MAN STEIN'S COUNTER-OFFENSIVE
WHEN it is possible to look back upon the war in Europe, it may be found that the defeat of the remarkable counter-offen- sive which Manstein has been conducting against Vatutin's advance
from Kiev has played a completely decisive part. It will be remem- bered that throughout the Russian offensive the German southern commander has been driven to batten up one sector by material taken from another. It can be recognised that the choice, granting the compulsion to make one, has on the whole been good. But it is equally obvious that the Riissian thrust about Kremenchug, taken with the blow of Tolbulthin below Zaporozhe, brought the possibility of disaster a stage nearer than ever before since Stalingrad. Manstein countered with the fierce and prolonged attack north of Krivoi Rog. This attack relieved the force in the eastern bend of the river from its immediate peril ; but, as the-sequel showed, the concentration about Krivoi Rog weakened the defence on the Kiev front, and on November 6th Vatutin, neatly cutting the northern and western communications, entered the Ukranian capital.
It seems certain that Manstein had kept in hand about Kiev a considerable armoured force ; but the energy and skill of Vatutin's thrust placed him in a bad tactical position, and his concentration was not strong enough either to resist or counter the Russian blow. But he saw that he might well make a virtue of necessity. Driven to draw off towards the south-west and west, he deliberately con- nived at the exploitation of Vatutin's success towards the west. He dare not permit it to develop towards the south-west, since that way lay the Odessa railway and the prospect of his forces farther east being cut off completely. There was a broad analogy between the position at that moment and the situation that developed after the counter-attack at Stalingrad. There, of course, the Germans were concentrated across the river, whereas here they were in the bend of the Dnieper. Nevertheless, if we take the Kremenchug thrust for the movement through Serafunovich and the Kiev advance for the Middle Don offensive, there was a roughly similar position. The Serafimovich attack cut off Stalingrad, with the assistance of the southern blow, and the Middle Don offensive removed all possi- bility of relief from the west.
Manstein determined to allow the advance through Kiev to develop towards the west, so that he would find the conditions favourable to a real counter-offensive. He did not wish merely to check the Russian offensive. His aim was much more ambitious. It was to break through, recover Kiev, take the Kremenchug thrust from the rear and move northwards in the rear of the advance across the Dnieper and Pripet. What a prospect it was! If he were successful he might not only check the onset of the Russian winter offensive, but might even inflict on the Russian armies a defeat that would give the Wehrmacht a prolonged breathing-space. On the other hand, he risked a still strong armoured force, and might precipitate the immediate and deadly crisis that would spell either complete or partial disaster.
Kiev fell on November 6th. The following day Fastov followed, and one of Vatutin's columns moved towards the south-west towards the Bug and the Odessa railway. In a few days Manstein counter- attacked with sufficient force to shepherd the Russians away from this critical direction. In exactly a week from the fall of Kiev Zhitomir was taken, and the Russians had advanced some eighty-five miles in seven days. It was, perhaps, two days later, less than five weeks ago, that Manstein, marshalling his armoured force of eight or ten divisions, struck against the western and southern fringe of the Russian advance. The counter-offensive was concentrated over a sector of little over twenty miles, and on November 17th the Russians saw the wisdom of readjusting their positions. Strong concentrations can count on securing initial successes, and Manstein had determined to exact full value for the expenditure of his force. The tactical position favoured him ; but it was noticeable that, from the first, Vatutin met the challenge with skilful detachment. The very day that the first withdrawal was carried out he captured Korosten, an even more valuable junction than Zhitomir. The next day he struck north and took Ovruch. When, therefore, he evacuated Zhitomir on the 19th, less than a week from its capture, he was holding a most important strip of the German lateral com- munications. The success of Manstein at that moment can be gauged from the fact that, even a few days later, the counter-offensive did not extend beyond Chemyakhov, twelve miles north of Zhitomir. But on November 23rd Brusilov began to appear in the com- muniqués. That small town lies sonic forty miles east of Zhitomir, and on that day the Russians withdrew again. Korosten suddenly entered the limelight on the 25th, and on the last day of the month it was announced that it had been evacuated. The counter-offensive had been running for about a fortnight.
After this came a pause, and then Manstein resumed his attempt to secure something more than a local tactical success. Once again there was the familiar concentration of tanks and infantry ; but the place which figured in the communiqués was Chernyakhov, a singular area when both Zhitomir and Korosten had been evacuated. On December 7th Vatutin readjusted his positions again, and the next day it was stated that the area of assault was "north-east of Chernyakhov." Again several places were abandoned by the Russians. Two days later Mahn had sprung into the limelight. This town, which lies just off the Korosten-Kiev railway, might well be described as "north-east of Chernyakhov." It is actually thirty- five miles distant. But the attacks south of Malin appeared to be unfruitful until the Russians evacuated Radomisl, and that seems to be the present end of the story.
After just over four weeks' heavy fighting Manstein has shorn off the western end of the Kiev bulge. With a certain poetic licence it might be said that the Germans had got half-way to Kiev, since Brusilov is about that distance from the capital. But, according to the correspondents, the Germans have lost in destroyed tanks up to about the equivalent of eight divisions, and, of course, they have lost otherwise very heavily. They have recovered Korosten, which is useful ; but the lateral line is still blocked. They might claim to have held up the development of the winter offensive for a few weeks ; but that is a doubtful contention, since the turn of the season would have imposed a check in any case. But what otherwise have they gained? They claim to have captured a considerable number of guns, but that means little. They have lost in the deterioration of the position about Gomel and Mogilev advantages that may be of great consequence later on. A fresh Russian offensive is now reported from Nevel. And, worst of all, the communications in the bend of the Dnieper have deteriorated vitally. Znamenka has gone, and now Cherkassy.
This last means, in effect, that a direct and immediate threat to • Manstein's right flank, operating against the Kiev salient, has been opened. Latent in the first moves across the river at Cherkassy, This has now matured. Whetlizr the collapse of this extremely strong position has come because Manstein has now had to withdraw troops from it for the Kiev salient, or it has fallen owing to the prior with- drawal, cannot be said for certain. On general grounds it seems more likely that the "robbing Peter to pay Paul" has once again proved unsatisfactory to both. It seems drat, for the present at -least, Manstein has been held in the Kiev bridgehead. The excellent Riussian artillery has taken its toll, and it would be risky indeed to continue challenging it. If the offensive has been abandoned it can be seen that no glimpse of anything commensurate with the cost has yet appeared. If it should go farther it may fare worse.
It is pertinent to point out here that the only feasible explanation of the German strategy is the resolve to fight as skilfully and parsi- moniously as possible a prolonged defensive against the Allies, inflicting upon them such losses that they will weary, and then launch a counter-offensive. Take this Manstein counter-offensive as a sample. Does it suggest the grasp and power to carry out that strategy effectively? It seems rather a waste of effort, except on the understanding that Manstein was compelled to scrape together his reserves and attack to save himself from imminent disaster. He has gained a breathing-space at a stiff price.
But in the end the counter-offensive is difficult to interpret. The Russians move westward at a rate of over twelve miles a day ; the Germans rejoin at less than a mile per day! The Russians seem to have stolen the pattern of Blitzkrieg from the inventors, who can no longer operate it. Dittmar has recently suggested that Hitler's control of the German strategy can only be explained mystically. But if we were dealing with military control, instead of the direction of a demagogue, would it not appear that, now at least, Manstein has fallen back on holding the pivot that may permit him to withdraw his eastern troops to the Bug and ultimately to the Dniester? The original inspiration of the counter-offensive was entirely different. But perhaps somewhere about the end of the first week of this month, when Manstein drew his second breath, the purpose had perforce to be changed since the Cherkassy flank was beginning to waver. That would seem a rational explanation of a very great expenditure of force.