Operation Mars II

The fourth item of evidence is in the memoirs of Army General A.I. Gribkov, who as a captain on the General Staff took part in ‘Mars’. The corps he was attached to (Solomatin’s) fought for several days in encirclement, and after the remnants of it had managed to break through to the Soviet lines on 15 December, he and the corps commander were immediately taken to Zhukov, who conceded that the corps had suffered heavy losses, but said it had ‘fulfilled its task. The Germans did not venture to remove the tank divisions from your front and send them to Stalingrad.’ Here Zhukov may have been making the best of a bad job, but the view he expressed then is consistent both with what he had told Galitskiy before ‘Mars’ began, and, of course, with what actually happened.

The fifth item relates again to the differing contexts of ‘Mars’ and ‘Uranus’. It occurs in the preface Isayev provided to the Russian translation of Dr Glantz’s book, published in 2007. While not taking issue with the main theme of the book, he cites criticisms of ‘Mars’ in the memoirs of General A.I. Radzievsky, who served in it as Chief of Staff of the 2nd Guards Cavalry Corps, and who wrote:

The concept of ‘Mars’ consisted of fragmenting the defence in the Rzhev salient area by eight blows of Western and four blows of Kalinin Front, destroying the forces defending it, then emerging into the Smolensk area. Simultaneously Kalinin Front undertook an offensive at Velikiye Luki and Novosokolniki with the forces of 3rd Shock Army. Because overall thirteen shock groupings were created, most of them … were small, three–four divisions with a mechanised or tank corps. The multiplicity of blows, more than half of which were for pinning-down, led to dispersion of firepower. Although the artillery density of some groupings reached 70–85 or even 100 guns and mortars per kilometre on the breakthrough-sector, half of them were mortars, which could fire only on the forward positions.

Isayev went on to support Radzievsky’s criticism, noting that the strongest blow at Stalingrad was dealt by a group of mobile forces comprising two tank corps and a cavalry corps, supported by 632 field guns, 297 anti-tank guns and 1,609 mortars, whereas the assault force of the 20th Army in ‘Mars’ comprised only one tank and one cavalry corps, supported by 525 field guns, 175 anti-tank guns and 1,546 mortars. The two points made here are, first there were many blows but none was very strong, and secondly that despite the availability of larger forces the strongest attack mounted in ‘Mars’ was not nearly as strong as its counter part at Stalingrad. Both Radzievsky and Isayev implicitly assume that this resulted from bad planning; apparently neither asked himself why Zhukov and Vasilevsky, who conceived both operations, and who directed their detailed planning, and Stalin, whose approval they received for both, devised such different plans for two operations to be conducted within the same time frame. They opted for ‘Uranus’ to open with three very heavy blows and to seek very quick results. For the first phase five tank corps (1st, 4th and 26th from the north, 4th and 13th from the south) were employed to achieve the encirclement, while elements of six armies (from north to south the 21st, 65th, 24th, 66th, 62nd and 64th) maintained pressure along the existing front line to prevent the Germans disengaging. Encirclement was achieved in four days and extended westwards for another seven, so that by 30 November the new German front line was at minimum about 65 and at maximum 110 kilometres (42–70 miles) from the trapped forces. These major results were achieved in a mere twelve days, but when Galitskiy put forward a plan to achieve a much more modest result in a similar time-period, Zhukov flatly rejected it, and told Galitskiy his main task was not to capture the objective but to pin down enemy forces so that they could not be sent south.

