Last Citadel: A Novel of the Battle of Kurskby David L. Robbins
One nation taking a desperate gamble of war.
Another fighting for survival.
Two armies locked in a bloody cataclysm that will decide history. . .
David L. Robbins has won widespread acclaim for his powerful and splendidly researched novels of World War II. Now he casts his brilliant vision on one of the most terrifyingand most crucialbattles of
One nation taking a desperate gamble of war.
Another fighting for survival.
Two armies locked in a bloody cataclysm that will decide history. . .
David L. Robbins has won widespread acclaim for his powerful and splendidly researched novels of World War II. Now he casts his brilliant vision on one of the most terrifyingand most crucialbattles of the war: the Battle of Kursk, Hitler’s desperate gamble to defeat Russia, in the final German offensive on the eastern front.
Spring 1943. In the west, Germany strengthens its choke hold on France. To the south, an Allied invasion looms imminent. But the greatest threat to Hitler’s dream of a Thousand Year Reich lies east, where his forces are pitted in a death match with a Russian enemy willing to pay any price to defend the motherland. Hitler rolls the dice, hurling his best SS forces and his fearsome new weapon, the Mark VI Tiger tank, in a last-ditch summer offensive, code-named Citadel.
The Red Army around Kursk is a sprawling array of infantry, armor, fighter planes, and bombers. Among them is an intrepid group of women flying antiquated biplanes; they swoop over the Germans in the dark, earning their nickname, “Night Witches.” On the ground, Private Dimitri Berko gallops his tank, the Red Army’s lithe little T-34, like a Cossack steed. In the turret above Dimitri rides his son, Valya, a Communist sergeant who issues his father orders while the war widens the gulf between them. In the skies, Dimitri’s daughter, Katya, flies with the Night Witches, until she joins a ferocious band of partisans in the forests around Kursk. Like Russia itself, the Berko family is suffering the fury and devastation of history’s most titanic tank battle while fighting to preserve what is sacred–their land, their lives, and each other–as Hitler flings against them his most potent armed force.
Inexorable and devastating, a company of Mark VI Tiger tanks is commanded by one extraordinary SS officer, a Spaniard known as la Daga, the Dagger. He’d suffered a terrible wound at the hands of the Russians: now he has returned with a cold fury to exact his revenge. And above it all, one quiet man makes his own plan to bring Citadel crashing down and reshape the fate of the world.
A remarkable story of men and arms, loyalty and betrayal, Last Citadel propels us into the claustrophobic confines of a tank in combat, into the tension of guerrilla tactics, and across the smoking charnel of one of history’s greatest battlefields. Panoramic, authentic, and unforgettable, it reverberates long after the last cannon sounds.
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Read an Excerpt
May 10, 1943
The SS colonel eased shut the high, heavy door. The portal closed with a hiss and a soft tap. How many trees went into this, he wondered, lives sacrificed out of the forest to make one of Hitler’s castle gates? The black eagle emblem of wartime hung at eye-level against the carved wood. Colonel Abram Breit imagined this symbol of the Reich to be a spread-winged vulture. That’s what he left behind in the briefing room—a death scene, a picking apart, sinew by vessel, of Germany.
Breit walked several steps into the hall, striding across the same black eagle laid in mosaic in the floor. Bloodred banners trickled down the walls. He buttressed his back against one of them and lit a cigarette.
He exhaled smoke and stared into it, tired and sad. He replayed the voices of the briefing room, Hitler with his generals and advisers. Citadel—the looming, titanic battle for Kursk on the Eastern Front—consumed the hours. Since morning Breit had watched the little wars between the generals, battling over Hitler as if the Führer were a spot of high ground; candor fell in combat with flattery, reason was mauled by pride. Around and above the grand table, more banners festooned the room, great ebony swastikas circled like the buzzards of Breit’s imagination. Everywhere Hitler’s minions had hung the images of Hitler’s belief, to let no eye wander to another way of thinking, to any other allegiance, certainly to no thoughts of Germany’s welfare, only the Nazis’.
