In the mind of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein the German aim for 1943 should have been to launch an early offensive to knock the Soviets off guard following their success at Stalingrad. This had been delayed as a consequence of bad weather, the early spring mud not being suitable for the Panzers. The plan then had then moved on for a two pronged attack on the the salient of Soviet troops around Kursk. Manstein had been in favour of an attack in early May, as soon as the ground was ready was ready for mass armoured battle.
However, Hitler had delayed and delayed, waiting for the new Panthers and Tiger tanks which he regarded as war winning weapons. Manstein had argued that they were losing the element of surprise. He had also argued that the precarious situation in Tunisia meant that they would soon face a new threat from the west.
Manstein’s predictions now came true. The German attacks at Kursk inflicted heavy casualties but they found themselves stuck in the well prepared defences of the Red Army, built in successive layers. Then the invasion of Sicily unnerved Hitler and he decided that he wanted to move substantial armoured divisons west. On the 13th July he had called a conference.
It was a reversal of the usual position where Hitler demanded that his Generals attack and they argued for the freedom to make some strategic withdrawals. Now Manstein, commanding Army Group South, argued for just a little more time to finish off the Soviet reserves. But by the 16th July he was denied even that. His frustration is recorded in his memoirs:
The commander of Central Army Group, Field-Marshal von Kluge reported that Ninth Army was making no further headway and that he was having to deprive it of all its mobile forces to check the enemy’s deep incursions into the Orel salient. There could be no question of continuing with ‘Citadel’ or of resuming the operation at a later date.
Speaking for my own Army Group, I pointed out that the battle was now at its culminating point, and that to break it off at this moment would be tantamount to throwing a victory away. On no account should we let go of the enemy until the mobile reserves he had committed were completely beaten.
Nonetheless, Hitler ruled that ‘Citadel’ was to be called off on account of the situation in the Mediterranean and the state of affairs in Central Army Group. The only concession he would make was that Southern Army Group should continue the attack until it had achieved its aim of smashing the enemy’s armoured reserves.
As a matter of fact not even this could be accomplished, for only a few days later the Army Group was ordered to hand over several armoured divisions to Central Army Group. The assault groups of both formations had to be withdrawn to their original start-lines.
And so the last German offensive in the east ended in a fiasco, even though the enemy opposite the two attacking armies of Southern Army Group had suffered four times their losses in prisoners, dead and wounded.
From this point on the Germans would be on the retreat in both the East and the West. The process unfolded only gradually and there would be reverses. But this point marked the final end of German hopes for an offensive strategy.
Colour archive footage of the battle from the Soviet perspective: