Two years before Hitler’s armies had smashed into Soviet Russia with high hopes of a swift victory. They discovered that it was not as rotten within as they had expected. The country had not collapsed like a pack of cards as had been expected. The Soviet system had survived and its people had demonstrated an extraordinary resilience despite massive losses.
A year later he had tried again with a strike into the Caucasus with a bold plan to capture the oil fields. He had been diverted by the struggle for Stalingrad, and never came close to reaching his main objective and denying Russia its oil.
Now, two years later, he faced an eastern enemy that was immeasurably stronger. The Soviets had always possessed tanks that could take on the German panzers, now they had them in much greater numbers and had developed the tactics to use them effectively. The two sides were now much more evenly balanced.
There remained a chance that Germany could seize the initiative by attacking a huge salient in the Russian lines near the city of Kursk. Attacks from the north and south might recreate the conditions for another great victory, like the massively successful encirclement battles of 1941.
But the preparations for the Kursk battle had gone on so long that the element of surprise had long ago been lost. His most senior commanders had misgivings about the plan. Hitlers faith that the new Panther and Tiger tanks would prove game changers was not so widely shared. In briefing his generals when he returned to his advance headquarters on 1st July 1943, Hitler chose not to address these concerns.
A familiar theme now emerged: he would blame others for the situation he was in; and his main objective was now to hold on to territory at any cost ‘without yielding’.
There was no other strategic objective but to ‘hold on’ and disrupt the enemy as much as possible.
General Friessner was to keep a record of the meeting, “In a grave, clear, and confident voice he made the following points” :
Our situation. The blame for our misfortunes must be laid squarely on our allies. The Italians let us down completely. If, as the Fuhrer repeatedly demanded, they had made timely use of their fleet to escort and transport their troops to Africa, Africa would not have been lost. Now their ships are being smashed in their harbors. Comparison with World War I, where we too conserved our fleet too long until it was too late.
Italians failed on the eastern front, in Greece, etc. Hungary likewise : … Romania unreliable : the marshal’s brother, Prime Minister [Mihai] Antonescu, is a devious character. Finland at the end of her tether ; internal troubles with Social-Democrats, fostered and fed by Sweden.
What’s at stake ? Germany needs the conquered territory, or she will not exist for long. She must win hegemony over Europe. Where we are — we stay. Soldiers must see this, otherwise they’ll regard their sacrifices as in vain. Balkans must not be lost whatever happens ; our most vital raw materials for war are there. The Italians have pulled out of Greece and been replaced by Germans. Feel safer since then. Crete is firmly in our hands ; thus we prevent enemy from getting air bases.
Greater Germany and Europe must be defended far beyond our frontiers ; so far we have managed this perfectly. German troops are now occupying the isles of Rhodes, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica — the Italians would have long surrendered them, just as they did without fighting in Pantelleria.
Eastern front. We will yield nothing without a scrap…. The Russians are biding their time. They are using their time replenishing for the winter. We must not allow that, or there’ll be fresh crises this winter. So we’ve got to disrupt them.
Hitler concluded : “The die has been cast. The attack is on. Everything must now be done to ensure its success.”