Zhukov, Manstein, and their Masterful Battles of the Eastern Front by Cheezy the Wiz Wars are started by politicians, fought by men, and dictated by generals. To understand the course of a war, it is important to understand its generals. On the Eastern Front of the European Theater of World War II, two generals came to the fore as being the most capable, the most influential, and most studied of the conflict: Marshals Erich von Manstein of Germany, and Georgy Zhukov of the Soviet Union. Through these men, their political masters’ ambitions on the battlefield were sought. Three specific battles in particular are worthy of examination in any prudent comparative study of these two men: for Marshal von Manstein, the Third Battle of Kharkov, in February and March 1943, stands above the rest as his greatest field maneuver; for Marshal Zhukov, his defense of the Russian capital of Moscow during the fall of 1941 and winter of 1942. However, these men also had the fortune of directly opposing one another on the field of battle in July and August 1943, at the climactic battle of Kursk, in the heartland of the Soviet Union. By examining these three battles and the genius behind them, we hope to gain a better understanding of these two pivotal figures in military, and world, history. The military history of Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov begins in the First World War. Zhukov fought as a non-commissioned officer in a cavalry unit: the Novgorod Dragoons. During his service he was awarded two Orders of St. George, the highest Czarist military decoration. When civil war broke out in 1918, Zhukov joined the Red Army, and fought at Tsaritsyn in 1919. It was here that he first met two men who would become pivotal in his life: Josef Stalin and Semyon Timoshenko, who would be his senior officer both during the civil war, and in 1941 at the outset of the German invasion. During the civil war, Zhukov rose to the position of squadron commander. After the war, in 1928, he entered into the Frunze Military Academy, the Soviet General Staff School. While there, he studied under the German general Hans von Seeckt. During the 1930s, he was sent to Spain to observe German, Italian, and Russian armored tactics in combat; he also was part of a delegation sent to China to study Japanese military techniques. These two experiences, in addition to his staff schooling, would greatly aid Zhukov in expanding his understanding of battlefield tactics and strategy, but would also expose him to the battlefield habits of other nations he would one day face on the field. In July 1938, Marshal Zhukov took command of the Soviet 1st Army Group in Khalkhin-Gol, on the Mongolian frontier with Japan. There he commanded the Soviet forces in an undeclared war with the Japanese for several weeks. It was here that he was able to develop and refine his strategic style. The definitive “Zhukov style” is a time consuming, yet effective method, if certain circumstances are provided. While maintaining a defensive posture, Zhukov stockpiled vast reserves of men and materiel until he obtained a definitive superiority of fire and manpower. When this buildup was complete, he threw his enormous numerical superiority into the fray, quickly smashing the enemy and scattering them. It is this pattern that Zhukov would use again and again throughout his military career. At Khalkhin-Gol, Zhukov demonstrated another of his defining traits: a willingness to take human losses. “If we come to a minefield,” he said, “our infantry attack exactly as if it were not there…the losses we get from personnel mines we consider only equal to those we would have gotten from machine guns and artillery if the Germans had chosen to defend the area with strong bodies of troops instead of minefields.” Historian John Erickson described the Khalkhin-Gol operation as “brilliant but costly.” Unfortunately for his men, this was another of Zhukov’s battlefield patterns. When the Winter War with Finland broke out, Zhukov was sent to be Marshal Timoshenko’s Chief of Staff. After that short but disastrous war was over, many office positions were shuffled around as the Soviet military leadership realized its outdated system of warfare. Through this restructuring, Timoshenko became Defense Commissar, and Zhukov received Timoshenko’s position in Kiev. It was here that that Zhukov met Nikita Khrushchev, the future Premier of the Soviet Union, who was at the time merely in charge of the Party branch in the Ukrainian capital. In January 1941, Marshal Kiril Meretskov botched a report to Stalin on a previous war games session and so, in Stalin’s famous way of doing things, he appointed Zhukov as the Chief in Staff of the High Command, immediately depriving Meretskov of this position. It was this position which Zhukov occupied on June 22, 1941, when Operation Barbarossa began. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was destined to be a general before he was born. Not only were his father and uncle generals, but his grandfather had commanded an army corps during the Franco-Prussian War. He was also closely related to Paul von Hindenburg, the Prussian Generalfieldmarschall and second President of the Weimar Republic. The young Manstein entered the corps of cadets at Plön in 1900, and the War Academy in 1913, having been commissioned and promoted to lieutenant in that time period. While serving on the Western Front, he was severely wounded and returned to service in 1915 as a staff officer, where he remained for the duration of the war. After the war was over, he helped in the formation of the Reichswehr, and began to rise through the ranks. In 1938, he attained the rank of brigadier general. In 1939, he served as Chief of Staff to Karl Rudolph Gerd von Rundstedt during Operation Fall Weiβ. After the invasion of Poland, he then cooperated with von Rundstedt and Guderian in forming and reforming the plans for Operation Fall Gelb, the invasion of France. The strategy their work produced came to be called the “Manstein Plan.” Because of its enormous success, Hitler had him promoted to General, and placed him in command of the 56th Panzer Corps. When Operation Barbarossa began on 22 June, 1941, Manstein’s corps enjoyed considerable success, penetrating deep into Russian-occupied Poland. In September, he was given command of the 11th Army, and charged with the task of taking the Crimean Peninsula and the impregnable fortress-city of Sevastopol. After his completion of this task in July 1942, he received a promotion to Generalfieldmarschall, and sent to produce similar results in the siege of Leningrad. His stay in the north would not last long, however, as he was then sent south to command the newly organized Army Group Don. Here he was charged with two orders of duty: first, he must aid in the salvation of Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, imbedded deep in the Caucasus range but quickly making for the Don River; second, he must relieve Paulus’ 6th Army trapped inside Stalingrad. While he was unable to reach Paulus in time to prevent capitulation, he prevented the capture of Rostov until most of Hoth’s forces were evacuated, preventing an even greater tragedy than that which had befallen the Stalingrad front. His work with Army Group Don was widely acclaimed, and may have kept Germany in the war. In the towns surrounding Moscow in the fall of 1941, Zhukov prevented catastrophe by saving the Russian capital, and bringing the Germans juggernaut to a halt. The costs in manpower and machines were astounding, but their sacrifice bought the Russian valuable time, and saved the Soviet Union from collapse during the first winter of the Great Patriotic War. Marshal Zhukov’s entry into this theater began on July 30, 1941, one month after the German invasion began. Zhukov was placed in command of the Reserve Front, many miles behind the active front. Such a creation is a common Russian military practice. The function of this force was to act a breakwater to enemy penetrations of the main front and, if there were no penetrations, to deliver a counterthrust. Zhukov’s forces constituted six full armies, centered on the town of Rzhev. These forces were to halt a German advance toward Moscow should the city of Smolensk, the “gateway to Moscow,” fall. On August 9, this function was put to the test. Zhukov’s front successfully stemmed the German advance, and bogged down Army Group Center just west of Rzhev. The German offensive on the Bryansk Front, to the south of Rzhev, was renewed on September 30, when several tank units arrived from the Leningrad front. The Russian forces assigned to halt this offensive numbered twelve armies. The total Russian forces in the region constituted a force of 800,000 men, 770 tanks, and 9150 guns. This incredibly massive concentration of forces constituted 40% of all Russian troops at the time, and 35% of all tanks and planes. Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Center was clearly superior, however, totaling more than one million men, 1,700 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 19,000 artillery pieces, complimented by the Second Air Fleet under Kesselring. In anticipation of this massive assault, Zhukov began the construction of massive fortifications on the approaches to Moscow, in the city itself, and on the outskirts. On October 3, the Bryansk Front collapsed when Heinz Guderian took the undefended city of Orel, spreading chaos through the Russian lines. The night of October 4-5 Zhukov described as being “the most alarming of the war” This was because the Russian High Command had no contact with the front lines at all; by the time contact was re-established, the Germans had wedged between the 43rd and 24th Armies, and a 15-mile long armored column was moving east unmolested towards Moscow. At this time, there were no Russian units between them and Moscow. Stalin and Zhukov realized something must quickly be done, so reserve units were quickly brought up to defend the most essential roads to the city; however, these units only totaled 14 infantry divisions, 16 tank brigades, and 40 artillery regiments, a decidedly inadequate force for proper defense. This would have to do, though, until more reserves could be raised, or the troops from the Far East arrived, and for the fortifications around Moscow to be completed. By mid-October, four new armies had been raised, creating an additional 90,000 men for defense. These new forces were concentrated around the flat westerly approaches to Moscow. The time to raise these units had been bought by the extended resistance of the surrounded field armies on the Bryansk and Western fronts, holding on for dear life. These stubborn units tied up vast numbers of German forces that could have otherwise been used to hasten the drive against Moscow. They bought Zhukov valuable time to organize a real defense of the city. The German advance inexorably continued, however. The eastern end of Army Group Center advanced to the city of Tula, on the southern approaches to Moscow. Fiery and stubborn defense prevented German occupation of the city and tied down their right flank. The resistance of Tula, Zhukov argued, saved Moscow more than anything, and Moscow’s title of “Hero City” is just as much deserved by Tula. When Guderian failed to take the city in December, he ordered his forces to establish defensive positions, writing that “The offensive on Moscow has ended. All the sacrifices and efforts of our brilliant troops have failed. We have suffered a serious defeat.” Through the end of October and beginning of November, Zhukov was able to organize another 5 divisions purely from the Muscovite populace. An additional 100,000 were trained to fight, but not organized into units. The Russians obtained valuable time for reorganization during the muddy season at the end of October. However, rapidly falling temperatures yield snowfall, and the muds freeze in early November. This mud, however short-lived, was responsible for the loss of huge numbers of mechanical equipment, especially tanks and trucks. By mid-November, a double-echeloned ring of defenses surrounded Moscow, and the troops occupying them, including remnants of the surrounded armies to the west, held a much more defensible position than before; this was fortunate, for they first encountered German forces on the 16th of November. These defense lines included 1928 artillery emplacements, miles of barbed wire, and anti-tank ditches and obstacles. When German forces finally met these works in mid-November, they succeeded in holding the line against the Nazis. As soon as they were stopped, Stalin asked Zhukov to go on the offensive. Zhukov insisted on more men, though, as his reserves were depleted. He requested 2 more armies and 200 tanks, which Stalin delivered to him by the end of November. This is again fortunate, for the final German assault began on 1 December. The German thrust for Moscow from the northwest was finally halted on 4 December, after taking heavy losses from artillery and minefields on the very outskirts of the city. Heavy snows further inhibited movements, albeit for both sides. Having once again stopped the Germans, Stalin ordered a counterstroke, knowing the Germans were ill-equipped to deal with the harsh Russian winter, and that they had sustained enormous losses. Of the forthcoming weak offensives, the only one which achieved any success is on the Northwest Front, beyond the city of Ostrashkov, and there only due to the lack of a contiguous German defense line. Through the cold January on 1942, the Western, Kalinin, and Istra fronts slowly advanced west towards Rzhev, fueled by new levies and reserves from the East. In March and April, a final push for Rzhev failed, bringing the Russian advance to a halt. Over the course of the winter, Zhukov slowly pushed the Germans back a distance of 65 miles. German losses sustained in the campaign were staggering: 500,000 men, 1300 tanks, 2,500 gun, and 15,000 trucks. Zhukov employed many of his characteristic tactics in this battle. The most apparent of these is the pressing advance, forcing forward without regard for losses sustained. He believed human life to be the necessary price to win a war. While that is true, it is possible that Zhukov’s understanding of this maxim was too literal. It is also true; however, that