Wehrmacht “scorched earth” retreat in Russia

A Russian village burns during the German retreat, August 1943.

A Russian village burns during the German retreat, August 1943.

Three Panzer IV make a river crossing on an improvised bridge, August-September 1943.

Three Panzer IV make a river crossing on an improvised bridge, August-September 1943.

On the Eastern Front the tide was now turning decisively against the Germans, and it was difficult for many men to adjust to the new situation that they found themselves in.

As the Wehrmacht pulled back to behind the Dnieper river they were engaged in more than a withdrawal. When the Soviets had withdrawn in 1941 they had done their utmost to leave behind nothing of use to the enemy. Extraordinary acts of dismantling whole factories were achieved, factories that were soon up and running safely behind the Ural mountains. What could not be taken was often destroyed.

Now the Germans applied the same scorched earth policy to the territory that they had to give up. In his memoirs Field Marshal Erich von Manstein manages to argue that they were entirely reasonable in the way they went about this:

The extremely difficult conditions under which these movements had to be carried out made it imperative that we should take every possible measure likely to impede the enemy. It was essential to ensure that when he reached the Dnieper he could not immediately continue his offensive while still enjoying the advantages of pursuit.

Consequently it was now necessary for the Germans, too, to resort to the ‘scorched-earth’ policy which the Soviets had adopted during their retreats in previous years.

In a 15-mile zone forward of the Dnieper everything which might enable the enemy to go straight over the river on a broad front was destroyed or evacuated. This included anything affording cover or accommodation for Soviet troops in an assembly area opposite our Dnieper defences and anything which might ease their supply problem, particularly in the way of food.

At the same time, in pursuance of instructions specially promulgated by Goring’s economic staff, the zone was to be emptied of all provisions, economic goods and machinery which could assist Soviet war production. In the case of my own Army Group, this measure was confined to essential machinery, horses and cattle.

Naturally there was no question of our ‘pillaging’ the area. That was something which the German Army – unlike certain others – did not tolerate. Strict check points were set up to ensure that no vehicle carried misappropriated goods. As for the effects and stocks of factories, warehouses and Sovkhozes, these were in any case the property of the State and not of private individuals.

Since it was Soviet policy, whenever any territory was recaptured, immediately to embody all able-bodied males under sixty into the armed forces and to conscript the whole of the remaining population for work of military importance, often in the battle zone itself, the Supreme Command had directed that the civil population would also be evacuated. In practice, this coercive measure was applied only to men of military age, who would have immediately been re-enlisted.

On the other hand, a considerable proportion of the Russian population joined our withdrawal quite voluntarily in order to escape the dreaded Soviets, forming big trek columns like those we ourselves were to see later in eastern Germany.

Far from being forcibly abducted, these people received every possible help from the German Armies and were conducted into areas west of the Dnieper in which the German authorities had arranged to feed and accommodate them. They were allowed to take along everything, including horses and cattle, which could possibly accompany them, and wherever we could manage to do so we put our own vehicles at their disposal.

Although the war caused these people a great deal of misfortune and hardship, the latter bore no comparison to the terror-bombing suffered by the civil population in Germany or what happened later on in Germany’s eastem territories. In any case, all the measures taken on the German side were conditioned by military necessity.

One or two figures may serve to show what an immense technical achievement this withdrawal operation was. To begin with, there were 100,000 wounded to evacuate. About 2,500 trains were needed to shift German equipment and stores and requisitioned Soviet property. And the Russian civilians who had attached themselves to us alone numbered many hundreds of thousands.

Despite the extra diiculties involved in having only a few crossing points at our disposal, the with- drawal was completed in a relatively short space of time, thereby proving— contrary to what others might think— that even operations ofthis kind can be executed quickly.

By 30th September every army in the Group was back on the Melitopol—Dnieper line.

See Erich von Manstein: Lost victories

A 'Raupenschlepper' or caterpillar truck pulling an artillery piece on the Eastern front.

A ‘Raupenschlepper’ or caterpillar truck pulling an artillery piece on the Eastern front.

German troops with a Tiger tank, September 1943.

German troops with a Tiger tank, September 1943.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

chris chuba September 4, 2014 at 10:41 pm

Manstein’s comments are rather self serving. I noticed that he didn’t dwell on the fact that he burned all of the food crops in the region to slow the pursuing Russian army down. This may indeed have been effective but this certainly would cause great suffering in the local population that remained and possibly contributed to their desire to leave the area. The German’s also destroyed hydroelectric facilities that civilians would use.

I also, would not equate this to the Russian withdrawal of 1941, why should the Russian’s leave factories behind for the invaders? I don’t know if the Russian’s burned food crops in 1941 or not but Manstein certainly did.

Editor September 15, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Thanks Nigel.

Nigel Thomas September 15, 2013 at 8:41 am

Para 2: Surely the Soviets had done everything possible NOT to leave behind anything of use to the enemy.

Thanks for the site – at times gripping, moving, horrifying, inspiring.

Regards Nigel

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