February 1943: The Red Army’s stunning destruction of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad ignited Soviet morale across the Eastern Front. Flushed with the news, Stalin ordered his commanders to exploit the momentum and evict the hated enemy from Russian territory.

For German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein these conditions presented an unprecedented crisis. Left with battered forces to counter the moves of vastly superior numbers threatening to entrap his armies, Manstein found himself juggling Hitler’s manic “don’t surrender ground” battle directive and his own defence-to-offence approach.

His ultimate success in The Third Battle of Kharkov has been studied in military academies ever since as a case study in how victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat by calm generalship, use of combined arms, and what Clausewitz called the massing of forces at the enemy’s ‘centre of gravity’. But it was no more than a pyrrhic victory, failing to halt the Soviet drive on Berlin.

Robert Muscat is President of the Military History Society of New South Wales and a former rifleman in the Australian Army Reserve. He holds two masters degrees in education and is currently a secondary school principal in NSW. He has written and spoken about military history in various forums. His last lecture was about Operation Cobra, Normandy 1944.