Zhukov received an extraordinary amount of pressure from Stalin during the operations around Moscow, especially to go on the offensive immediately upon halting the German advance. While Zhukov protested this insistence, it appears to be due to strategic realities, rather than humanitarian sympathy for his men. It is true that Zhukov’s actions saved the capital, and arguably the Soviet Union, but to argue that the ends justify the means is to disregard the value of the individual; in this light, these two have more in common with their nemesis in Berlin than with their comrades on the ground. The Third Battle of Kharkov is often cited as being Marshal von Manstein’s crowning strategic achievement, though it is not his most widely known in the West. His operations during March 1943 are characteristic of classic Manstein tactics: swift, decisive, and exact, delivering a deadly blow to the enemy’s most vulnerable point, though inferior in numbers to that enemy. The Third Battle of Kharkov, hereafter referred to simply as The Battle of Kharkov, began with the Soviet “Operation STAR,” a drive south from Voronezh aimed at establishing bridgeheads across the Dnepr River near Denepropetrovsk and Zaprozhye, in the central Ukraine. The ultimate goal of this was to reach the Black Sea and outflank most of Army Group B, who was deeply dug in on the Mius River. These forces driving southwest from Belgorod were outflanked, however, by Manstein’s Army Group Don, driving west from the Mius River area, and forced back to positions around Kharkov. Even though the Russians had been forced back into their salient, their forces were still drastically overextended; they possessed no significant reserves to back up their line, and the troops that were available were stretched very thinly, and assigned to areas much too large for them to properly defend. The only remaining Russian hard point lay in a small salient immediately south of Kharkov, containing the 3rd Russian Tank Army. It was around this hard point, and the city of Kharkov, the fourth largest city in Russia, that Manstein would construct victory. Manstein’s plan first involved amassing forces in a manner similar to Zhukov’s at Khalkhin-Gol, though with considerably more urgency time-wise. The new units he received were not only fresh and well-rested units; their ranks also included Waffen-SS divisions, including the Leibstandarte and Das Reich panzer grenadiers. When Manstein began his counteroffensive on 16 February, 1943, his drive consisted of two main thrusts: one to drive north and west of Kharkov, and one east. Normally, this westerly maneuver would have been precisely where 3rd Soviet Tank Army was, but instead, it found the 3rd Tank Army trapped inside a salient, having been moved southeast in preparation for an offensive of its own, and was thus flanked on both sides and pummeled into oblivion. Meanwhile, the left thrust made easy headway north, flanking Kharkov as the Leibstandarte entered the city to subjugate it. This northwesterly stroke also served to cut both 3rd Tank Army and Kharkov off from the 38th and 40th Armies deeper in the salient to the west. With Manstein’s quick penetration north, these two armies were faced with the possibility of being completely isolated and encircled, and, being unable to coordinate a strike with the 3rd Tank Army against Manstein’s left arm, were forced to hastily withdraw north and east, towards Kursk. Within days, the 3rd Tank Army was outflanked, surrounded, and liquidated. Manstein’s outstretched left arm, however, continued to march north, aiming for the city of Belgorod, an excellently defendable position if being attacked from the east, and thus a valuable prize for Manstein and the Germany Army. As the 38th and 40th Armies rejoined their comrades in the Kursk salient, a number of variables allowed the front to stabilize just north of Belgorod, and along the North Donets River. The Spring thaw was beginning, and the roads become very muddy and inhibit all forms of travel. In addition, by this time both sides had sustained considerable losses, and momentarily retired to lick their wounds. The Germans were also forced to consolidate their forces after the costly occupation of Kharkov. The front thus stabilized ironically at roughly the same position it was in the winter of 1941-42, before the German drive for Stalingrad began. Manstein was successful at Kharkov for a number of reasons, many of which were beyond his control. First, the morale of the German troops was much higher than their Russian counterparts. The German units were well-rested, while the Russian units had been on the front line since the breakout around Voronezh, months before. These units were tired, under-equipped, and far from their supply depots. In