Breit ground the last of the cigarette into the sole of his boot. He pocketed the white shred and lit another. In the smoke he recalled Hitler’s eyes, gray and wavering. In the past month, Hitler had become obsessed with reading about Verdun, the meat-grinder battle of World War I France. Hitler had been a corporal on the Western Front. As a runner he was wounded and gassed. Breit saw in Hitler’s eyes the memory of the trenches, and the parallels to be drawn between the butchery of Verdun and what awaited Aryan manhood in the trenches of the Kursk bulge.
This was Germany’s third summer of campaigning in Russia. The Reds had yet to swoon the way these generals had promised Hitler before the invasion in ’41. Now the army lacked the resources for another major offensive in the East. Instead, their available forces were to concentrate on one smashing blow against the Kursk salient, a segment of the front line that ballooned westward into the German midsection.
The plan called for two immense forces to blast across the Russian defenses—Field Marshal von Kluge from the north, Field Marshal von Manstein out of the south—and converge in the center at the city of Kursk, pinching off the Soviet bulge. The operation was designed to surround massive Soviet formations and, more important, shorten German lines to free up men and machines desperately needed elsewhere. The Americans were sure to come to Italy this summer, and Il Duce, Mussolini, was ill-prepared to go it alone.
Hitler was going to commit every available soldier, gun, tank, and airplane to the action. This would be the largest buildup of German armed power of the war. If Citadel succeeded, it would be a loss of blood that Hitler could scarcely afford. If Citadel failed, the ruin of men and matériel would be even greater; worse still, Germany would be exposed to a Russian counterstrike. That could be fatal, the beginning of the end. Citadel would be the last German offensive of the war in the East.
The stakes for Hitler were higher today than at any time in the war. He was being asked to gamble, to throw the dice once on Citadel with everything riding on the table. There would be no second go-round, no backup plan. This was do or die.
The chief problem was that Citadel was obvious. A quick glance at the map of the Eastern Front lines presented the most elementary scenario to any war college student. The Kursk bulge was clearly the best place for an attack, a pincer action was the plain solution. Germany knew this. Russia knew this. The coming fight was going to be without surprise; once begun, it would be brute strength against strength, two behemoths pressing chests.
The Führer fretted aloud in the briefing room. He stabbed his finger at the maps spread across his conference table, aerial photos of Soviet defenses in the Kursk region. Even from three miles in the air, the groundworks dug by the Russians looked incredible; the amount of armaments and men flowing into them was monumental. And these defense works would be arrayed directly in the path of the planned German offensive. How could this be, Hitler wanted to know.
The buzzards flew from their perches then.
Field Marshal von Kluge spoke first, flapping to the table and sweeping a hand in the air over the foreboding maps. We will crush these pitiful defenses, the Field Marshal vowed, speaking in bald propagandistic phrases, the kind Hitler loved to hear. German ground forces have always penetrated enemy defenses and will do so in this case. Besides, look at the technological advantages we have, mein Führer. Look at our new tanks. Our Panthers and Tigers. Our tanks will make the difference, without fail.
Colonel Abram Breit had been brought to Berlin and was in the room to speak to this question of what impact the superior German armor will have on Citadel. Breit was the intelligence officer for the 1st SS Panzergrenadier Division Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler. His division was to be in the vanguard of the Citadel assault. Liebstandarte would enter the fight with thirteen of the new Tiger tanks. It was his job to predict how the battle would go. After von Kluge spoke, Hitler glanced at Breit.
Field Marshal von Manstein, the man whose proposals gave birth to Citadel, replaced von Kluge at the map table. Hitler smiled over at Breit. This was when Breit saw deeply into Hitler’s eyes, when Hitler with a look apologized for skipping over Breit. They were the eyes, he realized, of an ill man. Hitler’s physician had been treating him for constipation, prescribing ever more powerful laxatives. Hitler’s eyes were lusterless, their striking blue was clouded. The Field Marshal began his comments. He said we may have waited too long. The Reds are getting ready for us. We should have attacked them in April, just after the spring thaw, the Russian rasputitsa. Breit watched Hitler agree, the dull eyes growing duller in disappointment and pain. Hitler did not know what to do. He slumped beside the great table where Germany lay and watched his visions of conquest and empire be pecked at by his commanders who could not agree. His puffy face nodded; his chin sagged to his chest.
Field Marshal Keitel spoke next. We have to attack in Russia this summer, he said. For military as well as political purposes. Our allies demand that Germany not be passive in the East. The Italians need to see our resolve, as do the Finns and the Turks. Japan is concerned that we have not made sufficient progress against Russia. The German people require this, as well. The bombings and the failure at Stalingrad have taken their toll on morale. We must fight and win, Germany must retake the momentum. Our troops insist on a victory. Hitler listened and nodded, swayed again by whatever voice held the floor.
Breit backed quietly out of the room while Keitel talked. He came out here alone into the bannered hall and smoked.
The great door to the conference room slid open. Another black uniform with silver gleams and black leather strapping, the garb of the SS, slipped out. From the pack in his hand, Breit shook out the nub of another cigarette and held it up.
The young SS officer accepted the cigarette and a light. He sucked the first drag down like a man without fear of ever dying, smiling and posing in the soft light, his blond head tilted back.
“What do you think, Colonel?” Thoma asked. The captain had been invited to the conference to speak to the training progress of the SS tankers in their new Tiger Mark VIs. Thoma, too, had been ignored by the generals during the meeting, left to stand aside as some kind of statuary, an example for Hitler of how attractive Germany’s soldiers were.
He spoke now with the smoke coming out of his nostrils like a young dragon.
Breit said, “I think, Captain, they don’t care a fig about what you and I have to say.”
“I suspect they should listen. You and I know more than all of them put together.”
“Did you hear what Guderian asked? ‘Why should we attack in the East at all this year?’ Of course we should attack.”
Yes, Abram Breit thought, I heard Guderian, the general in charge of rebuilding Germany’s armored forces. And I heard Hitler’s reply: “Whenever I think of the attack my stomach turns over.”
“Tell me, then, Captain, why you believe we should attack Russia this summer. Even if we grind through those growing Russian defenses, will we be able to hold our gains? The Reds outman us two to one, they outgun us two to one. And after we surround the Soviets, can we keep the pocket sealed? Will we be able to clear the pocket with the forces we’ll have left after fighting our way to Kursk north and south? In view of all this, tell me why Guderian is wrong, Captain.”
Thoma tossed his cigarette to the polished floor and ground it out, careless and again very young. “We have the tanks, Colonel. The Tigers. I’ve been training with them for the last five months. My men and I are more than ready. The Tiger can beat any tank it meets on any battlefield. Sir.”
“But out of twenty-three hundred tanks, you’ve got only a hundred Tigers for the battle. The Soviets have over three thousand T-34s.”
“One Tiger is worth a hundred Red tanks.”
“Is this what you would have told the Führer if he’d asked?”
Thoma had almost come to attention with his remarks. It seemed he was defending a maligned friend. Breit took in the tank commander’s hard posture and erect Aryan beauty. How many, Breit thought, how many of these young men will be flung into the flames to forge Hitler’s dreams?
“What about the new Panther tanks?”
Thoma grinned a little at this. Both men knew about the difficulties the Mark V had been having in development. The Panthers had not yet proven themselves reliable, yet Hitler’s generals had insisted that Citadel be postponed for months in order that two hundred of the Panthers be built and shipped to Russia for the offensive. Thoma reveled a bit in the Panthers’ failures, none of which had cropped up in his Tigers.
“They’ll do their best, Colonel. But the Tiger will be the tank history remembers when Citadel is done.”
“The Americans are going to land on the Continent, Captain Thoma. We don’t know when but it will be in Italy and it will be this summer. That would be a very bad thing if we don’t have enough forces there to hold them off.”
Breit rattled out one more cigarette for himself. He would go back into the briefing after finishing it. He’d heard all he needed in the room, but did not want anyone to note his absence for too long. Breit did not want to be noticed at all.
He offered another cigarette to Thoma. The Captain shook his head.
“There will be a Citadel, Colonel. There has to be.”
“Because this is our time.”
“Yes, Captain. I quite agree. I think we should slip back into the room separately. It’ll be quieter that way. You first, please.”
Thoma clicked his heels unnecessarily, there had been nothing formal about their chat out here in the hall. The sound was hard, the way Thoma made himself at Breit’s doubting of the coming battle. Thoma is right, Breit thought, watching the young officer pull open the huge door and disappear behind it. There will be a Citadel. Yes, there must be. Because it is indeed Germany’s time.
Time for Germany’s doom.
Old National Gallery
The Impressionists room was often crowded at lunchtime. The more beautiful the weather, the more Berliners strolled for their midday break. The Americans and the British did not bomb on perfect spring afternoons. The Yanks did their work only in the mornings, and the Brits raided at night. So far, they’d mainly contented themselves with wrecking the areas in north Berlin, the manufacturing districts. Downtown remained the nerve center for running the Nazi state, for parks and museums, and the myth of German survival.
Abram Breit carried his sack lunch, a sandwich and a French apple, here to the Old National Gallery beside the Spree River. He spotted an opening on a bench across from a Monet, a blue and violet study of the Palazzo da Mala in Venice. Monet had been so smitten with the dazzling light of Venice on his first trip there that he stayed for four months, painting the ancient facades and canal waters. Breit walked in front of the painting on flat soles, careful not to clout his polished boots against the wood floor.
He snuggled in on the bench. The buttocks of a heavy-set woman rested against his hip, she stared at a Cézanne on another wall, a sketch pad in her lap. Breit dug his sandwich out of the paper bag and unwrapped it, making a game of how quietly he could handle the wax paper. He chewed and looked at the Monet. Breit had always wanted to view the world the way a painter did, to see behind form and color to the world’s vibrations, to gaze not just at an object but at light itself. Abram Breit had tried as a child to make paintings, drawings, anything with a brush or pen, and failed; he lacked the gift of the painter, the sight. So he chose instead to exercise his love of art by becoming a student of it, then a teacher. When the war began, he was a thirty-eight-year-old professor of art history at Heidelberg University facing the reality of military service. He approached the SS, which quickly accepted him into its intelligence corps. Breit was an educated man, with the manners and bearing of the upper class. He was an exemplar of that legend of superiority the SS liked to concoct, especially in Liebstandarte, the first of the SS divisions, grown out of Hitler’s personal bodyguards.
Breit began his work for the Reich by valuating art taken from dispossessed Jews. He made no judgments on where the art came from; few in Germany did that sort of thing once the deportations started. The plight of the Jews was not his concern. Breit busied himself arranging collections and shows, selecting which pieces would be put on public display and which would hang in the private galleries of Goebbels, Speer, Himmler, Göring, Hitler. For this service, the Führer had awarded him the War Merit Cross with swords that hung on the left breast of his tunic. Breit had chosen this Monet for this museum.
He finished his sandwich and began his apple. He was wary not to crunch through the skin and pulp. Breit made no noise.
He never did, and he knew this. As a child, he’d abandoned his wish to be an artist, letting it loose without a pin drop in his heart. As a student, he’d kept his nose in books while Germany rebuilt itself from the debacles of World War I. Again, as a young professor, he stuck to his classrooms and towers at Heidelberg, avoiding the street clashes between the roving brown shirts of the National Socialists and the red sashes of the Communists. When the war started, Abram Breit took up his duty in the dungeons of Jew basements, in echoing great galleries, peering through magnifying glasses at canvases and into tomes of art history. A few years and five million men marched past him, history fell out of the sky, horror rolled past in trucks and train cars, Germany tore itself to pieces across the globe, and Breit stood silent.
He chewed the apple thoughtfully, mulling the pulp on his tongue. He stood and walked around the bench to face the other direction, away from the vivid Monet. Sitting, he set his eyes to the Picasso and the Braque he’d chosen for display in this room.
