Operation Don’s Main Attack
The Soviet Southern Front’s Advance on Rostov, January–February 1943
University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2018, 912 pages
Book Review published on: May 25, 2018
David M. Glantz, author, military historian, and chief editor of the Journal of Slavic Military Studies, continues his remarkable study of Soviet military operations during World War II with an examination of Operation Don—the Soviet offensive by the Red Army’s southern front that aimed to capture Rostov in January–February 1943. With the German Sixth Army encircled at Stalingrad in January 1943, the Red Army saw an opportunity to exploit weakened German army lines by capturing the city of Rostov-on-Don to encircle German Army Groups Don and A. Soviet High Command, Stavka, planned for Red Army forces of the Stalingrad and Trans-Caucasus Fronts to form two pincers for carrying out the encirclement while Eremenko’s southern front captured Rostov.
Operation Don describes German forces battling an onslaught of numerically superior attacking Soviet forces around the clock and under extreme winter conditions. The Soviet forces’ failure to coordinate their efforts, heavy reliance on frontal assaults, poor reconnaissance, and lack of coordinated fires permitted the Germans to create and occupy successive defensive positions that had to be overcome. German forces were forced to keep their equipment running or risk having to destroy them in place. Glantz’s inclusion of Red Army units’ personnel strength throughout his work illustrates the intensity of fighting during Operation Don; most notably, units of the Red Army’s 2nd Guards Army experienced 60–80 percent losses during the first five weeks of the operation.
Among Glantz’s extensive research, three points stand out. First, the Germans’ masterfully utilized ad-hoc combat formations called Kampfgruppen in addressing the onslaught of Soviet attacks during the operation. Kampfgruppen were usually named for their commanders or their parent organization. They could range in size from company to corps and would consist of infantry, armor, and artillery organized for a particular purpose. They provided German commanders flexibility and depth in responding to high Soviet operational tempo. They frustrated countless Soviet operational timelines and attempts to encircle withdrawing German forces.
Second, the German defensive sector’s extended width made a contiguous defense an impossibility. German forces adapted by creating a combination of strongpoints, forward outposts, and mobile Kampfgruppen to fill in the gaps. This was only made possible by the Germans’ ability to keep a fragment of their armor in the field, giving the German forces a decisive advantage over the Soviet forces. In addition, German sustainment operations were generally superior to those of the Soviets despite the length of the German lines of communication and the German planners’ flawed assumption that the Soviet campaign would be four months long, making no provision for unforeseen contingencies.
Finally, the Soviet army’s inability to adequately sustain its forces illustrate the criticality of sustainment in combat operations. Lack of fuel, rations, and personnel replacements denied Soviet commanders an opportunity to overwhelm pressed German forces or exploit opportunities as they developed during Operation Don. The Soviet army’s sustainment priority was directed toward Soviet forces finishing off the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Instead of exploiting their numerical superiority to utilize operational maneuver in decisively defeating German forces, Soviet forces were forced into a war of attrition that resulted in the majority of their units being decimated by the end of January 1943.
The strength of Glantz’s work is his extensive research of German and Soviet military records. He provides a real-time perspective from both sides during the operation. His research of these records indicates a general consistency between both sides in their combat reports and their intelligence assessments of their opponents. He includes insightful context and commentary at the conclusion of key events during the operation. These provide a wealth of understanding of Soviet army operational art and its challenges during Operation Don. A minor disappointment is the quality of maps used throughout to depict positions of units, villages, and axes of movement for both sides. Readers are forced to resort to outside sources to battle track opposing forces. Operation Don is a must for any planner or student in the study of operational art and is recommended for those interested in the war on the eastern front or World War II.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas