Big Serge Thoughts

Big Serge Thoughts
10 May 2023 | 12:13 am

1. Death Trap on the Volga: Stalingrad

Perhaps no battle or operation in the Second World War has the same level of name recognition and infamy as the great battle at Stalingrad in the waning months of 1942. This battle, more than any other, became the archetype of apocalyptic urban combat and the potential for modern war to become a senseless charnel house. Fighting for months in the ruined and smoking remains of a wrecked industrial city, combined casualties of the two contesting forces would swell into the millions. Stalingrad presents a visceral image of grey skies, endless rubble and ruin, and grim death. For the warriors who actually fought the battle, the Volga river may as well have been the Styx.

Stalingrad attains further notoriety from its role in the narrative structure as the identified turning point of the war. Whatever arguments may be made about whether such a turning point actually exists, Stalingrad certainly represented a clear shift in the momentum and progress of the war, particularly in the sense that it marked the irretrievable loss of strategic initiative for the Germans. After Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht was increasingly unable to attempt the sweeping offensive operations that had previously characterized its war, and the Germans found themselves irreversibly on the back foot. Stalingrad also marked the first time in the war that a major German field army was lost wholesale - destroyed, in just the sort of annihilation battle that the Wehrmacht had long been inflicted on its enemies.

Between the foreboding, ominous, and widely identifiable impression of Stalingrad as the unparalleled urban apocalypse battle, and the undeniable sense that the battle represented a momentous pivot in the course of the war, it is perhaps less fashionable to think about the battle as an operational contingency - a mere chance, or even an accident. The battle was apocalyptic, massively violent, and historically significant - this much is clearly undeniable. Yet it is equally true that Stalingrad itself was nothing less than an instrumental objective for both armies - certainly, nobody set out in 1942 with the intention of fighting over this unremarkable and drab city.

Indeed, it is rarely understood why, exactly, this city was so viciously fought over. There remains a myth (which seems impossible to eradicate) that the city became a battleground because it was named after Stalin. The idea that Hitler wanted to embarrass Stalin by capturing his namesake retains eternal allure, because it allows Hitler to be reduced to a childish simpleton, destroyed by his own petty hubris. Tempting, perhaps, but also untrue, and representative of the worst sort of history for children.

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Stalingrad became the scene of unprecedented carnage as a result of the organic development of a large-scale German operation in the summer of 1942 - an operation which never initially identified Stalingrad as a target. Nobody in either the Wehrmacht or the Red Army anticipated that the city would become the locus of one of the largest and most bloody battles in world history, and this is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the battle. While Stalingrad will always retain its cachet as the blood soaked turning point of the war, for us it offers a fascinating window into the way that operational dynamics can seemingly have a mind of their own - two armies can become trapped in a death pit at a place where neither of them expected or wanted to fight.

Strategic Context: The Global War

In many ways, the operations of the Wehrmacht in the early months 1942 can seem like merely business as usual for an army that had unparalleled proficiency on the operational and tactical level. Indeed, one could make the case that - after the horrors of winter warfare - spring arose on a German army that was back to its old ways. In May, two of the Wehrmacht's most celebrated field commanders won major victories - Erwin Rommel in North Africa at the Battle of Gazala, and Erich von Manstein in Crimea - (we examined both battles in an earlier entry). These operations were soon followed by a major German victory at Kharkov, which destroyed a large Soviet tank force.

Operationally, this was indeed business as usual. All the by now familiar motifs of the Wehrmacht's craft were on display, and the German mechanized package seemed to have lost none of its potency. Perhaps some officers could convince themselves that the setback at Moscow had been only an aberration; a speedbump on the road to victory.

Yet, above the operational level, on the geostrategic plane, Germany faced an emerging catastrophe. The final failure of the drive on Moscow had coincided with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and Germany now faced not only a continental scale land war with the Soviet Union, but also a global conflict with the enormously powerful Anglo-American bloc.

This created a broader strategic peril where active fronts threatened to metastasize rapidly, dispersing German forces and preventing a timely resolution in the east. Of course, it is clear (as I have argued before) that Germany did not actually have a viable path to victory over the Soviet Union by this time, but if the Anglo-Americans began to activate new fronts the diffusion of German energies would make the outcome a foregone conclusion.

Searching for a way out of a strategic trap

In the near term, however (that is, at the beginning of 1942), American power was only just beginning to mobilize, and Germany appeared to be winning in North Africa. There therefore appeared to be a window of opportunity where the the Wehrmacht still had strategic initiative and could concentrate the great preponderance of its combat power in the east. It was therefore possible to plan a large operation in the Soviet Union in 1942, but this operation had to be designed to improve Germany's ability to shift to a strategic defense in the coming years.

In the long run, it was clear that the entry of American combat power would cost Germany the strategic initiative and force a full-spectrum strategic defense of the Nazi empire in Europe. The "optimistic" scenario for such a defense, which still existed in early 1942, was based on a few key strategic assumptions, as laid out in a series of Wehrmacht memorandum.

These assumptions, upon which Germany rested all its hopes, were as follows:

  1. Germany could achieve its critical military objectives in the USSR and in North Africa before American fighting power could be mobilized.

  2. German victory in Africa and the Soviet Union would induce Turkey, Spain, Portugal, and Sweden to join a continental defensive bloc, granting Germany the ability to control the naval lithosphere around Europe.

  3. Japanese operations in the Pacific would maintain their momentum and force major Anglo-American force commitments in that theater, preventing America from conducting a full scale two-ocean war.

As events happened, all three of these assumptions proved to be not only unrealistic and unfounded, but laughably so.

Yet they are extremely instructive. We must strongly note (for this is of great importance) that in early 1942, much of Wehrmacht leadership still believed that the war with the Soviet Union was a sort of appetizer, which would be won as a preliminary condition for waging a global war with the Anglo-Americans. The land war in the east, in other words, was something that needed to be resolved so that Germany could be freed to wage a full strategic defense of Europe by land, sea, and air - using the resources of the defeated Soviet Union to power this long war effort.

This, of course, demonstrates that Germany was asking the wrong questions and thinking about the wrong problems. They were concerned with bringing a resolution in the east so they could move on to the (as they saw it) bigger problem of contesting Anglo-American global hegemony. They did not yet seem to realize that they were being defeated outright in the east. So eager were they to move on to the main course, they did not see that the appetizer was eating them.

So, what to do? Clearly, the attempt to destroy the Soviet Union in a single campaign had failed badly, but there was still time to bring operational resolution in the east and establish a stable position for strategic defense. This implied that, even if it was now deemed impossible to destroy the Soviet Union outright with a heavy blow, the Wehrmacht must contrive a way to at least cripple the Red Army. This would entail not only the destruction of major Soviet forces, but also an attempt to cut off the Red Army from its oil resources. It was perceived, then, that a badly mauled and de-mechanized Red Army could be dismantled and finally defeated at leisure in the future.

An April directive from Hitler commanded the Army to "destroy what vital defensive strength was left to the Soviets and, as far as possible, to deprive them of the most important energy sources for their war effort."

Easier said than done.

Get the Oil: Case Blue

Understanding the operational design and subsequent maneuvers that brought the Wehrmacht to Stalingrad requires, in the first place, a basic sketch of the region's geography. The central objective in 1942 was for the Wehrmacht to reach the Soviet Union's oil fields in the Caucasus. This provided both the only viable way to remedy Germany's own critical fuel shortages, but also starve the Red Army of the same.

In 1938 (the last year before war), fully 91% of the Soviet Union's oil production came from the Caucasus region, in particular productive fields around Maykop and Baku. Even after accounting for some growth in production in other regions of the USSR, the Germans hoped to leave the Soviets with critical fuel shortfalls if they could be successfully cut off from production in the Caucasus. The capture of the Donbas region also promised to leave the Soviets cut off from 80% of their prewar coal output, 95% of their manganese, and 96% of their coke (used in steel production). The oil of the Caucasus had long been a favored objective for Hitler, and there was now no possibility of delaying any longer. "Only through possession of that territory", he remarked, "will the German war empire be viable in the long term."

In short, while the USSR was clearly possessed of enormous mineral and industrial resources, it seemed that the Wehrmacht could cut its access to a few critical bottleneck materials and potentially cripple the Soviet capacity to wage an industrialized, mechanized war. Then the Panzer force could slake its thirst on the sweet oil of the Caucasus, and it would be the T-34s that ran dry. "The operations of 1942 must get us to the oil," admitted Keitel, head of the armed forces high command. "Unless we achieve that, we shall not be able to conduct any operations next year."

The imperative to reach the Caucasus and the oil fields created a unique operational conundrum. The most productive oil fields, at Baku, were more than 1,000 km away from the German front lines, and reaching them would require a tremendous effort, pushing across the south Russian steppe and then taking a right hand turn towards the south. This would leave the German forces in the Caucasus greatly exposed, and suspended far out in space. Yet, there was no choice. Hitler even said "'If I do not get the oil of Maykop and Groznyy, then I must end this war." Of course, he did not follow through, but in real time there was at least some cognizance that this was a do or die moment.

This, in particular, is where the geography of the region plays a crucial role in operational design. The Caucasus region is bounded to the north by a pair of mighty rivers - the Don and the Volga - which bend towards each other in their lower courses. At the narrowest place, these rivers are barely thirty miles apart. This creates a nearly continuous river barrier to the north of the Caucasus.

The conception of the German operations in 1942, therefore, was to take advantage of this river structure to create a solid defensive line - a shield, if you will - north of the Caucasus, to protect the connection to the oil fields. This would entail, in essence, an operation to clear the inside bend of the Don and the lower Volga of enemy forces, so that the German front could be anchored along these two rivers. If such an operation succeeded, the Red Army could only retake the Caucasus by either attacking across one of the two rivers, or by trying to punch through the narrow gap between them. In either case, the Wehrmacht's strategic defense would be much easier, and in the long run (so it was envisioned) the Soviet Union would be doomed by lack of oil, coal, and manganese.

In the most grandiose German pipe dreams, the success of this operation would coincide with victory in North Africa and the capture of the Suez Canal - successes that would finally convince Turkey and Spain to align with Germany. In this scenario, the Mediterranean and Black Seas would become Axis lakes, and Germany would transition to a grand strategic defense astride a continental empire fed by the captured resources of the prostrate Soviet Union.

A neat plan. If it worked.

The Caucasus Campaign - General Impression

The difficulty, as always, lay in attempting to translate ideas from planning maps to reality - and in reality, the Wehrmacht and the eastern land forces in particular were in a parlous state. By the spring of 1942, the army had lost a whopping 3,319 tanks in the Soviet Union and recieved only 732 replacements, for a shortfall of 2,097 vehicles. Motor transport was in similarly dire shape, with a shortfall of over 35,000 trucks. Total casualties by this point had crossed the million man threshold.

This was, very plainly, not an army that was in an adequate state to be aiming for objectives a thousand kilometers away. Field Marshal Fedor von Bock (reassigned to command Army Group South, which would be tasked with the crucial Caucasus operation) had a most sober assessment. In February, he reported:

The repair services were created for a certain intake of repairs. They cannot cope with the accumulated mountain of work produced by the campaign in Russia. . . . General overhauls cannot be performed at all. . . . Lack of spare parts, lack of skilled men, and lack of machinery are therefore at such a disproportion to the number of motor vehicles in need of repair, and above all of general overhaul, that the army, despite full use of all capacities, cannot help itself by the means within its power…

As a result of this situation the picture is as follows. The armored divisions with their 9–15 battle-worthy tanks do not at present deserve that name. The motorized artillery can move into new position only in staggered phases. It is therefore operational only in positional warfare. The bridge-building columns are, with one exception, immobile. Supply services are adequate only because the railway operates well forward. Matters are similar in all areas dependent on motor vehicles.

The army, in consequence, is not combat-ready for a war of movement. It cannot make itself combat-ready by the means within its power.

At the end of March, an assessment of unit battle-readiness concluded that only eight divisions in the entire eastern army were rated "Fit for all tasks" - a proxy for being at full capability. The majority were rated either "Fit for limited offensive tasks" or "Fit for defense." By comparison, Operation Barbarossa had been launched in June of the previous year with 136 "fit for all tasks" divisions.

In order to prepare the army to launch an operation toward the Caucasus, several measures had to be taken, therefore.

First and foremost, it was quickly determined that the Caucasus operation would be the only major offensive operation undertaken that year in the east. Army Group South would bear this burden, while North and Center remained in a defensive stance. This, in and of itself, was a tacit admission that German strength was horribly degraded. In 1941 they had been capable of launching a major offensive with three different army groups, each on its own independent axis. Now, only one such axis could be pursued, so that resources could be concentrated. This did allow the vast bulk of replacement vehicles, tanks, material, and rehabilitated units to be dedicated to Army Group South, though it was far from clear whether this would be enough.

The second remedial measure was the decision to construct the Caucasus operation in distinct stages. Army Group South would aim to clear the lower Don and Volga basins of enemy troops and then punch into the Caucasus in a sequence of pre-planned phases. This was in acknowledgement of the fact that neither German fighting power nor logistics would allow the army to wage a continuous operation at depth; instead, they would have to expect a stop-start tempo.

The third and final measure, and by far the most sensitive, was to further mobilize Germany's allies. Troops from Italy, Hungary, Romania, Finland, and other minor German satellites had been participating in the eastern war from the beginning, but now - in light of Germany's inability to replace manpower losses in time - it was clear that their manpower contributions would have to be increased.

Hitler laid the groundwork by writing personal letters to Mussolini in Italy, Horthy in Hungary, and Antonescu in Romania, laying out the idea that the Soviet Union was on its last legs and a final victory over Bolshevism could be won with an intensified effort in 1942. Mention of the strategic objective - and in particular, mention of Germany's own degraded combat strength - was strictly forbidden. Through a concerted campaign of cajoling, flattering, lying, and over-promising, Hitler managed to get commitments from these three key allies to raise their force deployments in the east. Whatever later stereotypes exist about the lackluster contributions of Germany's allies, in 1942 the Nazi Empire's operational ambitions were explicitly predicated on their contributions to flesh out Army Group South.

Thus, Fall Blau, or Case Blue was born.

The explicit objective of Case Blue was in itself relatively straightforward and prudent. Its goal was neither to capture the Caucasus nor Stalingrad, but to destroy the Soviet armies south of the Don River and the lower Volga; in essence clearing these regions in preparation for a drive south into the Caucasus. In theory, this would give Germany a highly defensible position with the Don and Volga shielding almost the entirety of its front in the south, allowing the Wehrmacht to consolidate control over the Caucasus.

The general sketch of Case Blue was fairly straightforward conceptually, though it had enough turns and maneuvers to make it a tricky job. Army Group South would clear the southern river basins by working its way from north to south in a series of pincer movements, which (it was anticipated) would allow it to scoop up large Soviet forces in encirclements. The first phase would feature three German armies (2nd, 6th, and 4th Panzer Group) driving a short distance to the Don and converging at the city of Voronezh. They would then wheel south and push into the lower Don Bend, converging again around the town of Millerovo and linking up with 1st Panzer Group, before loading up for a final push westward towards the Volga. They would be trailed by a variety of Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian armies which would provide much of the mop up infantry and protect the flanks of the spearhead German units.

If this plan worked as intended, the Wehrmacht would catch several Soviet armies in pockets - recreating the success that they had repeatedly enjoyed in 1941, and had only recently replicated in the annihilation battle at Kharkov. This would leave Soviet forces in the south crippled and essentially establish a solid defensive line protecting the (so far unplanned) attack on the oil fields.

What of Stalingrad? It was noted in the orders for Case Blue, but it received no more attention than other cities like Rostov, Kalach, or Voronezh. Certainly, nobody reading the orders would think this was a particularly important location. The orders noted that it would have to be "reached" and could be used as a "blocking position", and there was a note in particular that the "Stalingrad area" would be the place where the pincers would meet up as they drove for the Volga. The planning documents, however, were fairly vague as to what would be done with the city - whether it would be masked or screened, captured, or simply bombarded. This is because the implicit assumption of Case Blue was that the greater part of the Soviet forces in the region could be encircled and destroyed to the west of Stalingrad proper.

Certainly, there was no hint that Stalingrad was the focal point of the operation or some sort of deranged Hitlerian fixation, and there is absolutely nothing to support the ludicrous idea that Hitler was willing to fritter away his war in an attempt to humiliate Stalin by capturing the city named for him. Hitler's only comment on this matter was indifferent: "I wanted to reach the Volga, to be precise at a particular spot… By chance, it bore the name of Stalin himself."


Spring came and went, and the Wehrmacht did not appear to be getting any closer to starting Blue. High command wavered over the start date; there simply was not as much fuel or as many tanks and trucks as they would have liked. What ended up forcing the issue, remarkably, was yet another wayward staff plane. Many are no doubt familiar with the 1940 incident in which a plane carrying operational documents accidentally landed in Belgium, forcing a total redesign of the campaign against France. In this case, on June 19th, a small plane flew off course and landed behind Soviet lines. The airplane was carrying Major Joachim Reichel, the chief staff officer for 23rd Panzer Division, and Major Reichel was carrying the complete orders and situation maps for Blue.

Rather than force a return to the drawing board, the news that the operational plan had been lost wholesale prompted the Wehrmacht to begin the attack as soon as possible (aiming, essentially, to get started before the Soviets could digest and act on the information), and a start date of June 28th was issued. The Germans need not have worried - Stalin decided that the captured plans were a disinformation ploy designed to distract from an attack on Moscow, and took no measures to counter Blue.

Blue began with all the hallmarks of a spectacular German victory in the making. The lead elements of 4th Panzer Group tore through Soviet defenses with almost no resistance and began to barrel towards the city of Voronezh. By the end of Day 2 (June 29th), the Germans had overrun the headquarters of Soviet 40th Army, forcing the staff to flee and leaving the men of the 40th without command and control, and thus fish in a barrel. By July 4th, one week into the operation, 4th Panzer Group had reached the Don, and it seemed that another great encirclement was due to be bagged.

It was at this moment that a bizarre cocktail of contingencies began to rip way the Wehrmacht's great victory. Some of the ingredients are familiar, like fuel shortages and Hitler. By far the strangest, however, was a seemingly incoherent pattern of Soviet counterattacks and disintegration. Let us elaborate.

By the end of the first week, the spearhead German elements at the far north of the line were approaching Voronezh, facing little to no meaningful resistance. Further south, German Sixth Army more or less walked through the Red Army's defenses. This was entirely unexpected. The Soviets had been digging in here for months - even with tactical surprise, the Germans expected a real fight to breach these lines before they could start driving into the rear. Instead, it seemed as if broad swathes of the Soviet front were simply vanishing.

What exactly was happening? Was the Red army executing a pre-planned withdrawal, to prepare for a later counterattack? Was this a sign of a widespread loss of command and control? Was it possible, as Hitler mused, that "The Russian is finished?"

What seems to have happened was a mixture of pre-planned withdrawal and general panic at the lower levels. There was some intention of waging an elastic defense, but it seems that in many cases these withdrawals lost their cohesion and metastasized into general flight and panic. The loss of a cohesive defense across the Don basin prompted Stalin to issue his famous Order #227: "Ni shagu nazad!" – Not one step back! Nevertheless, the Red Army would keep stepping - and indeed running back for many weeks.

Searching for the enemy in the vastness of the steppe

This was all wrong. The operational design of Blue was predicated on large Soviet forces standing in a front loaded defense, so that they could be encircled and destroyed, but this could not be achieved if the enemy melted away on contact. The Germans had a word for this - a Luftstoss. Literally a gust of wind, in the military parlance a Luftstoss meant a strike into the air - a mighty punch that hit nothing. Field Marshall Bock would glumly observe that, "Army High Command… would like to encircle an enemy who is no longer there."

While portions of the Red Army were melting away and retreating to the east - a completely unforeseen contingency - in other sectors, the Soviets were counterattacking with tank forces. This was equally unforeseen and perhaps even more problematic, in that it created a sense of operational paralysis - a rare occurrence for the Wehrmacht. The plan called for 4th Panzer Group to get to Voronezh and then drive south as fast as possible, but a series of armored counterattacks by the Red Army to the north of Voronezh gave Bock doubts about pulling the Panzers away immediately. This led to a direct confrontation with Hitler, in which both men had valid points. Bock was rightly concerned with sending 4th Panzer south and leaving his northern flank weakly defended, and Hitler was rightly concerned that any delay in getting the Panzers moving could blow up the entire operation.

What this reflects, above all, is that this German force had insufficient mechanized forces and fuel to wage an operation like this. This was an operation being fought on a shoestring budget, so to speak, which left no margin for error. Any wasted time or wasted force could lead to a catastrophe, and this complete lack of cushion made operational uncertainty threatening in the extreme.

And so, facing an enemy who would not cooperate by standing still between the great German pincers, Case Blue broke down into an operational calamity, with the key German maneuver units being sent back and forth across the Don Basin, trying to catch something, and frequently being stopped for days at a time awaiting fuel deliveries. III Panzer Corps, for example, would cross the Donets River twice and drive over 250 miles in July looking in vain for somebody to fight - wasting precious time and fuel on what amounted to a driving tour southwestern Russia.