The war had cost Breit his love of the Impressionists. Those painters had become bourgeois, coveted by the well-to-do, sold for large sums, even during their lifetimes. Their groundbreaking work—softening the image, the destruction of age-old realism—had fallen headlong into the mainstream. Monet, Manet, Renoir, Seurat—these weren’t the names of painters any longer so much as they were investments, portfolios for the Jews and others to hedge their bets during the war, hide their money in something other than currency, no different than gems or gold bars. Breit cared only for one Impressionist now, the crazy Dutchman van Gogh, who never while alive sold one painting. Van Gogh, of all the Impressionist masters, was untouched, left alone with that madness that had become his vision. Breit preferred the Cubists, the art- ists who had moved away from the emotion and decorative symbolism of Impressionism. The Cubists—Picasso and Braque among them, who were put on their path first by the prophetic work of Cézanne—reconstructed the form on the canvas out of its base geometric elements, the spheres, cones, cylinders, and boxes of every object. These were egalitarian ideals, to break man’s world into simple patterns, into every man’s vision, mad or genius or gifted or not, even Abram Breit’s.
The Impressionists looked at their world and made it pretty, captured like butterflies pinned to a mat. But not Picasso. Not Braque. Not like the abstract Russian Kandinsky. These men shattered the world in their hands and gave it back made only of building blocks, with room for the individual and imagination; they invited the viewer onto the canvas and asked him to build a new world out of these raw parts. Abram Breit had fallen in love with the Cubists.
He remained a silent man. There was nothing he could do about his nature. But he could do with his life what the Cubists had done with the image, break his nature into its basic elements and take a clean look. So Breit did this, slowly, with the small brush strokes he never could muster with his hands, but could with his mind. In the mirror, in his tailored SS uniform, he began to see what he was made of. He shuddered to find so much reluctance and cowardice. Abram Breit faced the fact that he’d turned into a man he’d never wanted to become; he was not an artist, not a teacher anymore, not an individual at all. He wore SS black, the absence of all color. Abram Breit had become so silent a man that he was gone. His cowardice had erased him.
Breit was aroused for more truth. Yes, he’d been a coward. And what had been the canvas for his cowardice? He looked outside his window, into battered Berlin, across Europe, to the Balkans, into Russia. There he saw Germany’s fear and vanity. Undisguised, plain as paint and framed in flame, Breit grasped Hitler’s madness and genius—genius is madness, in a way—the driving forces behind the war, a global conflict made by Breit’s country and people; but Hitler’s madness was not like van Gogh’s. The Führer had grown openly corrupted by power, by the saluting hordes and goose-stepping world risen around him. Hitler had men on all sides who were devious for their own gains. Germany was in the wrong hands. That, like a sphere, a cone, a circle, a square, was an elemental truth. No man was so silent he could turn away from this.
First, Breit requested a transfer from the art archives to military intelligence. Most of his cataloging work was concluded, the flow of confiscated art had slowed as Germany became Judenfrei. Liebstandarte granted his request. In late 1942, Breit trained for three months in Munich. Then he was assigned back to Berlin, as divisional liaison to Hitler’s staff. The Führer himself made the request, delighted with the artwork Colonel Abram Breit had selected for his chalets and castles.
Abram Breit became a spy.
This was not so hard to do. There were many ears in Germany listening for betrayal, some to punish the betrayers, some to welcome and encourage. Breit let slip a comment or two here and there, words that he could have easily explained away as too much schnapps or a simple misunderstanding. He traveled to East Prussia, around Germany, to conquered France, a loyal and efficient junior member of the general staff. It was in Switzerland he was approached.
All he knew was that he would be working for something called the Lucy network. These were German patriots, he was told, like him, men and women who were the real guardians of Germany’s precious future. They would do everything they could to stop the Nazi war machine. Whatever secrets Breit could funnel into Lucy would be channeled to Hitler’s most powerful enemy, Soviet Russia.