As Radzievsky noted, ‘Mars’ opened with thirteen blows smaller than any in ‘Uranus’, and Isayev confirmed this. However, neither they nor Glantz considered why the same three men who masterminded and controlled both operations planned them so differently. In Isayev’s foreword to Glantz’s book he compared ‘Mars’ with Brusilov’s offensive of 1916, which achieved initial success by ignoring convention and attacking everywhere, then stated that ‘what worked in a limited way against the Austrians in 1916 was completely ineffective against the German Army of 1942; the difference was that the German reserves at Rzhev were motorised or received vehicular transport for transfers from one sector of the front to another…’183 Isayev then argued that ‘Zhukov strongly overestimated the possibilities of the Kalinin and Western fronts’ forces in proposing to carry out after ‘Mars’ a large-scale encirclement of Army Group Centre.’ Two points arise here. First, there is no evidence that any such follow-up to ‘Mars’ ever existed. Secondly, overestimating one’s own forces involves underestimating those of the enemy. Zhukov, preparing his third offensive against the Rzhev salient in eleven months, would hardly be likely to underestimate an enemy against whom both his previous offensives had achieved only limited and costly success. Is it not more likely, especially given what he told Galitskiy, that the conduct of ‘Mars’ as thirteen limited-strength operations was precisely calculated to keep the Germans too busy everywhere to disengage and thereby free forces for the south, but not so overwhelmed anywhere as to compel them to consider abandoning the salient – as noted above, they eventually did so, but too late to affect the situation at Stalingrad. That Soviet casualties in ‘Mars’ were so heavy was mainly due to the deliberate advance warning conveyed via Agent Max, about which Zhukov was not told. Sudoplatov did not say who authorised such an important leak, but in military matters the only higher authority than Zhukov was Stalin himself. Isayev mentions Max not at all, Glantz only briefly, and neither appears to have seen Sudoplatov’s disclosures about Max’s double-agent role and the purpose served by his 4 November message.

Isayev’s comparison of ‘Mars’ with Brusilov’s offensive of 1916 seems strained. There is nothing to suggest that Soviet planning was influenced by it, and if any lesson was drawn from it, it would surely be that too-early success can lead to disaster. Brusilov’s initial successes, achieved in June–August 1916, tempted Romania into declaring war on 27 August and seizing Transylvania from Austria-Hungary. That brought about an instant German riposte, which saw Romania defeated and almost totally occupied by the end of the year, and Russia’s strategic position far worse after than before Brusilov’s successes.

However, Isayev does give some attention to what might have happened if ‘Mars’ had not taken place. He noted that Manstein’s relief attempt was spearheaded by three panzer divisions, the full-strength 6th, transferred from France, and the much under-strength 17th and 23rd. If not ‘tied up’ by ‘Mars’, three more panzer divisions, the 12th, 19th and 20th, could have been added, and with six panzer divisions instead of three, the relief force might have got through. He also noted that postponement of Operation ‘Citadel’ from May to July (usually ascribed mainly to Hitler’s desire to have as many as possible of the new Tiger and Panther tanks) was also due to the time Model needed to restore the combat strength of divisions that had fought in ‘Mars’, and that not all of them could be restored by then. For example, the 1st Panzer Division did not return to the line until the autumn of 1943, the 20th Panzer Division had a combat strength of only 2,837 men on 4 July, the 6th Infantry Division only 3,121 on 2 July,184 both less than half the acceptable minimum for divisions about to fight a major battle.

A few other points in the argument about ‘Mars’ versus ‘Uranus’ merit attention. One is that during the 69 days between Zhukov’s and Vasilevsky’s first formulation of the Stalingrad counter-offensive plan on 12 September and its launching on 19 November, Zhukov spent 43 days in the Stalingrad area, versus only 18 days in Moscow (12–13 September, 3–6, 12–20, 26 and 29–30 October), eight (21–25 and 27–29 October) at the Kalinin Front,185 one of the two allocated to ‘Mars’, and none at all specifically at the other, the Western Front. As noted above, its HQ was close enough to visit from Moscow, but even if he spent half his Moscow days there, the total of 17 ‘Mars’-associated versus 52 ‘Uranus’-associated days still points to ‘Uranus’ as the more important of the two.