In the end, Blue wasted much of the summer and tremendous amounts of fuel searching in vain for a decisive battle to the west of the Don River, when the bulk of the Soviet forces were either on the east side or hightailing it that direction as fast as they could. German commanders across the theater reported the same repeated experience - rather than encircling large Soviet units, the best they could do was to (by accident) run into retreating Soviet columns.

The map of Army Group South's movements paints a sufficient picture of the operation's futility - various units crossing back and forth, ramming into each other, closing pincers with nothing in between them, vainly attempting to trap an enemy that was no longer cooperating.

Could it have been different? It is of course popular to conduct thorough autopsies, and to blame particular decisions - especially if they were made by Hitler. Personalities matter, and decisions matter (Hitler certainly thought so when he fired Bock at the end of July), but that was not quite the problem with Blue. The flight of huge sectors of the Soviet front certainly threw a major wrench in the works, but even this was not really the problem.

The problem was one of force generation. The Wehrmacht simply had too few trucks and tanks, and too little gasoline to fight this operation - this meant that a small handful of keystone units, especially the overstretched Panzer forces, had to shoulder all the operational burdens.

Take, for example, the heated argument between Hitler and Bock as to whether 4th Panzer ought to run to the south immediately or loiter to stabilize the northern flank. It is easy to get bogged down comparing the two options, but it is rather more interesting to note that the nature of the debate itself shows forth the Wehrmacht's doom. The Fuhrer and the Field Marshal were, in essence, arguing about whether a Panzer Army ought to be on the north or south end of the line. A single Panzer Army cannot be in two places at once. It would be much better to simply have another Panzer Army - but the Germans did not.

The fact that Case Blue depended - even in its best case scenario as drawn up on paper - on a handful of mechanized units screaming back and forth across the theater reflects the fact that the Wehrmacht was simply understrength and could only hope for success by massively overburdening these forces.

Smoke Break

Perhaps the best example is that of XXXX Corps. This Corps began the operation with a total of just 230 tanks, and yet it was tasked with subdividing itself and pursuing three different objectives in all manner of opposing directions. Asking an understrength corps to be in three places at once is not a recipe for success. The Corps' chief of staff put it rather blandly: "the corps was aiming at goals in three directions at once, and was running the risk of not reaching any of them." At this point, command might have argued about which objectives to pursue and which to ignore, but the entire conversation would have been pointless - XXXX Motorized Corps ran out of gas and had to sit still for several days.

Ultimately, Blue attempted to do too much with too little, and no matter what the minutia of the decisions were, the meager mechanized forces simply could not adequately handle all of these operational tasks. The Red Army's decision (whether intentional or not) to retreat out of the forming pockets did not help, but the bigger issue was that there were inadequate forces to weave a sufficiently thick net around the Soviet forces. Or, as the great historian Robert Citino put it, there really was nothing wrong with Blue "that a thousand or so extra tanks would not have fixed."

The Decision for Stalingrad

Blue had put the Wehrmacht in an awkward position. From a territorial perspective, the operation had been a sort of success, in that it brought Army Group South over the Don River to the doorstep of the Caucasus. While it would not have been fair to say that the path to the oil fields was wide open, the Wehrmacht was at the very least within striking distance, poised to make one final lunge for the oil.

And yet, it was all wrong. There had been no battle of annihilation, no great encirclements, and no destruction of Soviet combat power on a meaningful scale. Instead, the Red Army forces inside the Don bend had largely melted way to reconstitute themselves on the other side of the river. Thus, although the Caucasus and the oil was now seemingly within sight to the south, Army Group South faced a whole slew of intact Soviet armies hanging over the top of its head to the north.

The basic question, then, was how the campaign could be continued towards the oil fields without this enormous Soviet force coming down from above.

The Wehrmacht's View: Autumn, 1942

Case Blue had originally stipulated that an advance on the Caucasus could only be attempted once two conditions had been met. First, the mass of the Soviet forces in the lower Don and Volga needed to be crushed (or at least badly mauled), and secondly the Wehrmacht needed to hold a blocking position on the Volga which could shield the lines to the Caucasus. Neither of these objectives had been achieved in the summer campaign, but on July 23rd Hitler issued a new directive greenlighting the next phase of operations. This direction (Fuhrer Directive 45, to be specific) has been hotly debated ever since, and identified as one of those many potential points where Hitler can be said to have lost the war.

The essence of Directive 45 was to split Army Group South into two sub formations, pursuing both the next stage goals in the Caucasus and completing the original goals of Case Blue simultaniously.

Army Group A would commence the invasion of the Caucasus - codenamed "Operational Edelweiss". Group A's to-do list was formidable. It needed to envelop the Soviet Caucasus armies in a great pincer move (and destroy them before they could withdraw into the mountains), capture several Black Sea ports, and motor through the mountains to capture three major oil fields, at Mayakop, Grozny, and Baku. It is easy, sometimes, to think of the Caucasus as a sort of footnote or mop-op operation, but the scale of Edelweiss was absolutely enormous. It has been pointed out that the distance from Rostov (the operation's starting point) to Baku was roughly as large as the distance from Rostov to Warsaw, meaning that even after all the fighting they had done over the previous year, the Wehrmacht was barely halfway to the end. The Caucasus region was colossal (larger than either prewar Poland or France), and many of the cities slated for capture were huge. Thus, far from being some sort of reasonable wrap-up job, Edelweiss promised to be an enormous operation in its own right.

Accordingly, Group A was to be the main effort and was given strong forces (such as were available). Under the command of Field Marshal Wilhelm List, Group A was to consist of five armies - the 17th, the Romanian 3rd, and the two Panzer Armies (1st and 4th), to be joined by the 11th Army under Erich von Manstein, which was to be ferried over from Crimea.

This left precious little for Group B, which in the end consisted of little more than the German 6th Army under General Paulus, with a few Hungarian and Italian forces in tow (though Hitler would eventually reassign Panzer Army 4 to from A to B). Group B's task was to easier said than done. The actual wording of Hitler's directive instructed it to move towards Stalingrad, "smash the enemy forces concentrated there, occupy the town, and block the land-bridge between the Don and the Volga, as well as the Don itself." In other words, Sixth Army was to establish the blocking position that Case Blue had aimed for, and use Stalingrad as the anchoring point of this new defensive line that would protect the long lines of supply to the Caucasus. As Sixth Army advanced towards Stalingrad, the Hungarian and Italian armies would lag behind and protect the flank.

German Autumn Ambitions

Perhaps the best way to think about the construction of these operations is to consider what Germany's best case scenario was. What, precisely, did Hitler and his staff hope for out of these decisions? In the most rosy outcome, Group A would have completely captured the oil fields in the Caucasus, and work could have begun creating viable overland links both to supply operations there and to extract oil. This strung out position in the Caucasus could then have been defended by a strong defensive position on the south side of the Don and Volga Rivers, with the 6th Army (a powerful and oversized formation) guarding the gap between the rivers, using Stalingrad as its defensive anchor.

All in all, this would have been a fairly strong position. The aims of Blue and of its follow-up operations were sensible. The Germans simply had inadequate forces to achieve them, and once again the Soviets refused to play ball.

Sixth Army dutifully jumped off its start lines and started to drive east. In the path lay the Soviet 62nd and 64th Armies - perhaps another opportunity beckoned to win an encirclement battle? Once again, however, lack of motorized forces and especially a lack of fuel prevented such an outcome. In fact, by the closing days of July, Sixth Army was almost entirely immobilized by lack of fuel, and would not be able to get moving again until August 7. By this point, nobody could deny that Paulus's force was simply inadequate for its assignments, and Panzer Army 4 under General Hoth was reassigned to Army Group B to assist it.

The notion of an entire powerful Panzer Army sweeping northward to join the battle is the stuff of German fever dreams - but by this point, it was only a dream. In order to get Paulus's force moving again, 6th Army had to be promoted to top priority for fuel. This bumped the other units down, and so Hoth's Panzer Army was now the lowest priority, severely limiting its mobility. Rather than rushing up to join the action in heroic fashion, it made a plodding rumble across the steppe as fuel supplies allowed. It is very difficult for an army to wage a campaign of maneuver when it is unable to fuel all of its major maneuver elements at the same time.

On September 2nd, the two major German formations - 6th Army and Panzer Army 4 - linked up on the approach to Stalingrad. Again, two massive German pincers had slammed shut, but again they had moved too slowly and nothing of note was caught between them. A final attempt to encircle the Soviet armies on the open plains outside Stalingrad had failed, and the Wehrmacht found that its prey had withdrawn into the city. 6th Army had dealt out a good blow while forcing its way across the Don - taking some 57,000 prisoners and destroying a sizeable Soviet tank force - but this fell far short of the enormous encirclements of the previous year, and the Wehrmacht had so far failed to destroy any of the Red Army's operational level units.

We come at last to the fateful decision, and the core question. How did the German campaign - and indeed, the war - come to hinge on the previously insignificant city of Stalingrad?

General Kleist (commander of 1st Panzer Group) had concluded that "The capture of Stalingrad was subsidiary to the main aim. It was only of importance as a convenient place, in the bottleneck between the Don and the Volga, where we could block an attack on our flank by Russian forces coming from the east." And yet, already by July 30th, Alfred Jodl (Wehrmacht Chief of Staff) had concluded that "the fate of the Caucasus will be decided at Stalingrad." How could this be so?

The Wehrmacht had arrived on the doorstep of the city without succeeding in inflicting a major defeat on the Red Army. They therefore faced the looming threat of intact and growing Red Army forces in the theater, indeed, the Stavka was already preparing reserve armies for the newly formed Soviet Stalingrad Front. So what to do?

Stalingrad itself was rather unusual. It was not shaped like a normal city, but more like a rectangular strip full of heavily built up industrial areas. Since the city was on the western bank of the Volga, it formed a ready-made heavily fortified bridgehead for the Red Army. Because it could be both supplied across the river and defended by powerful Soviet artillery forces on the east bank, it was impossible for the Wehrmacht to surround it or besiege it.

A German map of Stalingrad

There were, really, only a few options. The Wehrmacht could sit where it was, exposed on the steppe at the end of a long and tenuous supply chain and wait for the Red Army to counterattack. It could retreat and abandon the campaign in the Caucasus, but this would mean giving up on the oil and thus any prospect of victory. Or, it could go into the city, try to dig out the Red Army defenders, and establish a defensible position for the winter.

Faced with a set of choices that ranged from bad to catastrophic, the Germans chose the option that was merely bad. On September 5th, the assault on Stalingrad was launched. The Luftwaffe swarmed overhead, and the 6th Army went into the city.