addition, several of the German units were elite units, including Hitler’s personal bodyguard, the Leibstandarte SS Adolph Hitler. Manstein’s victory at Kharkov was also very much of his own design. Manstein commanded in a manner similar to that of other German generals: a swift, decisive, penetrating blow often separated into several prongs, like a fork stabbing into the enemy’s lines. These prongs created mini-salients and allowed the creation of multiple pockets of resistance, isolating one unit from another and disrupting their ability to effectively counterattack. Further, because of the location of his strike, at the base of the Kharkov salient, he was able to place large numbers of Soviet troops in immediate danger; this was only exacerbated by his deep penetration movements. The ability to recognize the vulnerability of the enemy in conjunction with the presented opportunity such as that found in the Kharkov salient, and to then deliver the decisive blow needed to counteract the enemy’s advance and disrupt his forward momentum, is why Manstein stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of men who have ever commanded a fighting force. In his memoirs, Manstein traced his victory at Kharkov to the failure of Operation STAR. “…with the exception of Stalingrad,” he states, “the Soviet command never managed to coordinate strength and speed when hitting a decisive spot.” The Soviets invited disaster by being too ambitious in their advance west. Manstein’s riposte delivered a sobering blow to the Soviet command, and forced them to re-evaluate their goals for the upcoming year. It also isolated the Kursk salient, and set the stage for the climactic battle there in July and August 1943. The Kursk offensive, designated “Operation Citadel” by the German High Command, was the follow-up operation to Manstein’s fantastic riposte at Kharkov-Belgorod. However, much had happened since the German victory in March 1943. Tunisia had been lost, and the threat of an Allied landing in the West appeared more real than ever before. One of Germany’s chief allies, Rumania, had suffered the horrific loss of two field armies, and was in danger of soon seeking to quit the war. Germany and the Axis were in desperate need of a morale boost, and a new offensive operation in the east was demanded if they were to regain their lost prestige. This was the last year the Germans could hope to operate freely in Russia without being harassed by a large-scale mainland assault by the Allies in the West, and both Hitler and the OKH were desperate to improve their position as best they could during the upcoming summer offensive season. There were two possibilities of action for the German Army in the summer of 1943. The first was what is termed a defensive-offensive action. This required letting the Soviets strike first; when this happened, the Germans should conduct an elastic defense and give ground to the Russians, hoping to let them overextend, and then counterattack in turn, what Manstein referred to as “the backhand blow,” and beat them in open combat. The most likely place for this to occur was in the area of Army Group South, where Manstein was in command. The Russians had tried before to outflank the Mius River line and take the industrial heartland of the Donets-Dnepr basin, and it remained their most likely avenue of attack. There were two major disadvantages of this plan, however. First, it was entirely dependent on the Russians to act first. If the Russians took too long to attack, the Germans ran the risk of an allied landing in the west drawing valuable troops away from the front. In addition, waiting allowed the Russians time to consolidate their forces, replenish and re-arm, and to switch out beaten units for fresh reserves. Regardless, this was the course of action that much of the high command favored. However, Hitler was less than fond of giving up land, fearing it could turn into a rout, and so favors a different plan. Hitler’s plan was the other possibility: to go on the offensive, and take the initiative in the fight. This served to throw the Russians off-balance, if done so in a timely manner, and prevent an offensive by them. The best location of this attack was determined to be the Kursk salient, a large bulge in the Russian lines produced by the Kharkov operation, and centered in the industrial town of Kursk. Hitler decided to take the latter course of action. However, the Germans had first to re-equip their tired and depleted units; the Kharkov operation and cold winter months having taken their toll. This also gave them time to collect more of the new Panther and Tiger tanks, the only armor capable of toeing up to the Russian T-34s. Estimates given in March estimated the time for Citadel to come in mid-late May.