Backhand Blow: Kharkov 1943

By Robert M. Citino
3/22/2012 • Fire for Effect

Last time out, we left the Eastern Front in a state of high suspense. Soviet armies were ranging wide and deep, hurtling toward the Dnepr crossings. They were maneuvering in open space, a rare thing in modern war. Wherever you happened to fix your eye on this sprawling operational map, the Soviets could see dizzying opportunities and the Germans were contemplating disaster.

Well, not ALL the Germans. One of them saw an opening, and he happened to be the one man who mattered. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was the commander of Army Group South, and if he brought anything to the table, it was an ability to spot operational opportunities. Sure, it’s easy to criticize him today. His armies were knee-deep in heinous war crimes on the Eastern Front and he was politically blind, wedded to the naïve belief that somehow, someway he could win an operational victory on his front that would force the Soviets to accept a Remis-Frieden (a stalemate peace, borrowing a term from chess). It’s easy to ask Manstein just what part of the phrase “unconditional surrender” he did not understand.

For all that, he had few if any peers in the conduct of military operations (Kriegführung, in German). While others in the high command were throwing up their hands, he had an idea: a Rochade (another term taken from chess, a “castling maneuver”). The armies on his far right in the Caucasus (4th Panzer and 1st Panzer) would shift rapidly to his left, then strike the Soviet offensive spearheads in their deep flank. Manstein had in mind a Schlag aus der Nachhand (a backhand blow), a strike that you launched once the enemy had committed himself and expended much of his strength.

And so it went. One moment, the Soviet commanders (General F. M. Kharitonov of 6th Army and General D. D. Lelyushenko of 1st Guards Army) were riding high, carrying out a form of “deep battle” that their training and doctrine emphasized—multiple echelons feeding forward along the same axis to smash their way into the enemy’s rear areas. Then, on February 21st, General Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army launched a vigorous counterattack. Two convergent thrusts—one from the south spearheaded by LVII Corps on the left and XXXXVIII Panzer Corps on the right, and one from the region of Poltava in the northwest by II SS Panzer Corps—caught the advancing Soviet armies strung out in road march, took them in front, flanks, and rear, and routed them. German casualties were minimal; Soviet casualties, by contrast, were practically total in terms of materiel and high enough in men. No wonder. Formation after formation was, quite literally, running out of fuel at the very moment of Manstein’s counterattack. Over the course of the next few weeks, the Germans kept up the momentum, with II SS Panzer now reversing course and driving north, pounding forward, fighting its way into Kharkov, and clearing the city by 14 March—69 years to the very day that I am writing these words.

Look, let me lay my cards on the table. I am an operational guy. I grew up reading the popular histories, I’ve played the wargames, and after all these years, I’m still a buff on the Eastern Front. You have to give Manstein his due. Facing a series of nearly insurmountable crises, he had coolly taken stock, weighed his options, and then engineered a dramatic revival. Against all odds, he had restored the front—give or take—to where it had stood at the start of the 1942 campaign.

But I’ve grown up, and the time has come for a colder eye. An amazing achievement, yes. But in the process, Manstein had driven his army up to a long, meandering line along the Donets river, a position he would never be able to hold in the coming year. He knew it, the high command knew it, and together they would attempt the rather desperate expedient of the Kursk offensive in summer 1943—a mere four months hence—to do something about it. Bewegungskrieg, in other words, led the Wehrmacht not to triumph in early 1943, but to the abyss.

As for the Soviet commanders, they, too, had stayed in character. Even as their momentum began to lag, they had driven on and on, ignoring their losses and their increasingly perilous logistical situation, until they imploded. They literally recognized no limits. Their faith in deep battle made them dangerous to their enemies early on, but eventually proved disastrous.

And this, I think, is the lesson of the winter campaign in 1943. Far from serving as a display of individual or collective genius, it offers us the fascinating spectacle of two armies trapped, like helpless prey, in the talons of their own doctrine.
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18 Responses to Backhand Blow: Kharkov 1943

  1. Gerry Proudfoot says:

    There is no doubting that the German counterattack was an excellent piece of staff work and operational skill. However, the Red Army was not only low on supplies, many of the formation were vastly understrength due to losses and attrition since the offensive began. It was not a battle amonst equals and the sacles did not balance until the STAVKA committed additional resources to try to regain the initiative. It started out as a counterattack by a superior force and turned into swirling melee that nearly ruined a number of the German formations as well as battering the Red Army.