Breit was unfazed at the destination for his treasons. What he wanted most was what the Cubists demanded: a change, a new world, a new Germany, a renewed Breit. The Russians could give him all that.
He finished the apple. He slipped the core into the paper sack, making less rustle than the woman still sketching the blue Monet. Breit set the bag on the bench beside him. He cupped his chin in his hand and rested his eyes on the Picasso. The painting was one of the artist’s early Cubist treatments, Bread and Fruit Dish on a Table. In this work, Picasso had brushed away all depth perception. The table and its bowl and loaves all seemed to be on a single plane; the backdrop of a curtain and a wall came forward, impinging on the objects they ought to exist behind and apart from. There is no difference, Picasso painted, between the object and its surroundings. Everything is one. Everything is connected. Art can change minds. And because it can, it must.
Breit stood. He left the paper sack on the bench, it was trash. He stepped toward the door to leave the museum.
A blue-suited security guard, an older gentleman with a handlebar moustache, swept in behind him. The guard gave Breit a tut-tut for leaving the rubbish of his lunch on the bench. The elder man scooped up the paper sack and took it away. Breit nodded his head in silent apology. The man inclined his own head and disappeared.
Breit walked out of the museum with a hundred others, lunchtime was done. He ambled along the banks of the Spree to the Monbijou Bridge. He crossed halfway over the river. Cars trundled behind him, Berliners strolled past returning to their work administering the Nazi regime. The river glistened under the sun. Breit tried to view the light on the green ripples the way Monet had seen the canals of Venice, and could not. All he caught was glare and motion, people on his left and right ignoring him and the river. This was unfair, Breit thought, to be excluded like this, to be as blind as everyone else.
But I am not blind, Breit thought. And I am not mute.
At that moment the old museum guard would have in his hands two folded sheets of paper pulled from the crumpled bag Breit left on the bench. The Old National Gallery was one of a half-dozen drop sites around Berlin the Lucy network had arranged for him. The two pages were filled front and back with coded script. They would reach Moscow tomorrow, after being routed through Lucerne, the base for Lucy. The coded sheets gave an exacting report on Hitler’s meeting yesterday with his generals, every detail Breit could recall about the coming battle for Kursk. Breit related the Führer’s desperation, the indecision of his generals, the immensity of the forces to be committed to Citadel, the fantastically high political stakes for Germany, the last throw of the dice. He described the deterioration of Hitler’s physical condition, Hitler’s obsessive fretting over an approaching American invasion of Italy and Mussolini’s chronic weakness, even the training and morale of young Captain Thoma’s Tiger tank crews, the number of tanks to be involved, the mechanical problems popping up with the Panthers, everything Breit could gush to the Russians to help them beat the Nazis out of Germany like dust out of a rug.
Abram Breit was a spy. He remained a quiet stroller through the war, but he was not a mote or a minion, not like these speechless souls shuffling across the river. Breit was a changed man whom Hitler would personally hang on a meat hook if even a whisper surfaced of who he was, and how much influence Abram Breit was finally having with what he could see, hear, and tell.
Meet the Author
David L. Robbins is the author of Scorched Earth, The End of War, War of the Rats, and Souls to Keep. He lives in Richmond, Virginia, and teaches novel writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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I couldnt put it down! It was fast paced and well written. I cant wait to read more of his books!
David L. Robbins' narrative skills shine through clearly with this novel, possibly my favorite of all of his books. He is able to put you right into the story, whether it be the tank drivers seat, the mind of an old Cossack, the cockpit of a 'Night Witch' flight, the dust and noise of the Battle Of Kursk. The research is obvious, its expression creating the fabric for the telling of a great story of a desperate time. Having served as a tank driver myself I can say that I could feel the cold steel skin and attendant noisy vibrations surround me again in the pages of this excellent novel. This book and its author are in the top tier of the historical fiction genre.
Another astounding work of historical fiction. For those seeking to 'live' through important events during World War II, this book should be at the top of your list to read. Multiple characters, not just German and Soviet armies, are provided. Deep understanding into the tactics, equipment and social impact of World War II on the region are expertly provided.