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233 CHAPTER TWELVE Third Winter of the War The campaigns of late 1943 through May 1945 were almost continuous, punctuated only by brief pauses while the Soviet war machine gathered itself for another major offensive. This period, known to Soviet scholars as the Third Period of War, witnessed the final maturity of both armed forces. It is therefore appropriate to examine the relative strengths of the two antagonists before resuming the operational history of the war. THE GERMAN DECLINE After Kursk, the strength and combat effectiveness of the German armies in the East entered a period of almost constant decline. Periodic influxes of new conscripts and equipment, especially for the mechanized units and the Waffen SS, gave the defenders the means to conduct local counterattacks, some of which, especially in Romania during the spring of 1944, were quite successful. Yet, these attacks were steadily less effective, due to both the growing sophistication of the Soviet troops and the steady decay in the level of German training and equipment. The German infantry formations were even more emaciated than their mechanized counterparts. The six-battalion infantry division was largely helpless against a Soviet mobile group. Many divisions simply fought as division groups, with strengths not much larger than a regiment. In December 1943, after much discussion, Heinz Guderian won his case to have an older model of Czech tank chassis reconfigured as a self-propelled tank destroyer (the Jagdpanzer 38t “Hetzer,” joining the Sturmgeschütz III [StuG III] assault gun, both armed with 75mm guns). Unfortunately for German infantrymen , there were never enough tank destroyers or even large-caliber towed guns to equip more than one-third of each division’s antitank unit.1 On the positive side of the ledger, the introduction of large quantities of panzerfaust (handheld antitank weapons) in late 1943 offered a relatively cheap way to destroy or damage large number of Soviet tanks. Tanks themselves became relatively scarce. The authorized size of a tank company declined from twenty-two in 1939 to seventeen (admittedly superior ) vehicles by 1943. Lack of spare parts limited maintenance efforts even 234 Chapter Twelve for those tanks that were available. On 10 March 1944, for instance, when Marshal Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front captured a German depot at Uman’ in the Ukraine, it found some 300 immobilized German tanks, most of them awaiting parts.2 Moreover, Germany’s chronically inadequate supplies of fuel limited all motorized and mechanized movement; Allied bombing of oil fields and refineries only exacerbated this problem. The steady withdrawal of the Luftwaffe’s fighters and 88mm guns to defend the Reich, in conjunction with the growing effectiveness of the Red Air Force, made the German troops equally vulnerable to air attacks. Light antiaircraft batteries eventually appeared in panzer and motorized divisions, but the average infantry formation had little effective air defense. Germany’s warring bureaucracies made strenuous efforts to overcome these equipment problems. In October 1943, Albert Speer had reached agreement with Heinrich Himmler to cooperate in maximizing industrial production from Germany. Addressing a meeting of Nazi party officials in Posen on 6 October, the two leaders spoke bluntly of the need for total mobilization , demanding the same type of dedication to production that had been involved in the ghastly genocide then reaching its crescendo. In practice, however, Speer had already achieved about all that was possible with regard to production, especially given the strain of Allied bombing and the growing proportion of the economy supporting the military.3 By the end of 1944, foreigners made up 22.1 percent of German agricultural labor, 24.9 percent of industrial workers, and 11.2 percent of government and security forces.4 German factories continued to churn out weapons, but they lacked the labor and raw materials needed to offset the capacity of their American and Soviet counterparts. SOVIET FORCE STRUCTURE AND DOCTRINE By contrast, the Third Period of War marked the full development of Soviet force structure, equipment, and operational and tactical concepts. Before considering this development, it is worth recalling that the Soviets, like the Germans, suffered from severe manpower shortages. The staggering civilian and military casualties of the war, the large factories needed to maintain weapons production, and the demands of rebuilding the shattered lands reclaimed from the Germans all strained the supposedly inexhaustible supply of Soviet manpower. The manpower needed to build new mechanized and artillery units could come only by reducing the number of replacements provided to rifle units. Moreover...


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