France they produced in 1940, Germany’s leaders were forced to maintain under-fed, under-supplied, battle-weary troops through the brutally harsh Russian winter of 1941-1942 – all by grossly over-extended supply lines. It was poor planning and leadership of Barbarossa, the subsequent actions at Moscow, Stalingrad, and their bid for the Caucasus region that led to weakened armies and more failure after the Battle of Kursk.
German Inability at Strategic Offensives following Kursk
While the Red Army enjoyed a quantitative advantage, the German soldier was a better-trained war fighter. The Soviets were able to overcome the qualitative advantage of the Wehrmacht through a seemingly endless supply of front-line troops. Zetterling and Frankson note the Soviet advantage in replacing ground troops in the latter half of 1943, following Kursk, in what became a war of attrition: “Replacements were wholly insufficient to cover the German losses, as less than 280,000 men arrived either as replacements or returning convalescents. Furthermore, the low German replacement rate was dwarfed by the influx of replacements to the Red Army, which must have received more than two million men as replacements, returning convalescents, and reinforcements.”
Zetterling and Frankson offer that the Red Army’s greater numbers enabled Stalin and his generals to “dictate the broader events.” The Wehrmacht was unable to plan key strategic offensives due to the overwhelming number of Red Army ground troops dictating the fighting; the German armies were often fighting a defensive war, post-Kursk. The war in the skies of the Eastern Front late in 1943 was also affected by numbers, and attrition. Luftwaffe aircraft were bled-off from the Eastern Front in order to defend the homeland, this in response to the increase in allied bombing; conversely, the Red Air Force grew and was able to support the soviet ground mission.
Determinative Factors of Mid-war German Ineffectiveness
Hitler’s desire for Lebensraum, or “living space,” in order to feed the German people amidst the global economic crisis, provided the same challenges in feeding over-extended armies after the war had begun. This supply-issue was felt in armor and transportation for the Wehrmacht as well; which, was not as severe for the Red Army thanks to the US Lend-Lease program. Under Albert Speer, Germany was able to dramatically increase steel production, and as a result, produce more armor. The problem for the Wehrmacht’s foot-soldier was that his armored support had been grossly out-produced on the home front, by the Allies: “The ultimate problem, however, was two-fold: for all its success, German armaments output in 1943, including tank production, was being swamped by that of its enemies. In that year alone, the Allies produced just about six times more aircraft, nearly five times the number of artillery pieces, and almost four times more tanks.” Glantz and House offer that “After Kursk, the strength and combat effectiveness of the German armies in the East entered a period of almost constant decline. Periodic influxes of new conscripts and equipment, especially for the mechanized units and the Waffen SS, gave the defenders the means to conduct local counterattacks . . . Yet these attacks were steadily less effective, both due to the growing sophistication of the Soviet troops and the steady decay in the level of German training and effectiveness.” Germany increasing suffered manpower shortages at home which led were felt on that battlefield; although, the same shortage of manpower was felt by the Red Army.
1. Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson, The Korsun Pocket: The Encirclement and Breakout of a German Army in the East, 1944 (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2008) 10, 13.
2. Ibid., 36-37
3. Ibid., 40.
4. Stephen G. Fritz, Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011) 330.
5. David M. Glantz and Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995) 179.
Fritz, Stephen G. Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011.
Glantz, David M. and Jonathan House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.
Stahel, David. Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Page references are to the 2010 edition.
Zetterling, Niklas and Anders Frankson. The Korsun Pocket: The Encirclement and Breakout of a German Army in the East, 1944. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2008.