After the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, the Germans took up defensive positions and fell back in an orderly retreat.The Red Army, now with aggressive, confident commanders like Georgi Zhukov and Vasily Chuikov backed by increasing quantities of tanks, aircraft, planes and men, supplemented by deliveries from the United States and the United Kingdom, created a very large force that the Soviets were able to convert from defense at Kursk to offense almost immediately.
On August 6, 1943, the Russians recaptured Orel, the Germans losing another 1,500 tanks in addition to the losses at Kursk. Zhukov moved across the Russian Steppe, taking Kharkov on August 23, Smolesk on September 25, and Kiev on November 6. Another 1,500 tanks were destroyed in these operations.Hitler ordered a scorched-earth policy to deny the Russians the benefits of their own territories.
The Red Army was bringing to bear a huge force that almost outnumbered the Germans two-to-one. 5,700,000 Soviet troops oppose 3,000,000 Germans and their national units, and now hold overwhelming superiority in tanks and artillery.The Soviet Union had learned the lessons the Germans had taught them in 1941 and were going to pay their teachers back.
Since 1941 Army Group North held fairly static positions near the Soviet Finnish border. Along Army Group North’s front, both sides dug miles of trenches reminiscent of World War I. The static position of the Northern front allowed the Germans to pull needed men off the line for other fronts.As breakthroughs were made by the Soviets elsewhere, the massive size of the Red Army allowed a buildup in the north. In January 1944, the Red Army broke through to Leningrad. The siege wasn’t lifted, but a rail line would help sustain the city. The same month the Red Army attacked the Crimea and drove the Germans out of Sevastopol on May 9, 1944. An attempt to withdrawal the German garrison by sea left half of the 65,000 troops behind.
Almost all of the gains of the summer of 1941 were back in Soviet hands. Army Group Center held the last major areas of Soviet territory. Hitler, who knew that the Germans would face an Allied invasion of France within a few months, stopped reinforcing the Eastern Front.He considered having his forces take up defensive positions behind what he called the “East Wall” but there wasn’t time to even survey defensive positions before the Russians crashed through.