  2. Dave says:

    All this fine conversation about the Eastern Front has raised a hypothetical question for me. Hitler did not allow (until forced to) strategic withdrawls in order set a new defensive position and realign the front even when his generals begged him. He also declared cities as fortresses, thus condeming thousands of men to death or POW status. A waste of manpower.

    But let’s say Hitler took his general’s advice at the time it was given and did not declare fortress cities. What impact would that have had? Just delay the inevitable? Slowed down the Russians enough that we would have taken more of Germany? Taken Berlin? Did Hitler’s decisions actually save Western Allied lives?


    • bobe says:

      Conclusion, Hitler doomed the german army, he was not a general but he was there firing generals and above them and by 1943 ALBERT SPEER one of his inner circle said that HITLER stopped listening to his generals.
      So don’t blame MANSTEIN, he did the best under the circumstances, we know today that by 1943 Germany should had been on the defensive and slowly withdrawing from USSR, but HITLER just thought of offensive terms, a total lunatic shouldn’t been interfering on military affairs at all, on top of that he was then very sick, and when got his amphetamines injections that were doubled(? Morell increased his dose) by 1943 he would feel superhuman and over confident and inflexible.
      then we have KURSK not a total disaster but bled the german armies of all resources from fuel to infantry to tanks and airplanes(and mostly pilots) lost, just made easier for the RED ARMY to finish the german armies. Hitler more than anything else helped the soviets.
      The generals had no choice against HITLER, if HITLER took their advice maybe the war would have been 2 more years longer for sure.

  3. Christian Ankerstjerne says:

    Excellent blog post, Rob!

    While reading, I couldn’t help thinking about the psychology behind both the German and Soviet insistence on following their theoretical doctrines. This seems quite similar to the shareholder who refuse to sell his declining shares, because of an over-confidence in his original decision, and a mis-placed trust that the company that he has invested time and money in will pull through in the end.

    I don’t know what, if anything, to take from the comparison – it just seemed interesting.

  4. Bomber says:

    Is there a way to not be trapped in a certain way of war? Does it depend on the genius of the individual commander or will countries always be trapped within their doctrine? Could it depend on how long that doctrine has existed?

  5. Derek Weese says:

    Wouldn’t it be valid as well to point out that both militaries were operating under the hand(s) of a totalitarian dictator who both fancied themselves as great military commanders themselves? Certainly both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army stayed true to their doctrine, but I see in more than one instance on the Eastern Front the hand of not just Hitler but also Stalin in operational outcomes. In Stalin’s case I think this was actually more acute than it was with Hitler. (I admit, I could be wrong)
    Take the long ride behind German lines that allowed Manstein to deliver such an incredible victory. As you mentioned in a previous posting it was not a pleasant experience to confront Stalin with news of failure, and said unpleasantness also oft times led to ‘he who is now having had head removed from shoulders’ syndrome. Certainly this can be overstated and I don’t intend to. I think that the idea that I have heard from some that both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army’s Officer Corps’ were mindless drones is nonsense. But I do think the dictators played a part in shaping their operations as well as their established doctrine.

  6. ADTS says:

    “trapped, like helpless prey, in the talons of their own doctrine.”

    What a provocative end to your post! Quite frankly, while it probably could not be further removed from high-intensity conflict on the Eastern Front, what the line brought to mind for me is the on-going debate regarding FM 3-24, COIN, etc. (Nagl, “Eating Soup…,” and his assertion that the absence of codified or formal in the British Army rendered it more adaptable in Malaya, seems particularly relevant.) I don’t know much about German military doctrine in this time period. I am passingly familiar at most with the General Staff system, kriegspiel and war “games,” Tante Friede, and so forth. But your post, and (once more) the ending sentence in particular, raises for me the question of: to what extent was the Wehrmacht “governed” by doctrine (at the operational or strategic level, not the Tante Friede level)? Once more, just a passing though, but one which perhaps raises a parallel to contemporary debates.


  7. John Merkatatis says:

    I am certain that you are aware that you have described the wrong operation,in the wrong place and time for backhand blow.I don’t know why you did that but the counter attack that resulted in the re-capture of the city of Kharkov has nothing to do with Manstein’s proposal to Hitler regarding German offensive in the East for 1943 with the backhand Blow as an operational concept;that would have resulted in one of the perfect battles of ‘offensive return in military history(Erick Mauraise in “Armoured Warfare” for the Swiss Directorate of Military Studies and Military History) and would have caused a standstil in the Eastern front.
    Of course Hitler rejected the idea since elastic defence caused nautia to him,but the concept remains with admiration for the person who conceived it and whose military acumen stands above all combatants in WWII.If what you wrote intended to diminish Manstein,because it approaches jingoism,I can only express my regret.