Because losses in ‘Mars’ were heavy and the stated objectives not achieved, most Soviet-era accounts, like Zhukov’s own, said little or nothing about it, and the study Grif Sekretnosti Snyat (‘Secret Stamp Removed’, hereafter GSS), an otherwise comprehensive listing of most major Soviet operations, defensive or offensive, with numbers of troops engaged and details of the losses incurred, did not even mention it. Generals who took part in ‘Mars’, such as Getman and Solomatin, truthfully described their difficulties and failures in their memoirs, but, as Dr Glantz rightly pointed out, Soviet-era censorship prevented the full story being told. However, Sudoplatov’s disclosure that the Germans were warned of ‘Mars’ in advance surely means the ‘full story’ would have been withheld even if the operation had been a complete success, for fear of incidentally disclosing the fact that the many thousands killed in it had been deliberately sacrificed to ensure the success of ‘Uranus’. Zhukov’s counterfactual references probably reflected his chagrin at its relative failure, contrasted with the successes achieved by his lower-profile colleague Vasilevsky and his former superior Rokossovsky at Stalingrad. However, none of this justifies contending either that ‘Mars’ was the winter’s main operation, or that it was of equal status with ‘Uranus’, or that this was subsequently concealed merely because ‘Uranus’ succeeded and ‘Mars’ did not.

The argument also rests on some other factors susceptible to explanations different from those offered. It is true that the 1.89 million troops, 3,375 tanks and huge numbers of guns and aircraft of the Kalinin and Western Fronts were much more than the 1.14 million men and 1,463 tanks available to the three Fronts (Don, Stalingrad and South-West) conducting ‘Uranus’, but it would surely be surprising if it were not so. Behind the Kalinin and Western Fronts was Moscow, the most important target in the country, and in front of them was Army Group Centre, the most powerful of the invading forces. The totals cited also included the manpower and weapons of the Moscow Defence Zone, which took no part in ‘Mars’, and suffered only 376 combat deaths in the whole of 1942.

Though the German offensive plan for 1942 did not even mention Moscow, the Soviet General Staff’s assessment of tasks for that summer (presumably influenced by the German deception campaign) defined four axes as under threat, and defence of the Moscow axis as the most important task. So if Zhukov believed the key to victory must be the destruction of Army Group Centre, he was not alone. Deception campaigns by both sides also played their part. In 1942 the Germans for long prevented Soviet reserves from being sent south by conducting Operation ‘Kremlin’, suggesting Moscow was their real target, and the Soviets, through Max, leaked information on ‘Mars’, including the fact that Zhukov would be in command. The German defeats at his hands at Leningrad and Moscow, the narrow margin by which they had survived his second offensive at Rzhev, in July–August 1942, and Stalin’s appointment of him as Deputy Supreme Commander in August would all naturally induce them to view, as the Soviet planners meant them to, any operation he headed as more important than one conducted by the far less prominent Vasilevsky.

It would also seem axiomatic that when a disinformation campaign mentions four out of five planned offensives, the one it does not mention must be the most important. There are also three problems with Glantz’s table that allocates 56 infantry divisions to ‘Mars’ and the hypothetical follow-up operation, ‘Jupiter’, versus 52 to ‘Uranus/Saturn’. The first problem is that since ‘Saturn’ (modified as ‘Little Saturn’) took place but ‘Jupiter’ did not (there is no positive evidence that it even existed, as Dr Glantz admitted),188 the 19 divisions and 5 tank corps claimed as allocated to it should be deducted, leaving the total involved in ‘Mars’ at 37 divisions and 6 tank corps – not much more than the 30 German divisions manning the Rzhev salient. The second problem is that although the 66th and 2nd Guards Armies are mentioned as supporting ‘Uranus’, they are not included in the totals of forces allocated to it. Each had six divisions, and the 66th Army was in action from the very first day of ‘Uranus’, while the 2nd Guards was sent from reserve in early December and dispatched to the Myshkova river to repel Manstein’s attempt to relieve Stalingrad. It is hard to see why twelve divisions that saw a great deal of action in ‘Uranus/Saturn’ are excluded from the totals for it, while nineteen divisions that saw no action at all are included in those for ‘Mars/Jupiter’. The third problem is that Grif Sekretnosti Snyat189 lists the Stalingrad offensive operation as involving not 52 divisions but 74, far more than the 56 allegedly allocated to ‘Mars and Jupiter’, and double the 37 listed as specifically allotted to ‘Mars’.

