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Operation Napoleon was a German offensive conducted on the eastern front on 27th of May 1944. The primary goal was to buy time for German industries to deliver fresh weapons, including tanks, artillery, guns, ammunition and vehicles and therefore have a fairer chance of winning an attrition war. To do so they needed to halt the ground on the Eastern front and push the Russian back to "re-establish" the front line. Wehrmacht was to do as much damage to the Red Army that was possible. The initially planning was carried out by Manstein who had been given total control of the armies of Army Group South, by Hitler. The offensive was very ambitious by terms of objectives needed to be achieved for an ultimate success.
Starting well for the Germans, encircling one Soviet army, several divisions, and taking some territory, Wehrmacht almost reached its objectives. However, the lines became thinly outstretched, vulnerable and with no reserves, Wehrmacht could not advance farther. The overwhelming Russian reinforcements shattered the encirclements, counterattacked with heavy strength, and created a large gap in the German lines. The offensive was called off and all Axis troops retreated to the old lines.
By the fall of 1943, the Germans were retreating in every sector off the eastern front. Failing to achieve a decisive victory in The Battle of Kursk, the Axis were retreating to the newly constructed defence line across the Dniepr river, trying to repeat the success of the Hindenburg line in 1918, bleeding the enemy against the walls, and shortening the fronts for use of troops elsewhere. However, the Russians broke the front once again and pushed the Germans away from the Dnepr river, creating the Russian balcony .
In 1944, it was apparent that the Germans were about to lose the war. The allies had attacked Italy and cut the land in two, thus opening another front that drained more German resources that were needed for the eastern front. German intelligence had also noticed allied activity in the west, and presumably a new front was to be created in France. Air raids were also destroying German industries, and after bombardment of oil fields after the greater air superiority, the German war economy began to falter.
Hitler and his commanders realized this and although Manstein was in dispute with Hitler, the führer realised that he needed help from his commanders to win the war. Hitler, still impressed by the gains of Kharkov in march 1943, he gave Manstein total control over army group south. However, the other commanders were still to be sacked by Hitler. The largest scapegoat was
Manstein came to the conclusion that, by order of Hitler, creating a total "mobile defence front line" was not realistically possible. The Germans lacked both fuel and vehicles to execute that in a larger scale than what was achieved in Kharkov 1943. Manstein worked on a plan in late April to stabilise the German front. Intelligence could easily figure out that a whooping six separate Soviet fronts could attack in any sector. Manstein suggested that the Russian balcony prevented the Soviets from attacking in the southern sector, otherwise would have created an outstretched and largely outflanked front line. From March to May, Army Group South engaged in little fighting, had time to refit, and was also reinforced by new Panther and Tiger tanks.
The generals, included Manstein, proposed for an offensive in the southern sector, to once again board the Dniepr river, and, establish a new more straight defence line. Manstein know that the plan was very ambitious, but he saw a way that partially reminded of the German attack on France, several years earlier, where German tanks penetrated dangerously deep into the very heart of France, creating chaos. Manstein hoped he could outmaneuver the Russians, attack them in the back, and force them to retreat, on the way creating heavy casualties. To execute such an offensive in the southern sector, he needed every armoured fighting vehicle, trucks, cars, and heavy equipment that was altogether left on the eastern front. On the expense of army group north and center, giving up all their tanks, planes and artillery, he hoped he could create two separate spearheads that once again would penetrate the Soviet lines, and encircle the Russian forces. Troops were also pulled from respective army groups and sent south. This would leave the rest of the front very weakly defended and extremely vulnerable to Russian attacks.
Therefore, Manstein pushed for more reinforcements to be taken from France. The Germans had several tanks (included French captured) and approx. 300,000 men stationed there, ready to push the allies back to the sea if a landing would happen. But it would take time for the reinforcements to arrive, and the commanders needed to wait until 18th of June for the troops to arrive.
The Initial stage (27 May-12th June)
The offensive was partially taken by surprise, as the Russians expected a weak, dug in, German army in the southern sectors. Initially gains were taken by the Germans that headed for Balta and Tornopol, by the use of two groups of strong concentration of armor. The Russians did not reacted quickly enough, and on 29th of May, Tornopol was encircled by Panzergruppe A12.
Meanwhile, Panzergruppe 12B faced fierce resistance around the City of Balta. Well equipped, and numerically superior, the Russians didn't gave up ground easily. A Russian counterattack smacked the German front on 5th June. Heavy casualties in terms of tanks and guns were taken by both sides until 8th of June, when some German reserves belonging to Panzergruppe 12B were sent in. The Russians retreated to Balta and created a front line across the city. The Germans made little gain in this area and suffered heavy tank losses. Fuel was also already running dangerously low.
Also, adequate training for pilots were highly needed.