World War II's Last German Victory Ended Up Being a Train Wreck

Daniel L. Davis

Key Point: Leadership in battle can mean everything.

To the Russians, the plan to liberate Ukraine held out the possibility of destroying the heart and soul of the German army, and with luck, bringing an early end to the war. The Soviet High Command, called the Stavka, ordered an attack into the Kharkov area where Manstein’s forces were defending using three main thrusts: the Voronezh, Southwestern, and Southern axis.

The Voronezh front consisted of the Fortieth, Sixty-ninth, and Third Tank Armies and was ordered to seize Kharkov. To the Stavka, this was a pursuit operation, having had the Germans on the run since Stalingrad. By mid-February, the advancing Soviets had retaken Kharkov. Russian intelligence had seen and identified many of German troop concentrations and—as Manstein had hoped—misinterpreted them as preparing for further withdrawals. As a result, the Russian high command ordered their troops in the center to push west with all haste—going deeper into the German trap.

Manstein had counted on the Russians being exclusively focused on advancing and wanted to foster their belief they were chasing a demoralized German foe. Based on previous experience, the German senior leaders expected the Russians to react badly to unexpected battlefield turns. In his famous description of German armored operations of World War II, “Panzer Battles,” Maj. Gen. F.W. von Mellenthin (Chief of Staff for Manstein’s Forty-Eighth Panzer Corps) said the Russian soldier is:

"carried on by the herd instinct and is therefore not able to endure a sudden change of a triumphant advance to an enforced and precipitate withdrawal. During the counterattack, we witnessed scenes of almost unparalleled panic among the Russians, to the astonishment of those who had experienced the stubborn, almost fanatical resistance the Russians put up in well-planned and efficiently organized defenses."

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