Dr Glantz also assessed Soviet casualties in ‘Mars’ as about 335,000 (100,000 killed, captured or missing, 235,000 wounded). However, to his credit he also included figures given by General Krivosheyev, the chief editor of Grif Sekretnosti Snyat, in a letter to a western publisher, of 215,674 casualties (70,374 dead/missing, 145,300 wounded). Even these lower figures confirm that ‘Mars’ was extremely costly; of the 43 major Soviet operations tabulated in Grif Sekretnosti Snyat, only eight had higher daily average losses than ‘Mars’, and its average of 8,295 compares badly with the 6,392 a day of the highly successful offensives at Stalingrad. However, operations there lasted 76 days, three times as long as ‘Mars’, so actual losses, 485,777 (154,885 dead/missing, 330,892 wounded) were over double those of ‘Mars’. The figures also indirectly confirm Isayev’s contention that the sacrifices in ‘Mars’ did contribute to the success of ‘Uranus’ and ‘Little Saturn’. If Hitler had yielded to Zeitzler’s urging at the beginning of December instead of the end of January, a large proportion of the 22 divisions freed by abandoning the Rzhev salient could have been sent south, some to reinforce Manstein’s relief attempt, others to ‘corset’ the Italians and Hungarians against ‘Little Saturn’.

Army General Mahmut Gareyev, in 1942 a junior officer in ‘Mars’, wrote that throughout the operation he and his colleagues cursed the Supreme Command for the disparity between the objectives set and the resources provided. Many unit diaries and reports cited in studies of ‘Mars’ confirm this complaint by mentioning shortages or complete lack of ammunition, food, fuel and forage. Also the postulation of the existence of Operation ‘Jupiter’ is based solely on reports of a major build-up of forces in the Soviet 5th and 33rd Army sectors during October – November. If ‘Mars’ was really the main offensive, it would seem logical for Zhukov to have committed some or all of those forces when it was seen to be faltering, as he had done at Leningrad and Moscow in the previous year. There are only two possible explanations for his abstention: either that he wanted to use them but Stalin overruled him, or that he never intended to use them. Neither is consistent with the argument that ‘Mars’ was the main or equal-main operation and ‘Jupiter’ meant to follow it, and that he never intended to use them seems more likely from a passage in his memoirs. He wrote that when the Western Front’s attacks failed to achieve their objectives, Stalin sent him to Konev’s headquarters, and there he concluded ‘to repeat the operation was pointless. The enemy had guessed our intention and was able to bring substantial forces into the area from other sectors.’ That supports Sudoplatov’s statement that Zhukov was never told of the deliberate leaks that had been made through Max.

‘Mars’ was terminated on 20 December, either because it was a costly failure, or because it was no longer needed, or a combination of both. All three cases are tenable, but on balance the last seems most justifiable. Manstein’s attempt to have Hoth break through to Stalingrad, begun on 12 December, was stalled for three days at Verkhne-Kumsky, and when it reached the Myshkova river, the 2nd Guards Army was already taking up blocking positions on the north bank. Further west Operation ‘Little Saturn’, launched on 16 December, had ripped through the Italian 8th Army in two days. By the 19th Soviet forces had captured the main bases and supply dumps at Kantemirovka, and were about to take the airfields at Tatsinskaya and Morozovskaya, the western termini of the air supply route to Stalingrad. By then Soviet Intelligence must have worked out, from the observed frequency of flights and known maximum payloads of the aircraft, that the airlift was proving totally inadequate to meet even the minimal requirements of 22 divisions and that the need to use airfields further west would reduce its capacity even more. ‘Mars’ could be called off because by 20 December it was proving both costly and unnecessary. That equates to partial, but by no means total, failure.

A further point concerns objectives. Certainly German losses in ‘Mars’ were far fewer than the Soviets’, but Germany was much less able to replace them. Galitskiy’s capture of Velikiye Luki and Novosokolniki in late January created a new threat to the Demyansk and Rzhev salients that Army Groups North and Centre obviously lacked the resources to eliminate. As noted above, during February–March 1943 they abandoned both salients, thereby shortening the front line by at least 250 miles. This reduced Stavka’s and Stalin’s concern about threats to Moscow and Leningrad, and also shortened the Soviet front line by the same amount, enabling some divisions to be moved to reinforce weak sectors and others to be withdrawn to recuperate, replace battle losses and train for the summer offensive. The Red Army may even have benefited as much from the move as the Germans did. Incidentally, when in the previous year the two army group commanders-in-chief had sought permission to abandon both salients, Hitler had refused on the grounds that the withdrawals would also shorten the Soviets’ front line and release reserves. So if ‘Mars’ was a diversion, it was a success, though an expensive one; if in tended as more, it was a partial failure, but the balance of evidence does not support the view that it was meant to be either equal to or more important than ‘Uranus’. Marginal to the argument, but perhaps a pointer to Stalin’s assessment of success and failure, is that on 18 January 1943 he promoted Zhukov to (5-star) marshal, and Vasilevsky to (4-star) army general. Then in March, after the Germans completed their withdrawal from the salients, he had the rank of marshal conferred on himself. This was purely symbolic; he already had all the power he needed, as head of the Party and government and Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, but the timing was significant, marking the final removal of the most direct potential threat to Moscow, though not of residual fear for its safety, which, as will be seen, even affected planning for Kursk, and identifying himself with the success achieved by the hitherto distrusted military professionals.

There remains, of course, a possibility that Zhukov covertly hoped to make ‘Mars’ more than a diversion, and that his cavalier and misleading treatment of it in his memoirs reflects his chagrin at its outcome.

It is unlikely that Zhukov would readily play second-fiddle to Vasilevsky, whatever the official status of ‘Mars’ relative to ‘Uranus’. It was in his nature to drive at and for maximum intensity. However, that makes his remarks to Galitskiy, and his organisation of ‘Mars’ as a large number of small blows rather than a small number of large ones, out of character, and explainable only, as suggested above, by his perceiving a need to avoid, at least in the early stages, pressing the Germans to the point where they would abandon either or both salients. That Stalin did not consider Zhukov’s conduct of ‘Mars’ a failure was evident not only from his promoting him, but from where he sent him after it was called off. From 2 to 9 January Zhukov was at Voronezh Front, then on 10 January he was sent to Leningrad, and stayed there until the 24th, overseeing Operation ‘Iskra’ (‘Spark’), which restored the city’s connection to the ‘mainland’ along the south shore of Lake Ladoga. After two weeks in Moscow his next assignment was to the North-West Front, from 6 February to 16 March, overseeing the unsuccessful ‘Polar Star’ and the liquidation of the Demyansk salient, before Stalin sent him to solve the problems Manstein’s successful offensive had created for the Voronezh Front. So for almost all the first three months of 1943 he was busy overseeing operations against Army Groups North and South. These activities are not consistent with Dr Glantz’s contention that throughout January and February Zhukov was arguing about the decisive importance of beating Army Group Centre.

At worst Zhukov can be said to have pushed ‘Mars’ harder and longer than a diversion required, and incurred larger than necessary losses partly because he did so, but, more importantly, because, unknown to him, the Germans had been deliberately forewarned. Stalin set the limits to what Zhukov could achieve, deciding not only where to send him, but also what reserves and reinforcements to give him, and Stalin decided the fate of ‘Mars’ well before it was mounted, basically on the grounds that more Germans killing Soviet troops at Rzhev meant fewer killing them at Stalingrad. That cold-blooded pragmatic judgement was soon to be confirmed by events.

As a result of the Stalingrad debacle the Germans and their Axis allies lost fifty divisions and suffered 1.5 million casualties. By early 1943 the Wehrmacht had been driven back to the positions they had started from when they launched Operation Blau in June 1942. The Red Army’s losses were even higher, with 2.5 million casualties sustained during the course of the Stalingrad campaign. As a follow-up to Stalingrad, Stavka attempted another full-scale winter offensive. Voronezh was recaptured in January 1943 and Kharkov in February, but the Red Army was unable to hold the latter when the Germans counterattacked. By this time Soviet operations along the front were grinding to a halt as the spring Rasputitsa set in.