Byelorussia in the Fall of 1943 was not a lovely place to be; typically this rural Russian agrarian province would see piles of hay, feedstocks, some light industry, rail yards, lovely small cities like Minsk and farm animals at the edges of town bringing to market the things people live on. Bread. Milk. Goods. These days a dark smoky mist lingers. The stench of rotted flesh and burning bodies inundates the air. German soldiers, exhausted and reeling from staggering defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk fall back in order, and begin the horrific process of strategically robbing the pursuing Red Army of provisions. The policy was one third theft, and two thirds terror. With over three million Russian troops just to their East, the Germans begin the process of burning nearly one million tons of grain just in the Ukraine. A half million livestock were stolen, placed on trains and in carts and sometimes just herded with the retreating Germans. Rail lines were severed and factories are demolished and homes and villages where Russians might sleep soundly were all put to the torch. With little explanation and many times no living witnesses, Russians reclaim towns that have been under German thumbs for three years and find bodies everywhere. Efficiently executed with a single shot to the head, the Germans killed anyone who resisted, anyone who they believed was a party apparatchnik, any Jew. In many ways, it was the Germans who defeated themselves. Whilst continuing to execute Hitler’s feckless face saving attempts to stage any kind of victory, the Wehrmacht exited Russia with no grace at all. Vitiating every single thing they touched, they created enemies every step of the way. The Russians, now witness to the devastation that the Germans wrought in their own country were now duly enraged and more determined than ever to crush the Germans. Eighty thousand Ukranians volunteered to join the Red Army by the time Manstein fled out of the region with what was left of Army Group South.
The amount of Russian property expropriated required some 2,500 train-cars to transfer. Cars, trucks, machines, tractors, looms, anything worth having at all was taken, not the least of which was 200,000 head of cattle, 270,000 sheep, 153,000 horses, and 200,000 Soviet citizens herded into working groups, some who volunteered and some who were just forced to work at the excruciating details of carrying Manstein’s Booty Train back to Germany.
Von Manstein’s plan was to cut a 20 km wide swath of scorched earth west and north of the Dneiper in hopes that it would slow the Soviet advance. It would give him and his own troops a chance to pull back to a defensive line starting at Zaproche and stretching to Melitopol; and hopefully blunt the full on invasion of Germany by Russian troops.
Which brings us to the notion that the Russians’ best asset was Hitler’s micromanagement of the war effort. One could write a book on Hitler’s tactical mistakes, not the least of which was that Hitler’s generals all felt his refusal to let an army take a single step backwards and his determination to fight for every inch of ground tooth and nail was destroying them. Hitler’s refusal to let Von Paulus retreat from Stalingrad led to the encirclement and capture of the German 6th Army. But every move one way or another had to be approved from the top. Worse, the Montgomery had taken 275,000 Nazi soldiers prisoners in Tunisia, and the US had invaded Sicily. So Hitler suddenly decided to strip German tank units in the East of their armor and ship them into continental Europe to stop the Allied push. The new Sixth Army under Hollidt was one such depleted unit at a time when they desperately needed the firepower. Even the battle of Kursk was a badly managed and pointless offensive. Heinz Guderian asked Hitler, “Of what concern is it to anyone in the world that we take Kursk?”
To the Germans, the sudden appearance of huge troop formations and thousands of tanks was psychologically devastating. Many of these Germans had been fighting for three years and had fought for every bloody inch of ground they were standing on once before already. No matter how many Russians they killed, wounded captured, there always seemed to be ten more behind them, each one grimly determined to get revenge for the assault on Mother Russia. Many of the Red Guard troops had been previously hidden in Siberia by Stalin hoping to stave off an invasion of Russian by Japanese in Manchuria. Once he saw the Marines heading into Japan, Stalin knew the Japanese would have to use their Manchurian divisions to defend their own home. Ultimately Stalin moved the fresh, well trained, well equipped Siberian troops into the German rout to the west.
When they crossed the Donets region, Manstein told Hitler that he felt there was no strategic requirement to holding it. Once again, Hitler hemmed and hawed about it. His delays hurt German positions. His commanders were living in the present and Hitler was still reliving the victories over Poland and France.
A few of Hitler’s generals could get away with arguing with him. Rommel, Model, Manstein, and Guderian in particular. But micromanaging is a bad idea on a fast moving battlefield. Lt. General Ric Sanchez, during the Iraq occupation called Donald Rumsfeld “the 8000 mile screwdriver”. By the time the end of the screwdriver is fitted into the screw head, and Rumsfeld started turning it, the whole situation has changed. Hitler did this constantly. On the way to Stalingrad he changed his mind and ordered units to Moscow. Then he changed his mind and decided to get Stalin’s namesake city, stripping whole armies of armored corps and heading them into a new direction. It was a testament to how disciplined and well trained and motivated the Wehrmacht was that they accomplished these ephemeral goals so many times.
At the end of the day, it was the cavalier commands handed out by the Fuhrer combined with the scorched Earth policies that created a perfect storm of failure on the way back to Germany. Bad management all around.