  8. […] the story of a fictional single German commander during the Third Battle of Kharkov in 1943, AKA Manstein’s Backhand Blow . This is one of my favorite battles in military history as well as IMO the single most impressive […]

  9. William Quinlan Coleman says:

    Oddly, what you blogged about was NOT back hand blow. That was the name given to Mansteins operational spring 43 plans. He did implement some of those ideas in 3rd Kharkov, but the name was attached to his unimplemented spring/summer plans.

    I’ve read about all that I can read Manstein’s back hand blow, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that he might have gotten away with it a few more times, but the Russians would have wised up to this new operational doctrine and would have eventually overcome it.

    You could argue that if Hitler had extended the war by a year and the Russian resource and manpower shortage in 44-45, maybe something happens and Russia brokers a cease fire or peace, but I’ve always contended that either Russia or the Allies were going to take Berlin,weither this happened in 45 or 46, makes no difference.

    But Manstein’s elastic defense and thrusts at the trunks are stuff of legend.

    • Bobe says:

      I admire Manstein as a great german general but it all pales to the german tragedy at USSR with operation BARBAROSSA, with Hitler(a corporal and incompetent and supreme commander at same time?) in charge.I believe if Hitler had not had meddling in military affairs the german armies had a good chance of taking MOSCOW as most generals agreed as strategical objective by 1942 and mostly instead stretching 3 armies in 400 miles(overstretching and being vulnerable to short supplies and sabotage by partisans behind lines) all german thrust would be concentrated in encircling Moscow and the red army would be concentrated there as well, i just read Zhukov’s memoirs and by 1942 they still had problems with supplies, and they hardly had enough for defense so there still had chance of a great german victory by 1942. The more i know about WWII the more i discover that Hitler was the principal factor of annihilation of german armies in USSR, his mental and physical state and his character(couldn’t debate or accept better opinions, unlike STALIN that was much more intelligent than Hitler and after Stalingrad accepted more advice from Zhukov including the defense not offensive of red army at KURSK). The first major german defeat was at battle of MOSCOW with a red army winter offensive then the Lunatic Hitler commits same mistake again in STALINGRAD no winter clothes and the second red army winter offensive , by then the war was over in the eastern front or any chance of victory evaporated. At KURSK Manstein had only one objective to inflict as much damage to the Red army in order to get some armistice or cease fire, at KURSK germans had a TACTICAL victory but not enough to make any difference in matter of weeks soviets had replaced all that been lost. operation BAGRATION just finished army group center and by now german industry in full war production but too late, Hitler helped the allies more than anything else.

  10. William Quinlan Coleman says:

    This link is an excellent summary of Mansteins plans in early 43

    Forehand and Backhand. Obviously hitler went with forehand

  11. Chris says:

    I am no military expert and only derive some amateur conclusions from the two maps.
    My humble opinion is that by stabilizing the front along the Donets & Mius Rivers, von Manstein secured a key advantage for the German defenders. It should be easier to defend against Soviet offensives across rivers which act as formidable barriers. I think there are many examples during WWII that support the idea that rivers tend to favour the defenders. The next substantial river further west was the Dneiper river, but that would have risked a chaotic retreat and give up too much ground. So I think von Manstein’s plan was sound, both tactically and strategically.

  12. Harald says:

    The problem with river lines is that they can be broken,
    that the Russians historically are good at it
    and that victory is gained by striking no matter how pleasant the thought is to have the enemy impale himself.

    I will not comment on the interference of Hitler with operational matters,
    except to note that the doctrines of the Prussian tradition do call for an Officer Corps that is essentially the obedient servant of the political leadership. Suggest, but don’t decide, so to speak.

    With the Soviets, it was slightly more complex.
    -decide first, but explain later, and Bog help you if the Boss is unhappy.
    -there are fairly fixed tactics for most situations. Deviation is penalised on all levels ( as is failing to achieve RESULTS, we should add )
    resources are massed. Superior command makes its presence felt by throwing in its own resources, and NOT by micromanaging subordinates.

    quote1: Soviet tactics are of the utmost simplicity; they can be condensed into a single phrase-the maximum concentration of forces in the decisive sector. Anyone who was found responsible for dispersing forces of divisional strength or above during the war was shot without further ado. At lower levels the usual penalty for wasting resources in this way was reduction to the ranks and a posting to a penal battalion, which would also lead to death, though not always immediately, it is true.

    quote2: During a battle Jenghiz Khan would keep a close watch on the situation from a nearby hill. As soon as the slightest sign of success was visible at any point, he would concentrate all his forces there, sometimes even throwing in his own personal guard. Having broken through the enemy’s line at a single point he would push irresistibly ahead and the enemy army, split in two, would disintegrate. It is worth recording that he never lost a battle in his life.