Since our focus in this series has been operational maneuver, the fight for Stalingrad itself does not fit in very well, since maneuver and operational level warfare ceased to exist as such. Far more interesting for our purposes are the broad decisions that led to Stalingrad and to the resolution of the campaign. Nevertheless, we may indulge in a few words about the fight in the city itself.

Stalingrad, more than any other battle in the Nazi-Soviet War, presents a visceral image of an apocalypse on earth. Artillery and aerial bombardment quickly reduced much of the city to rubble, limiting the use of tanks - correspondingly, most of the 4th Panzer Army was sent back to the Caucasus, and it was 6th Army's infantry divisions that would have to shoulder the burden of Stalingrad. This was a battle of individuals fighting in extremely close quarters – especially given the Soviet practice of "hugging" the Germans, which meant taking up positions so close that the Germans could not call in artillery strikes for fear of hitting themselves. Veteran German soldiers who had fought from Poland, to France, and now to the seeming ends of the earth in Russia found that the scope of their war had shrunk down to close quarters, or even hand to hand combat for the control of ruined buildings.

The view of Stalingrad from a German bomber

This was a battle fought in mounds of rubble, basements, streets, and sewers, waged by infantry wielding small arms, machine guns, and mortars. In many cases, the distance between the two sides amounted to a single city street, or even a single interior wall in a half-destroyed building. The scale of the war was radically altered; instead of targeting objectives spread out hundreds of miles apart in the vast Soviet interior, the Germans now fought to capture individual blocks, factories, apartments, and even drains and sewer culverts. This latter charming feature led the Germans to dub the battle a "Rattenkrieg" - rat war. The key objectives were very specific city sites - most famously the Dzerzhinsky Tractor Works, but also various railway stations, docks, parks, apartment blocks, and factories. Perhaps the most important site was Mamayev Kurgan, or Hill 102 to the Germans. An enormous grassy hill which had once been a burial ground, Hill 102 offered dominating ground over the city center and the docks. There was, perhaps, something primordial and atavistic about a ferocious battle for an ancient battle ground. As Macaulay put it:

"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.

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Big Serge Thoughts
27 Apr 2023 | 6:57 pm

2. Soviet Operational Art: Troubled Beginnings

One of the many peculiarities of the Second World War was the extent to which the defeated Germans were allowed to write the history. The rapid onset of the Cold War after the fall of Nazi Germany transformed the Soviet Union from ally to adversary, and sparked interest in the German experience fighting the Red Army. The bevy of memoirs and material from former Wehrmacht officers, combined with the secrecy of the USSR, ensured that for many years the only story of the Nazi-Soviet War being told was the version told by the Germans.

In this version of the story, the Red Army was a product purely of size - human waves, hordes of crudely built tanks, and such an overwhelming storm of bio-mechanical mass that it rolled over a vastly more skilled and modern Wehrmacht. Later, however, western study became aware that the Red Army also had an extremely technical and systematized operational doctrine known colloquially as "Deep Battle", and furthermore it became apparent that by the end of the war the Red Army had turned this doctrine into a highly lethal system that was able to roll over Japanese and German armies alike with apparent ease.

There are, then, two Red Armies. One is the slavish human steamroller which hurls men by the million against the enemy, and the other is a highly proficient and sophisticated force with an extreme degree of systemization and doctrine. The former is scorned, the latter is virtually fetishized.

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These schizophrenic views of the Red Army reflect only that armies are learning institutions. The Red Army of 1941 was indeed highly wasteful of men (though not intentionally) in that it tended to be operationally clumsy and incapable of deft maneuver or effective combined arms fighting. It was led by an inexperienced and politically paralyzed officer corps. The experience of fighting the Wehrmacht for four years was bound, therefore, to leave an indelible impression and teach important lessons (however costly), and by 1945 that same Red Army had become an immensely competent and monstrously powerful force.

The process of becoming, and of transforming abstract operational theories into battlefield realities was horribly painful, and until 1943 the Red Army would be painfully groping its way along the learning curve, searching for something that could be properly called "operational art." For the millions of Soviet soldiers who died in the first years of the war, it could seem as if the Red Army was trapped in its own search for doctrine.

Politics By Other Means: The Soviet Context

Military institutions are a product of the social and political substrate which creates them, and by extension a window into that same substrate. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that the Red Army was a unique institution which, just like the Soviet Union, was simultaneously neurotic, inseparably wedded to doctrinal presuppositions, plagued with systemic inefficiencies, and monstrously powerful.

Armies develop doctrines and methods of warfighting as a result of their own particular admixture of historical experiences, institutional incentives and ideologies, and material constraints. The German Wehrmacht, for example, can be understood as the culmination of a longstanding Prusso-German scheme of war making - a synthesis of a modern mechanized tactical package, the preternatural battlefield aggression of Frederick the Great and his heirs, and the operational elan of the eternal genius, Moltke. The great nemesis and destroyer of this Wehrmacht, the Red Army, can in contrast be thought of as the result of an effort to reconcile Russia's military experiences from 1914-1921 with the ideological axioms of Marxism-Leninism and Stalinism's powers of mass mobilization.

The Red Army as an institution was the emergency creation of an infant Bolshevik regime which found itself in a state of existential crisis. An essential element of the Bolshevik rise to power had been the intentional fomenting of mutinies and desertion in the tsarist army and an incessant anti-war program. As a result, by the time the Bolsheviks took power in late 1917, the Russian army had largely ceased to exist - a fact which allowed Germany to impose the draconian treaty of Brest-Litovsk on Lenin's government, ostensibly stripping Russia of its western rimland. When Lenin's cabinet called the newly appointed Commander in Chief, Nikolai Krylenko, to report on the prospects of resisting the Germans, he replied simply: "We have no army." The collapse of Germany in 1918 mercifully let the Bolsheviks off the hook for a moment, but their lack of an army was clearly not sustainable, as they soon found themselves besieged by a loosely connecting ring of anti-communist armies led by former tsarist commanders - the so-called "White Armies."

The ensuing Russian Civil War pitted these White Armies against the newly formed Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, which was formed by a Bolshevik decree in January 1918. The Bolsheviks originally conceived of a "revolutionary" force comprised of ideologically motivated industrial workers - an armed proletariat. They quickly determined that this was not going to work. First and foremost, the proletariat in Russia (which was still an overwhelmingly rural, peasant country) was simply too small, and secondly it quickly became apparent that a revolutionary mindset - while admirable - was insufficient to win a modern war, and military expertise was needed.

The Red Army, therefore, had to be built up in a way that was ideologically repulsive to Lenin and his party. The manpower base would have to be drawn not from urban workers, but from peasants (an ideologically suspect class at best), led by experienced military officers. Such officers could only be acquired in the short term by calling up former Tsarist officers, who were termed "military specialists". That such "specialists" were needed was beyond dispute, but they were inherently untrustworthy and had to be monitored by the party watchdog commissars which honeycombed the army. Therefore, from the outset, relations between the party and the army were strained, because the army was necessarily built from potential class enemies (peasants and Tsarist officers).

The birth of the Red Army - Trotsky as military commissar

Through the relentless conscription of peasants, the Bolsheviks managed to improvise a clumsy but powerful prototype of the Red Army, which succeeded in defeating the White Forces. Fighting across a wide theater which ranged almost the entire breadth of the Russian perimeter, the Red Army conducted sweeping operations, shuttling large forces by rail, and successfully brought most of the old Tsarist empire under Bolshevik control. In Poland, however, they ran into problems. The newly formed Polish state invaded Ukraine in 1919, aiming to push Poland's borders far to the east while Russia was in a state of chaos. A Red Army counteroffensive drove the Poles out and pushed all the way to the gates of Warsaw. Here, on the Vistula, the Reds were defeated on a narrow front with high force concentration, finding that they were unable to penetrate the Polish front.

In Poland, the Red Army had run into its own little version of the western front - deep and congested defenses which defied penetration, exploitation, and movement and frustrated the previous pattern of operations which had led to success in the more conducive spaces of Russia, where the Bolsheviks controlled the rail network. There was therefore an inducement to study these particular operational problems and think systematically about war. This was amplified, however, by the ideological assumptions of the new communist government.

One of the core tenants of Marxism-Leninism - an outgrowth of dialectical materialism - is the assumption that most human endeavors unfold themselves to scientific enquiry. Operating on this assumption, the Red Army would in time systematize the study of war and create an extremely technical lexicon of terminology. The results, like many of the Soviet Union's works, were somewhat paradoxical - being both groundbreaking and extremely rigid. The body of Soviet work on military art is without doubt both deep and cogent. James Schneider, a professor at the US Army's School of Advanced Military Studies, wrote that "The single most coherent core of theoretical writings on operational art is still found among the Soviet writers." No small thing for a distinguished cold war adversary to admit.

The Soviet determination to systematically study military operations granted them an advanced insight into the changing nature of operations. They insisted that "bourgeois military science" could never grasp the changing nature of war, and blamed this for the general catastrophe of the Great War. The other side of the coin, as it were, or the downside of Soviet modes of scientific inquiry, was a deep attachment to doctrine. Because there was an implicit assumption that war was fundamentally open to rational inquiry, it was in turn implied that military affairs could be systematically or even formulaically managed. This created a tendency towards rigidity and "by the manual" war-making, which strictly prescribed all manner of regulation front densities, deployment schemes, and meticulous planning - the antithesis in many ways of the German notion of independent field commanders improvising on the basis of opportunity and aggressive instinct.

This tendency towards rigid doctrine meshed well with the developing Stalinist system and its metastasizing control apparatus, and would contribute to the sclerotic command and control systems that led the Red Army to catastrophe in 1941. However, the Red Army undoubtedly grasped one critical point that the Germans did not understand.

The kernel of the Soviet operational art was found in the first place in the Red Army's notion of "successive operations". In many ways, this ran counter to the German desire to wage decisive battle. Soviet thinking instead was premised on the assumption (based on Great War and Civil War experience) that it was foolish to plan on annihilating the enemy army in a single decisive operation. This was a total rejection, in other words, of "Schlieffen Plan" style thinking. Instead, early Red Army theorists argued that the key to victory was the ability to wage a sequence of connected or chained operations, feeding prepared second and third waves (what the Soviets called "echelons") along the same axis of advance.

Sergey Sergeyevich Kamenev, one of the first commanders of the Red Army and one of its earliest theorists, put it this way:

In the warfare of modern large armies, defeat of the enemy results from the sum of continuous and planned victories on all fronts, successfully completed one after another and interconnected in time… The uninterrupted conduct of operations is the main condition for victory.

Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who commanded Soviet forces in Poland, derived similar conclusions from his own experience, and argued that "the impossibility on a modern wide front of destroying the enemy army by one blow forces the achievement of that end by a series of successive operations." He would later add:

"The nature of modern weapons and modern battle is such that it is an impossible matter to destroy the enemy's manpower by one in blow in a one day battle. Battle in a modern operation stretches out into a series of battles not only along the front but also in depth until that time when either the enemy has been struck by a final annihilating blow or when the offensive forces are exhausted."

Another contemporary officer, Mikhail Frunze, argued that future wars would be "long and cruel", and would require the mobilization of the country's full reservoir of resources. He therefore called for the "militarization of the work of all civil apparatus" and a "definite plan for converting the national economy in the time of war."

Already by the late 1920's, therefore, the Red Army was clearly converging on many of the key concepts that it would put into practice in the 1940's. In particular, there was an emerging consensus that offensive operations would have to be sequenced (that is, chained together along the same axis) with prepared second and third echelons that could follow the first attack package down the same axis of advance. This was given further life by Tukhachevsky's instance that future wars would require massed tank action, on the order of many thousands of vehicles, to give the offensive adequate fighting power.

Mikhail Tukhachevsky

In February 1933, the Red Army published a new directive titled Temporary Instructions on the Organization of Deep Battle. This, for the first time, installed the iconic phrase in the technical Soviet military vocabulary and heralded the emergence of the famous Soviet doctrine - the communist corollary to blitzkrieg.

But what exactly is Deep Battle? Like Blitzkrieg, the term has widespread cachet but is not always well understood. 1936 regulations issued by Tukhackevsky's staff described it thusly:

Simultaneous assault on enemy defenses by aviation and artillery to the depths of the defense, penetration of the tactical zone of the defense by attacking units with widespread use of tank forces, and violent development of tactical success into operational success with the aim of the complete encirclement and destruction of the enemy.

This is not very helpful. This sounds like little more than a broad description of mechanized combat and not particularly different than the German approach to war. There were, however, critical distinctives - particularly a later note from the 1936 regulations which stipulated "The enemy is to be paralyzed in the entire depth of his deployment, surrounded and destroyed."

That phrase - "the entire depth of his deployment" is closely related to the argument that tactical success would be developed into operational success, and in particular represents the established Soviet emphasis on "successive operations", with multiple echelons or strike packages carefully prepared so that a sequence of waves could be pumped into the breach.

The distinction between German operational sensibilities and the theory of Deep Battle might be characterized this way:

  • German operations were frontloaded and governed largely by initiative and organic momentum. The fighting power - in particular panzers and motorized elements - was concentrated in the breaching units, and subsequent rollouts and thrusts were at the discretion of the field commander, who enjoyed great independence (at least up until December of 1941).

  • Soviet operations, in contrast, were both meticulously planned and partially backloaded, in that large packages of mechanized forces (including tanks) were organized in the reserve echelons, which were then sequentially fed through the breach to exploit the axis of advance and propel the attack further along.

Therefore, while German operations were preoccupied with breaching enemy lines and destroying enemy forces and operational targets, Deep Battle aimed to exploit as deep into the enemy rear as possible, with the intention of hopefully reaching enemy operational or even strategic reserves and overrunning combat sustainment infrastructure far in the enemy rear.

Aesthetically, the impression of a German operation is that of pincers - separated armies maneuvering towards each other to catch an enemy mass in the middle. The impression of a Soviet operation is rather more like a chisel, being hammered repeatedly into the same spot to break the enemy structure open.

At the tactical level, what this looked like (at least in an idealized form) was something not altogether different from the German mechanized package. A key strand of prewar Soviet thinking emphasized "shock armies" - special army sized formations that were overloaded with additional artillery and combat engineering units, to maximize breaching power. Such shock units by convention formed the first echelon of a textbook attack, while the 2nd echelon would be lighter on artillery but heavier on tanks and motorized forces. Thus, the gun-heavy first echelon formed the breaching unit, while the more mobile second echelon would grant exploitation and destroy the units bypassed by the first echelon.

Augmented by close air support and supported by paratroopers inserted at carefully selected points, this was a system of warfighting designed to overcome the congestion and indecision of the Great War, by fully leveraging industrial warfare into a powerful and sustained assault. Ultimately, its promise lay in the potential of echeloned attacks to power the assault to the operational depth - sucking not just the enemy's frontline forces, but his entire operational grouping including reserves and rear area infrastructure into the fray. This offered the potential to transform local (tactical) successes into operational victories that could collapse entire sectors of the enemy front.

Armies, of course, exist in political contexts, and in this case the political context was that of Stalinism. Much of the Red Army's early leadership and preeminent theorists would fall victim to the Stalinist purges of 1937-38 - most notably Tukhachevsky. With a general hunt for enemies, saboteurs, spies, and plotters (real or imagined) underway, some Soviet functionaries sensed an opportunity to advance their own careers. One Artur Artuzov had risen to become deputy head of military intelligence in the mid 1930's, before an unceremonious demotion to a low level archival job. Perhaps out of bitterness, or merely out of a desire to return to the party's good graces, Artuzov wrote a letter to the NKVD head, Nikolai Yezhov, claiming that he had evidence of a plot by the military brass to overthrow Stalin and the politburo. Stalin responded by having Artuzov arrested (on the grounds that he could only know of such a plot if he were a co-conspirator) and tortured. On May 22, Tukhachevsky was arrested.

Part of Tukhachevsky's problem was that his general profile and demeaner were objectionable. His family background was aristocratic, and he was possessed of significant swagger and self assurance (he remarked as a young man that he would either become a general by age 30 or die in combat). He was competent, he knew that he was competent, he liked beautiful women and expensive things, and he didn't mind people knowing it. This was all rather alarming to communists, and in particular Stalin, who believed that the officer corps was by nature a threatening breeding ground for counter-revolutionary attitudes - every good revolutionary keeps an eye out for Napoleon.

It took the NKVD interrogators four days to break Tukhachevsky down. His confession was splattered in his own blood: the stains remain on the pages to this day.

Tukhachevsky's confession – to crimes he did not commit – became the launching point for a widespread slaughter of the upper military ranks. Virtually the entire high command of the Red Army were beaten until they confessed to working for fascism. The carnage inflicted on the Red Army in 1937-38 was astonishing. Some 33,000 out of 144,000 officers were removed from their posts in total. But the damage was the most severe at the highest ranks. The Red Army had 186 division commanders, of whom 154 were claimed by the terror, to go along with 8 out of 9 admirals, 13 out of 15 front level generals, and 3 out of 5 marshals. Taken together, this means that in a two year period Stalin killed, imprisoned, or exiled 83 percent of his highest ranking military officers. The tragic irony, of course, is that there was no military conspiracy, because if there had been, the military brass might have attempted a coup to save their own lives – after all, the Red Army was the only institution in the USSR with the firepower and disciplined hierarchy to fight back against the NKVD. But because they were, in fact, loyal communists, they simply groped about in blind confusion as Stalin slaughtered them.

The first 5 Soviet Marshals. Only Budyonny (top left) and Voroshilov (bottom middle) would survive the purge.

With Tukhachevsky's corpse lying in an unmarked pit outside of Moscow, his ideas naturally fell into disarray and the Red Army entered a state of institutional sclerosis and decay precisely as war was approaching, although critical and talented minds like Zhukov, Konev, and Rokossovsky were lurking in the wings. The purge of the officer corps occurred at the same time that the army was expanding rapidly, from some 1.5 million active duty troops in 1937 to over 5 million by 1941. This massive expansion required the rapid promotion of officers, precisely as huge numbers were being purged and the remainder bludgeoned into rigid inactivity.

Furthermore, the execution of key theorists like Tukhachevsky led to the abandonment of many of the Red Army's best ideas, and deep battle was abandoned in favor of parceled out tank brigades in an infantry support role. While Tukhachevsky remains the most famous victim of the officer purge, a whole slew of talented and insightful thinkers were destroyed. Men like Alexander Svechin and Ieronim Uborevich, who might have otherwise earned name recognition amid distinguished military careers, are now little more than obscure footnotes and names on execution lists in the NKVD archives.

The purge therefore ensured that the Red Army would go to war in a state of doctrinal confusion and unsophistication, led by a an officer corps made up in the lower ranks of overpromoted young men, and in the upper ranks of untalented Stalin favorites. When the Germans invaded in 1941, one of the key army group commanders was long-time Stalin supporter Semyon Budyonny, who had explicitly stated that he believed tanks were a passing fad that would be subordinate to traditional cavalry. Hardly the ideal choice to go toe to toe with the German panzer package. The result was the tragically predictable catastrophe of 1941. Dreams of deep battle and massed tank forces were shelved, and the mission became mere survival.

Tempo: Kharkov, 1942

In virtually every sense, 1941 was an utter disaster for the Red Army. From June through the end of November, essentially every major operation - both defensive and counteroffensive - ended in spectacular defeat and astonishing losses. Beginning in December, battlefield initiative passed to the Red Army for a time owing to the general exhaustion and attrition of the Wehrmacht, and the Soviets were able to conduct a general winter offensive. While the most famous element of this effort is of course the counterattack at the gates of Moscow, the Red Army in fact went on the attack all across the enormous front and managed to reverse some of the Wehrmacht's territorial gains.

From an operational perspective, the Soviet Winter Offensive was rather simplistic and had no resemblance to the carefully planned and echeloned operations which Tukhachevsky and his supporters had dreamed of. By December, the Red Army had neither the time nor the resources to meticulously plan and prepare a proper echeloned attack - they simply threw a string of available armies, invariably under-equipped and under-prepared, at the Germans to take advantage of the Werhmacht's state of exhaustion. By April, these attacks had achieved variegated levels of success (at the cost of high casualties) and created a strange, undulating frontline which settled wherever combat happened to run out of energy.

For Stalin and Hitler, surrounded by their staff officers and huddled over their situation maps hundreds of miles apart, one particular spot on this bizarre frontline stood out. This was a bulge, or salient, which had formed around the city of Izyum in the southern section of front. The Soviet winter offensive had successfully captured a bridgehead over the Donets River, south of the major industrial city at Kharkov. By happy circumstance, the Red Army was also clinging to a narrow bridgehead upstream, north of the city.

The winding, irregular nature of the front here created operational opportunities that were extremely tempting to both armies, according to both their doctrinal disposition and broader strategic directions.

The Red Army's planning in 1942 was centered on the idea, largely driven by Stalin, that German operations that year would be focused on a renewed effort to capture Moscow. Zhukov remembered:

Stalin believed that in summer 1942 the Germans would be able to carry out large-scale offensive operations… he was above all concerned about the Moscow axis where over 70 German divisions operated.

