19 February – 15 March 1943

German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein titled his memoirs, published in 1955, Lost Victories. This was not an ironic title, for Manstein believed that with the right supreme commander, Germany might not have lost the war nor have squandered the successes he had managed to achieve for Hitler. Both during and after the war, his enemies agreed that Manstein was the finest operational commander the German army possessed.

Field Marshal Erich von Manstein (1887–1973) was born Erich von Lewinski, but changed his name when he was adopted by the von Manstein family. He became Germany’s most celebrated Second World War general, but had a difficult relationship with his supreme commander, Adolf Hitler.

Those qualities were displayed on numerous occasions, but no battle displayed them quite as fully as the sudden German counter-offensive in February 1943 after months of retreating, when Manstein’s panzer armies recaptured the Russian city of Kharkov and won back a large swathe of southern Russian territory against a surprised Red Army. This was perhaps the most poignant of those ‘lost victories’, for within months the German army was again in full retreat, never again to win a clear-cut battle.

Manstein was a tough, resolute, perceptive commander who flourished on manoeuvre warfare. He took risks, but won dividends. Best known for his contribution to the operational plan that destroyed the Franco-British front in 1940, Manstein had a professional confidence in what he did that contrasted sharply with his inexperienced supreme commander. Both men found it difficult to give way once they had arrived at a decision.

The leadership that Manstein displayed in what came to be called the Third Battle of Kharkov (the city had changed hands twice in the 1941–42 campaigns) was not simply that he understood the nature of the crisis facing his Army Group South after the retreat from Stalingrad and how it might be reversed, but in the fact that he had to argue his case against a sceptical and obstructive supreme commander.

A crisis loomed in late January 1943, as large Soviet forces from the Voronezh Front pushed into a gap that had opened up between Army Group Centre and Army Group Don (renamed South on 12 February). If successful, the Red Army might advance to the Black Sea and encircle the defending German armies in the south. Though Manstein asked for more reinforcements from static sections of the German-Soviet front further north, none arrived.

The Red Army recaptured Kursk and Belgorod and by mid-February was pushing into the Ukrainian capital of Kharkov. The commander of the SS panzer divisions holding the city disobeyed Hitler’s orders to hold fast and slipped out of the noose. He was sacked and replaced by General Werner Kempf, a successful tank commander.

In his memoirs, Manstein recalled that grim though his position looked, he could see the germ of an idea to reverse the situation. Both armies were exhausted, with many Soviet divisions down to only a few thousand men and limited numbers of tanks; German divisions, too, were fighting with a fraction of the tanks and armour they needed, but there were still panzer units available to him in the 1st and 4th Panzer Armies and the Army Detachment Kempf further north.

Dead Soviet troops lie among wrecked army vehicles in the ruined city of Kharkov, captured by the German Army in March 1943 after a lightning counterattack orchestrated by Field Marshal Erich von Manstein.

The 4th Air Fleet, under General Wolfram von Richthofen, was also strengthened with up to 1,000 aircraft for the operation. Manstein’s idea was to use the available armour to attack the long flank of the Soviet advance from north and south, then push on to retake the Kharkov area. The critical issue was to persuade Hitler that his plan would work.

On 17 February, Hitler arrived at Manstein’s southern headquarters at Zaporozhe on the River Dnepr, in southern Ukraine. For three days they argued about Manstein’s plan and the future of the southern front.

Hitler feared the coming of the rainy season, the rasputitsa, which might halt the whole plan; he wanted Kharkov recaptured first on grounds of prestige; he almost certainly wanted his view to prevail over Manstein’s for political reasons. After two days, Hitler finally agreed that the ‘defensive-offensive’ Manstein proposed could take place, though he insisted that Kharkov should be retaken. The morning of his flight back to his headquarters, a unit of Soviet tanks moved up the road towards the airport, and Hitler was flown off just 30 kilometres (20 miles) away from the nearest Russians.

The tanks near Zaporozhe stopped because they ran out of fuel. This was the furthest the Soviet offensive came. On 19 February, Manstein’s plan went into operation.

The extended Soviet armies, short of supplies and taking heavy losses, crumbled in a matter of days, pushed back by the 4th Panzer Army northwards towards Kharkov or into the German net. By 2 March, the German units counted 23,000 Soviet dead, 615 captured tanks and 9,000 prisoners.

The next blow was struck north towards Kharkov itself. Manstein wanted the SS panzer divisions under the command of Lieutenant General Paul ‘Papa’ Hausser (nicknamed as father of the Waffen-SS) to drive west of Kharkov and encircle it from the north. He did not want to risk a second Stalingrad in the ruined streets of the city. But Hausser ignored the instructions and sent his three SS panzer divisions, Totenkopf, Das Reich and Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, directly into the city from three directions.

Manstein thought he had done it to find favour with Hitler, but his Stalingrad fear proved misplaced and by 14 March the last pockets of Soviet resistance in the city were snuffed out. Hitler visited Manstein’s headquarters again on 10 March with victory in the battle assured. When he returned to Berlin, Hitler characteristically gave the impression that he had been the author of the success. Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, noted in his diary: ‘the Führer is very happy that he has succeeded in closing the front again’.

The battle was a triumph for Manstein’s sense of where and when to strike to maximize the impact even of weakened forces and the defensive-offensive, risky though it was if the rains had started early, probably postponed the Soviet victory on the Eastern Front by anything from six months to a year. It was his last ‘lost victory’.

The subsequent Battle of Kursk was lost despite Manstein, who had urged an earlier start before the Russians were dug in, but this time found Hitler adamantly against the idea. Time and again, Manstein recommended that Hitler should appoint a commander-in-chief in the Eastto ease his burden as supreme commander. He suggested it in February 1943 and again in September. In March 1944, Hitler had finally had enough and Manstein was sacked. Western commanders were keen to learn after the war was over how Manstein had succeeded at all, given the obstacles presented by Hitler, and he proved more than willing to oblige. Implicit in all he wrote is the belief that the war might have gone very differently under his high command. More recently, his record has been sullied by evidence of his endorsement of or indifference towards the many atrocities committed in the regions under his command in the East.