    -final point: Suvorov notes that the Soviets ( read: Stalin ) only began to apply this basic principle from Stalingrad onwards. But after that, there were no further lapses in applying this fundamental principle.

  13. Richard Miller says:

    In Stalin’s army, it was considered a good career move for a losing general to commit suicide.

  14. Wagner says:

    From the map, it seems that the Russians’ main objective was Dnepro- Petrovsk on the Dnepr River, which is incidentally the closest point of the Dnepr River to the frontline. Had it been successful, the Russians would have brought the frontline to the Dnepr River.
    Unfortunately, Von Manstein immediately recognized the schwerepunkt (centre of gravity) of the Russian assault. In his mind, he just have to pinch off the main assault. When it becomes clear that the main objective cannot be reached, the entire Russian operation will come apart at the seams.
    And thats what he did. He committed the strongest divisions available, the II SS & 4 Pz, to strike at both flanks of the Russian spearhead. And here we see the results.
    A classic reminder of a basic law of war: Know your enemy & know yourself.

  15. […] Georgy Zhukov believed the German Wehrmacht to be broken and kept pressure on Manstein’s forces, eventually retaking the strategic city of Kharkov. The Russians celebrated, not realizing that Von Manstein had been leading them into a trap. While […]

  16. Kiowhatta says:

    With hindsight being 20-20, Manstein did perform a minor miracle in stabilising and establishing the the pre-’42 summer campaign lines, but this victory was nothing more than a morale boost, giving the German high command false hope that a decisive blow could still be dealt, whilst almost forgetting the massive numbers of men, materiel, resources and land lost in the Soviet winter counter offensives.
    Again, with 20-20 hindsight, and in a rare gesture of giving operational final say in the coming 1943 spring offensive, Hitler sought Manstein’s thoughts.
    We know there were two – the pinching out of the Kursk salient (which Manstein insisted must be pursued immediately) or what Manstein thought would surely be a heavy blow in Army Group Souths area, to re-capture the resources in the Ukraine, threaten the Axis forces in the Crimea, and South was perceived as the weakest, most exhausted units having been involved in the previous heavy fighting.
    Both could have succeeded has Manstein been able to be completely free of Hitler’s anxieties and legitimate political concerns.
    Kursk – though under-strength, and refusal from army group Centre to be involved, surprise and speed were still the Wehrmacht’s greatest allies – if a thrust from Army Group south (now backed up by the powerful II SS panzer Corps, along with 48th panzer corps, 1st and 4th Panzer armies (under strength) was supported by Kluges army group Centre with 2nd Army, 9th Army, GrossDeutschland and more.
    An early pincer strike would have proven costly but without time for defence in depth, an certainly not expecting a Wehrmacht offensive so quickly, it would have fared much better than the lambs to the slaughter of Zitadelle.

    As for the Southern ‘Backhand slap’, this would have ushered in an almost completely new operational and strategic move by the Germans. By 1943, the Soviets were all too familiar with the regimented tactics of blitzkrieg – right down to the time of the pre attack artillery bombardment, followed by Stuka dive bomb attacks, then armored vanguards probing for weakspots to punch through, then the pincer move, bypassing strongpoints, with the mobile infantry and regualr infantry catching up to complete the encirclement. (In fact it could be argued that Fall Blau produced so few prisoners because the soviet high command had worked out the typical precise on time launching of an German attack.

    Since the Soviets had now learnt- and developed there own ‘Deep Battle’ operational doctrine, blitzkrieg was and had been surpassed. It was old news.
    So Mansteins ‘elastic defense’, giving ground until the armored spearheads had overstretched themselves (also favored by Model) was part of a desperate need to evolve and adapt to the new situation whereby the enemy was no longer overwhelmed by combined arms warfare.
    But as we know, after the failure of Kursk, Hitler retreated into a state of romantic medieval warfare – where every man struggled to give his last breath and lat bullet to save the Fatherland.

    If Hilter has placed competent leaders in overall charge of operations as late as The Spring thaw in the East in ’43, I see a very different outcome in that theatre, not necessarily a victory, but neither a catastrophic defeat.

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