In March, Stalin issued orders that the commanders of the various Red Army Fronts (again, this being the Soviet equivalent of an Army Group), should conduct a general evaluation of their sectors and make suggestions as to how they could conduct operations that would support the overall strategic imperative to defend Moscow. The commander of the Southern Front, Marshal Timoshenko, opted to stretch these instructions to justify a renewed offensive. Timoshenko had a rather disastrous combination of traits. He was aggressive and optimistic - qualities that synergized poorly with his overall mediocre talent and his good relationship with Stalin. Timoshenko wanted to attack, and believed the Izyum salient was an ideal spot.

Timoshenko and his team crafted a proposal for Stalin which argued that going on the offensive in the south would disrupt German development, throw off their timetables, and force them to redirect reserves away from Moscow. Stalin considered these arguments, and ultimately agreed to adopt an operational plan for 1942 in which "Simultaneously with the shift to a strategic defense"… the Red Army would conduct "local offensive operations along a number of axes to fortify the success of the winter campaign, improve the operational situation, to seize the strategic initiative and to disrupt German preparations for a new summer offensive." This was an ambiguous and open ended strategic approach which gave Timoshenko carte blanche to go all in on the attack. Marshal Alexander Vasilevsky, Stalin's Chief of Staff, would later ruefully remember that the decision "to defend and attack simultaneously turned out to be the most vulnerable aspect of the plan."

Timoshenko was amiable, loyal, and hard working - but he lacked the talent and decisiveness to successfully lead major operations

Moscow had never been the German strategic objective in 1942. Confronted with the prospect of a global war against the Anglo-Americans *and* the Soviet Union, German planning for 1942 was heavily preoccupied with acquiring access to the raw materials, especially oil, which would allow Germany to wage a prolonged, global war. The centerpiece of Germany's efforts for the year would be Case Blue: a powerful offensive to the southeast to capture the Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus. Along the way to the oil fields, the Wehrmacht hoped to trap, encircle, and destroy all the Red Army forces west of the Volga River.

Unlike Operation Barbarossa, which had pretensions of winning the war outright in a matter of weeks, Blue was drafted in recognition of the fact that a short war was no longer on the table, and that to survive a protracted global struggle Germany needed oil.  "The operations of 1942 must get us to the oil," admitted Keitel, head of the armed forces high command. "Unless we achieve that, we shall not be able to conduct any operations next year." A sobering thought – especially for a German army that lived and died based on its ability to wage mobile warfare.

In the spring of 1942, however, what mattered most was that the Wehrmacht was massing units in the south in preparation for Blue. Timoshenko's offensive at Kharkov, therefore, swung directly into the sector of the front where the Germans were preparing units for an offensive of their own.

The synchronicity of the operational plans was remarkable. Not only were both armies preparing for an offensive in the south, but both had specifically chosen the Izyum salient as the specific sector to begin with. Timosheno planned to launch his armies out of the salient, envelop and capture Kharkov, and then run the Germans back towards the Dnieper. The Germans, simultaniously, were planning Operation Fredericus - a rather textbook pincer movement to cut off the Izyum salient and trap the Soviet armies inside.

April 1942 Front Line with Operational Plans for the Izyum Salient

Yet the coincidences ran even deeper than the armies simply targeting the same sections of front. The start dates for these two operations were planned for a mere six days apart - Timoshenko planned for May 12, and the Wehrmacht for May 18. Even more remarkably, the most powerful units in each army's order of battle for these operations was the 6th Army. The spearhead of the Soviet attack would be the 6th Army under General Gorodniansky, and it was lined up directly across from the German 6th Army under General Friedrich Paulus.

On May 8, Field Marshal Bock - the new commander of Army Group South - speculated that "the Russians might beat us to it and attack on both sides of Kharkov." Hitler, however, thought this was silly: "such strong German forces are now in the process of assembly that the enemy is bound to be aware of this and will be careful not to attack us there." Timoshenko, however, was not aware, and so blundered into a colossal operational trap.

The 1942 Battle of Kharkov was a curious thing. It ended in an unmitigated disaster for the Red Army - a result which has generally led the entire thing to be written off as another painful and irredeemable turn in the long Soviet learning curve. However, the disaster that unfolded at Kharkov was due to German supremacy at the operational level. At the tactical level, the Red Army demonstrated that it had grown leaps and bounds since June 1941 and was on the road to an effective method of offensive warfare.

On January 10, 1942, Marshal Zhukov had issued Stavka Directive #03. This order, though easy to miss amid the general drama of the winter battles around Moscow, in fact signaled a major revision of Soviet operational practices and a return to the familiar prewar concepts of Tukhachevsky. Directive #03 resurrected the "shock group" as the principle breaching unit, and instructed that attacking units ought to concentrate their forces on very narrow frontages. The regulation attacking front for an army was a mere 15 kilometers. Furthermore, the composition of shock groups was a turn away from the massed infantry units used by the Soviets in 1941, and featured heavy concentrations of tanks, artillery, and ground support aircraft.

In keeping with this emerging doctrine of highly concentrated combined arms operations, Timoshenko's Kharkov operation concentrated large shock groups with enormous fire support - in some sectors, up to eighty artillery pieces per kilometer. When the opening artillery and air barrage began on May 12, the Red Army achieved total tactical surprise. The initial impression of the German defenders in frontline posts, surely, was that the shock groups lived up to their name. The Red Army had never hit so hard - a veritable storm of fire precipitated the approach of ground units. In the southern sector, the shock group attacking out of the Izyum salient tore a huge hole in the German lines and rendered the German 294th division almost completely combat incapable within the first day.

The Red Army showed vastly improved combined arms proficiency in 1942

On the tactical level, this Red Army was as different from its 1941 self as night is from day. The attack was far more concentrated, far better supported by artillery and air assets, and comprised of a far better mix of infantry and armor than anything the Germans had been faced with the previous year. The shock group proved capable of punching holes in German defenses - the question was now how to transform this into an operational success.

One lesson about warfare on this scale which is clearly taught by the experience of the two armies at Kharkov is the generally confused an incomplete nature of real time intelligence, and the possibility for both sides to be in some state of panic simultaneously. On the Soviet side, Timoshenko had to be pleased with his initial progress. By day three, his northern pincer was only ten miles from the outskirts of Kharkov. But some things were not right. Disturbingly, there were panzer divisions observed loitering on the flanks that were not supposed to be there, and the Germans were moving in reinforcements that were not expected (this is because the Wehrmacht was massing forces for its own offensive, and so had unexpected reserves close at hand). While Timoshenko hesitated, puzzling over the unexpected German forces, Bock was at German Army Group South headquarters desperately trying to galvanize a response from Hitler and the high command. By May 15, the situation map was such that nobody was truly comfortable.

In such an unstable state, the advantage flowed to the side with the calm, elan, and decisiveness to take control. Soviet doctrine had prepared the cognitive basis to deal with such a situation - it was time to send in the second echelon. Timoshenko had just such an echelon, comprised of two tank corps, which ought to have been inserted promptly (probably beginning early on May 14) to reinvigorate the Soviet advance in the face of German forces and give the fresh combat power to push the Soviet pincers closed.

Unfortunately, Timoshenko hesitated in the face of the uncertainty now present on his situation maps, and this ensured that the second echelon would not arrive in time. The opening shock group had pushed the frontline forward via kinetic action, which meant that the second echelon needed to trundle up roads that were already scarred by battle (littered with debris and shell holes) to reach the actual line of combat. The time delay involved in actually getting the second echelon to the front meant that they needed to be ordered forward promptly, if not preemptively. Hesitation proved fatal. The Soviet General Staff report would later conclude:

By the end of 14 May, the second-echelon tank corps (with 260 tanks) and rifle divisions were a long way from the front line. General Kuzmin's 21st Tank Corps was forty-two kilometers away from 6th Army's forward units; General Pushkin's 23rd Tanks Corps was twenty kilometers away, and the 248th and 103rd Rifle Divisions, which comprised 6th Army's second echelon, were twenty to forty kilometers away. Such a separation of second-echelon forces and forces of the echelon for developing success made difficult their timely commitment into battle, which was urgently dictated by the situation.

While Timoshenko hesitated, the Germans acted.

The crux of the matter was fairly straightforward. Operation Fredericus had originally planned to attack the base of the Izyum salient with a pincer movement and pinch off the Soviet troops inside. By attacking out of the salient, the Soviets had theoretically made this easier (since, by attacking westward, they were moving forces away from the German target at the base of the bulge). However, Fredericus could not be enacted as planned because the Soviet attack had smashed right into the force that was intended to form the northern pincer (German 6th Army). The solution to this operational problem was to rush reinforcements to the scene to provide a proper attack package to launch Fredericus.

Here, then, the enormous importance of German decisiveness and quick decision making became apparent. While Timoshenko dithered over where and when and how to commit his second echelon, the Whermacht brought a surge of fighting power to the scene. Units had already been amassing in the south for Case Blue, and a whole slew of these were now rushed to the Kharkov axis - 24th Panzer division was the first to arrive, followed by reinforcing infantry divisions. Perhaps even more importantly, the 8th Fliegerkorps (Air Corps) was en-route: a powerful Luftwaffe formation that brought German aircraft strength in the area up to nearly 600 planes. This was a huge surge in fighting power, and Fredericus was given the green light to start on May 17.

The Germans rushed air assets to Kharkov in reaction to the Soviet attack

When that day arrived, Timoshenko's huge fighting mass was still slogging its way westward, dishing out serious punishment to the units that Germany had put in its path. This was not a comfortable experience for the Wehrmacht at all. The Soviet attacking group was a hugely powerful force which integrated its arms much more efficiently than the Red Army of 1941 had. This Soviet grouping had a problem, though: the Germans had large forces now amassed to the south and northeast, firmly in its rear, prepared to launch Fredericus.

By the end of the 17th, 1st Panzer Army under General Kleist had launched off its starting lines around the city of Slavyansk and torn a huge hole in the Red Army's southern flank guarding the "neck" of the salient. All the Soviet forces then attacking westward faced immanent annihilation if they did not immediately break off the attack and withdraw back towards Izyum. Here, again, Timoshenko proved indecisive in a critical moment. Rather than ordering a withdrawal, he actually sent additional reserves in to reinforce his attack (a useless gesture at this point), and it was not until the 19th that he approved a withdrawal by his frontline units. By this time it was far too late.

The ensuing debacle encapsulated much of this war - German elan, Soviet command and control difficulties, and capricious cruelty. By May 21, the "opening'" of the Izyum salient had been narrowed to just 8 miles wide by the German pincers. A handful of bridges across the Donets river in this narrow gap now represented the only line of communication, supply, or retreat for the massive Soviet forces in the pocket. While the Germans pounced on these bridges and captured them, an enormous traffic jam was beginning to the west. Timoshenko's withdrawal order had gone out to the units at the forefront of the attack - 6th Army and Army Group Bobkin. His second wave, consisting of his two Tank Corps, was still moving west to reinforce the attack - somehow, these units had not received the withdrawal order. On May 21, as the Germans closed off the neck of the pocket, Timoshenko's retreating 1st Echelon ran into his advancing 2nd Echelon - a traffic jam inside an encirclement.

It took the Germans a week to liquidate the Soviet forces in the pocket, which after all were huge and continued to fight as best they could. Red Army losses were in the end enormous. The entirety of 6th and 57th Armies, Army Group Bobkin, and the 21st and 23rd tank corps were wiped out inside the pocket, and 9th Army (the unfortunate unit which had been defending the entrance to the bulge) was badly mauled. All in all, nearly 280,000 men were lost, along with a whopping 1,200 tanks and several thousand artillery pieces.

The autopsy on Kharkov, 1942, is rather an interesting one. It is very easy to place all the blame on Timoshenko, who was as a rule indecisive and mishandled the operation in obvious ways. Timoshenko was, to be sure, in over his head. The catastrophe at Kharkov seems to have awoken Stalin to this reality, and Timoshenko was removed from field command - but because he was one of Stalin's favorites, he was given a symbolic post at high command (a sort of promotion into a position where he could do little harm) rather than being shot.

It is one thing to say that Timoshenko bungled the Kharkov operation and contributed to a disaster. But the particular nature of that disaster was largely not Timoshenko's fault - rather it was foretold by the particular interplay of Soviet operational thinking and Red Army command and control disfunction.

The idea of Deep Battle was to mass sequenced echelons that could attack along the same axis, conducting consecutive operations to overcome the natural tendency of offensives to culminate. Where traditional offensives would run out of steam, the Red Army would have a second echelon prepared to keep the attack going, maintaining an attacking tempo and denying the enemy the chance to regain operational initiative.

Tempo, however, requires… well, tempo. Not a wavering indecision, and certainly not a command and control screwup which left the two echelons to crash into each other. In the particular case of Kharkov, the combination of Timoshenko's indecision, Soviet command and control snarls, and the imperative (both doctrinal and political) to continue the attack resulted in a sort of mindless hammering, oblivious to the danger massing at the neck of the salient.

In fairness, the Red Army had shown genuine improvement since 1941 on the tactical level - as a result, this mindless hammering was very violent and immensely damaging to the German units on the other end of it, but the improved functionality of the Soviet mechanized package did not translate to operational success - just as German operational skill could not translate to strategic victory.

Above all, Kharkov was a victory of Clausewitz. The great 19th Century German theorist thought of warfare as a tripart interaction between rational calculation, violent emotion, and random chance - that is, between planning, aggression, and luck.

Soviet notions of deep battle and echeloned attacks were predicated on the idea that sustained attacks would maintain offensive tempo and deny the enemy the chance to regain the initiative. All well and good, and in 1942 Timoshenko prepare a powerful multi-echelon attack package and identified a reasonable operational target. This is rational calculation and planning. What Timoshenko lacked - and what the Wehrmacht had in spades - was a preternatural aggression, and in the critical days while Timoshenko timidly let his offensive languish, the Germans were rushing additional divisions and air assets to the battlespace.

Thousands of Soviet soldiers were captured in the pocket at Kharkov

Ideas like tempo, initiative, and continuity of the attack are useful, and can form worthy concepts or objectives. They may even be pedagogically valuable motifs in the context of a military institution. On the battlefield, however, tempo and initiative must be taken and held by the decisiveness and aggression of the entire fighting organism.

In the end, Kharkov was a demonstration of the enormous gap between doctrine and victory; between planning and the battlefield. Victory ultimately depends not only on material and sound operational planning, but also on a lithe and reactive fighting body that can pass information and orders up and down within its command structure in a timely manner. Such an army is present and in intimate contact with reality on the ground, rather than operating entirely within the abstract realm of plans and doctrine. This is why Moltke, the greatest of all the German commanders across the ages, never liked to plan operations beyond a general sketch - he abhorred the idea of becoming too wedded to "the plan", since events on the ground and the actions of the enemy always took precedence.

At Kharkov, the Red Army very much seemed to be an army held captive by its own doctrine and plans. Facing a rapidly changing situation on the ground, with German forces massing for a counterblow, Timoshenko wavered for a bit before deciding to send the 2nd Echelon in to continue his offensive, doubling down on the attack when circumstances strongly prohibited it. He stuck to the plan, until it was too late.

The Other Foot: Operation Mars

1942 was by any reckoning a world-historical pivot. In the summer, the Japanese carrier force was crippled at the Battle of Midway (a subject for our future series on naval warfare), which all but guaranteed American victory in the Pacific - Japan's only real hope for victory having been to shock the United States into negotiations by achieving naval airpower supremacy. 1942 is also generally understood as the "turning point" in Europe, given that the first six months saw significant German victories at Kharkov, in Crimea, and in North Africa, and the year ended with German defeat at Stalingrad (the subject of our next article). Though I argued in my previous article that the genuine "turning point" of the war, as such, was the Battle of Smolensk in the late summer of 1941 (since this was the point where Germany's all-important panzer divisions became too attrited to finish the war), there is no denying that 1942 was the year where the strategic initiative passed firmly from the axis to the allies.

In many ways, the popular narrative structure of the Second World War fails to accurately represent both the opportunities and risks facing the belligerent parties. More specifically, Germany had "lost" the war much earlier than most people realize - by September, 1941, there was no reasonable military path to a German victory over the Soviet Union, let alone over the monstrously powerful Anglo-American-Soviet alliance. At the same time, however, actually destroying Nazi Germany and the Wehrmacht was much more difficult and dangerous than is commonly understood. Even once it no longer had a path to its own victory, the Wehrmacht had the power to make its defeat a costly proposition. For the Soviet Union, for example, the most costly quarter of the war in terms of total casualties was Q3 (July - Sep) 1943 - at a point in which the Red Army was clearly winning. Even cornered in a trap from which there was no escape, the Wehrmacht was lethal.

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Big Serge Thoughts
10 Apr 2023 | 11:40 pm

3. Russo-Ukrainian War: Leak Biopsy

Author's Note: I had been intending to publish an article on Soviet operational art this week, but the emergence of the leaks diverted my attention and led to this article instead. We'll return to military history shortly.

Another winter has ended, and spring has again arisen on the war in Ukraine. Amid the thaw and attendant mud, Russian forces - including the indominable Wagner Group - have pushed the Ukrainian grouping in Bakhmut to the brink, with the AFU now clinging its last defensive toehold in the city. Bakhmut has become the largest battle of the 21st century, and is now entering its climactic phase.

Nevertheless, battlefield developments have been upstaged to some extent by the apparent leak of classified US military intelligence documents which provide a sweeping view into the inner workings of the Pentagon's war.

I am not entirely clear on Substack's content policies as it relates to such documents. It is certainly too late for the US Government to contain the leak, as the images have by this point been shared, screenshotted, and downloaded countless times, but that does not preclude an attempt to limit its circulation via a whac-a-mole campaign of content deletion. In any case, desiring neither to violate US law nor run afoul of Substack's content rules, prudence dictates that I ought not embed the images directly in this post, but they are not hard to find - the "Rus Fleet" Telegram channel has them up at the moment, for example. Use your own discretion.

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While I will not be posting the leaked documents either here or on twitter, I would like to talk about them. If they are indeed authentic (and it appears that they are), they offer important insight into force generation and combat power in Ukraine - and perhaps even more importantly, into the intelligence framework that the Pentagon is working with. None of the items adduced paint a particularly rosy picture for either the AFU or its benefactors on the Atlantic seaboard.

A Brief History of the Leaks

Let's briefly indulge in an overview of the leaked documents as such before we think about their contents. They take the form of photographs of physical pieces of paper from an American intelligence briefing. This implies that the particular nature of the breach is a leak (personnel with legitimate access to the documents illegally disseminating them to the public) rather than a hack (someone gaining illegitimate access through intrusion of one form or another). The pages have visible creases on them, and a hunting magazine can be seen on a table in the background. Many of the pages are marked for sharing with NATO allies, but some stipulate US eyes only.

The general impression is that an American folded the briefing documents up, put them in his/her/their/xer/xem/plur pocket (the American military is a Diverse and Inclusive institution, and the leaker could have any, all, or no gender), took the pages home and photographed them. It was almost certainly not a Russian asset - if the documents had been acquired by Russian intelligence, they would have kept it internal.

Now, the obvious question is whether the documents are real. There's probably at least some rational basis to suspect a misinformation operation. All militaries engage in a range of intermingling intelligence (seeing what the enemy is doing), counterintelligence (hiding what you are doing), and misinformation (lying about what you are doing). Perhaps, one may muse, these documents were not leaked at all, but indelibly planted on the internet to mislead.

I was originally rather agnostic about the documents' authenticity, but I have come to the view that they are genuine (let's rate it a 90% likelihood of authenticity and a 10% likelihood of forgery or misinformation). My reasons are essentially as follows:

  • The timeline of events suggests an authentic leak. While the documents only started to circulate widely in the last week or so, they were actually first posted to the internet (as best as I can tell) on March 1st - but nobody noticed, apparently. The documents didn't attract mass attention until a pro-Russian telegram channel found them and reposted them after badly photoshopping the casualty estimates to show much lower Russian losses. Ironically, it was these falsified edits that sparked mass interest in the documents. To me, this suggests that the documents are not part of some sort of Pentagon misinformation campaign, because they essentially sat idle in the remote corners of a Minecraft Discord server for an entire month. If American intelligence wanted to circulate fake documents, one suspects they would have actually circulated them, rather than dropping them in an obscure corner of the information space and leaving them to languish.

  • The documents have perfect internal consistency. The full leak includes dozens and dozens of pages which are totally consistent down to the level of delivery dates, inventory listings, and arcane unit identification. This goes even above and beyond the perfect use of acronyms and military symbiology. Creating these documents would be a colossal undertaking and would require both precise subject matter expertise and a mammoth amount of cross-referencing to prevent contradictions - unless, of course, the documents are genuine, in which case the material would be consistent because it is real.

  • The documents are relatively low on actionable intelligence. They contain no planning details of Ukraine's coming offensive operations and only hazy outlines of Ukrainian force dispositions. A ruse intended to deceive the Russians would be expected to contain highly actionable (but false) intelligence.

  • Finally, both the government and the media are proceeding as if the documents and the associated security breach are real, and they are attempting to both limit the spread of the documents online and track down the source of the leak.

All of this to me suggests that these documents offer a genuine look into the Pentagon's handling of the war. We can retain some measure of caution and doubt, but let us proceed on the presumption of their authenticity and think on what we can learn from them.

Ukrainian Force Generation

The most significant implication of the documents is simple: Ukraine's combat power is significantly degraded, and in particular their mechanized units and artillery forces are in very rough shape.

The relevant material here in particular is a page entitled "US Allied & Partner UAF Combat Power Build", which details the force generation, training, and equipment tranches that will create the mechanized package which Ukraine will use in its spring offensive. The plan calls for a force of twelve nominal brigades, nine of which will be equipped by NATO and three internally generated by the Ukrainians. The leak does not offer insight into the three Ukrainian brigades, but the intended complement of the nine NATO brigades is meticulously listed).

All told, the combat power build calls for these brigades to field a total of 253 tanks, 381 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, 480 Armored Personnel Carriers, and 147 artillery pieces. This implies that these will be brigades in name only, and will in fact be far understrength. Parceling these systems out across nine brigades will give an average strength of a mere 28 tanks per brigade, along with some 95 IFVs/APCs and 16 artillery tubes. Compare this to a US Army Armored Brigade Combat Team, which would have almost 90 tanks and almost 200 IFVs/APCs. An American Stryker Brigade (a lighter, rapidly deployable formation) would have about 300 Strykers - the Ukrainian 82nd Brigade is listed to receive only 90.

In combat power terms, therefore, these new brigades are going to be far understrength. Their tank strength, far from being full brigade level, amounts to less than an American armored battalion.

Another key aspect of the force build document is the training schedules. This document dates from the beginning of March, at which point five of the nine brigades were listed at "Training 0% Complete". Only one of the brigades was more than halfway trained, rated at 60% complete. Despite this, six out of nine were scheduled to be ready by the end of March and the remainders by the end of April. This can only be achieved with significantly truncated training times, and these are detailed in the document. Leopard tank training, for example, is listed at only six weeks. Just for context, American tankers can pencil in 22 weeks of training for the Abrams.

The overall picture, therefore, is rather foreboding for Ukraine. The leaked documents do not give us insight into the three brigades that Ukraine is expected to generate with their indigenous assets, but the nine NATO trained and equipped brigades are slated to be significantly understrength and manned by personnel who are receiving a hugely accelerated training course. These brigades will almost certainly need to be deployed in groupings to be capable of the requisite combat tasks.

An ancillary but important note at this point is the fact that, as best we can tell from these documents, Ukraine's prewar tank park is almost completely gone. Ukraine went to war with about 800 of its workhorse T-64, but the NATO combat power build notes only 43 now on hand. There are others, of course, that are currently being operated by Ukrainian frontline units, but the build plan indicates that Ukraine has virtually none in reserve to equip this vital attack package, on which all their hopes will depend.

Meanwhile, a separate element of the leak paints a similarly dismal picture of Ukraine's ranged fires. Buried on a page marked "NOFORN" - which means No Foreign Nationals, even allies, are supposed to see it, is a logistics table showing 155mm shell deliveries and expenditures. This bit is rather shocking.

We have known for quite some time that Ukraine is facing a critical shell shortage, but the leaked documents reveal just how acute this issue is. Ukraine's usage rate is very low right now - the report claims only 1,104 shells had been expended in the previous 24 hours - compare this to the 20,000 or so shells that the Russian army is firing on a daily basis. Even more alarming for Ukraine is the note that they have only 9,788 shells on hand.

Even with a low burn rate that leaves the AFU massively outgunned, they have enough on hand to sustain combat for a little over a week, and they rely on a trickle of deliveries from the USA to keep these stocks stable. The report noted a shipment of 1,840 shells departing in the next 24 hours. Batches of this size are obviously insufficient for Ukraine to build up its stocks, and can only serve to backstop and replenish daily expenditure. There is no possibility of America quickly ramping up the size of these deliveries, because a mere 14,000 shells are produced per month. US officials hope to get this number up to 20,000 this year, but this is still below Ukraine's current burn rate.

The implication is pretty straightforward. Ukraine is on a shell ration that leaves it unable to offer more than token fire, and it will likely have to live with this shell ration for the duration of the war.

The overall picture of Ukrainian combat power is atrocious. Their overall combat effectiveness faces a hard ceiling due to systemic shell shortages, and the mechanized package slated for the spring offensive is going to be far less potent than advertised. Those nine NATO-created brigades will have the striking power equivalent of (if we are being generous) perhaps four genuine full strength brigades, augmented by three internally generated Ukrainian brigades of dubious quality. Ukraine's hopes for a glorious assault on the Russian land bridge to Crimea will rest on, at most, 400 tanks and perhaps 30,000 men.

Should this force dash itself to pieces against the well prepared Russian forces in the south, an important question would present itself. If this was the best force that NATO could generate for Ukraine, what will the second team look like? Will there even be another force? This understrength and undertrained mechanized package may be Ukraine's last serious roll of the iron dice.

The American Analytic Framework

While the leaked documents certainly do not paint an encouraging picture of Ukraine's force generation, they also offer a similarly shocking glimpse into the state of American military intelligence.

One of the things that immediately jumps out when one looks at the operational reports (the pages showing detailed situation maps) is that the Pentagon apparently has far more information on Russian dispositions than on Ukrainians units. Russian units are strongly accounted for - their locations are precisely marked, unit designations are identified, there are assessments as to which Russian units are combat capable or not, and there are very specific estimates of Russian frontline strength (IE, 23,250 men on the Zaporizhzhia axis and 15,650 men on the Kherson axis).

In contrast, Ukrainian units are not given combat capability designations, their locations are more generally indicated, and there are huge ranges on the assessed manpower (10,000 to 20,000 men on the Donetsk axis - an enormous margin of error!) This, incidentally, is another reason why I think the documents are genuine. If the intent was to put forth disinformation to confuse or deceive the Russians, one would expect actionable (but fake) intelligence about Ukrainian deployments - yet there is no such thing here. Ukrainian strengths and dispositions are presented vaguely and inconclusively, so the only thing the Russian army might extrapolate from this report is that the Americans don't really know what's going on with Ukrainian forces.

Indeed, this is the inescapable conclusion. The Pentagon does not seem to have a strong sense of Ukrainian unit strength, location, or activities. They also list their assessed Ukrainian KIA at a mere 16k-17.5k. This is an absurdly low number - where could they have gotten it? In fact, it is a direct copy-paste of the casualty numbers reported publicly by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

The fact that the Pentagon does not seem to have any independently generated intelligence about the Ukrainian army is shocking. They seem to have be relying on Ukrainian propaganda numbers and publicly available deployments data, like the open source Deployment Map. For the record, this is not a knock on the Deployment Map site - I use this resource frequently and find it very useful. The point, of course, is that the Pentagon, with its nearly unlimited resources, does not seem to have any unique insight or intelligence streams of its own in this regard. They gesture vaguely at the map and mutter, "there's probably a brigade or two in this area, maybe 8,000 men. Or 4,000. We don't really know." In fact, all of their axis strength assessments for Ukraine have a 100% margin of error (that is, the upper limit of the range is double the lower limit).

One can only conclude that the tail is wagging the dog. The Ukrainians are able to extract material, training, and cash from the west, but there is little accountability or honest information flow in return. There were hints of this earlier in the war - that Ukraine is a sort of black box which sucks in resources but does not communicate honestly in return; American officials have complained (and Ukrainian leaders have confirmed) that Kiev simply does not tell DC all that much. Apparently this remains an issue well over a year into the conflict. One particularly alarming footnote in the leaked documents states:

"We have low confidence in Russian (RUS) And Ukrainian (UKR) attrition rates and inventories because of information gaps, OPSEC and IO efforts, and potential bias in UKR information sharing."

Good grief.

One other issue is the Pentagon's estimate of Russian vehicle losses. It seems that here too they are copy-pasting external estimates. In this case, they appear to be using the "documented" vehicle losses from the Oryx project. Oryx is… interesting. In theory, they are tabulating visually documented equipment losses, which sounds very scientific and hard to dispute. Furthermore, the sheer mass of pictures they have accumulated is something of a verification deterrent - nobody really wants to sort through thousands of pictures and keep score.

However, Oryx has been audited and found wanting. There are a variety of issues that cause them to overcount Russian losses, in some cases drastically. These include double counting (multiple pictures of the same vehicle), wrongly identifying Ukrainian vehicles as Russian losses, counting as lost vehicles that have no apparent damage, accepting images that have obviously been photoshopped, and so on. In one particularly egregious case, a picture of a Ukrainian Msta howitzer had its crew photoshopped out and was marked as destroyed Russian artillery piece. I mean, look at this:

According to Oryx this is a destroyed Russian howitzer, and not a very badly photoshopped Ukrainian gun. Please ignore the conspicuous shadow.

The issue is essentially that Oryx gathers data passively, by having people on social media send them pictures, which they then look at and mark as verified losses. Social media, however, has a pro-Ukrainian bias which leads to a flood of allegedly destroyed Russian vehicles coming in, and Oryx seems to have a weak filter that uncritically verifies almost all of these claims. As a result, Russian losses are drastically overcounted, and Ukrainian losses are undercounted.

Okay, so what? Let Oryx run their little counting project, no harm done - right? Apparently not. The Pentagon's leaked documents claim 6,000 assessed vehicle losses as of March 1, which lines up with Oryx's claims (now up to 6,486 destroyed vehicles as of April 10). This is a strong data point confirming suspicions that the American Defense Department is increasingly outsourcing intelligence to OSINT (Open Source Intelligence). It is fairly clear at this point that there is an incestuous amplification between OSINT and the American defense and political establishment. When Oryx counts absurd photoshop hack jobs as destroyed Russian hardware, this becomes a meaningful data point feeding the Pentagon's battlefield assessments.

It would seem that, much like in the case of Ukrainian force generation and losses, the Pentagon simply does not have any sort of robust or meaningful insight of its own. There would seem to be no independent intelligence streams at work here - only a mindless regurgitation of Ukrainian MOD propaganda numbers and dubious open source projects like Oryx. The American military increasingly seems to be a hollowed out simulacrum of its past glories, decaying behind a façade of shiny machines and bloated budgets - a trillion dollar technobureaucratic jobs program coasting on the residual patriotic fumes of red state American boys.

It has long been apparent that the Kiev regime has no real plan, no firm path to victory, and only a tenuous and unfriendly relationship with reality. Far more terrifying is the thought that the Pentagon is much the same.

Air Defense at the Brink

One last major revelation from the leak is the greatly degraded state of Ukrainian air defense. Very simply, Ukraine is quickly running out of munitions, especially for its critical S-300 and BUK systems, and it can only endure two or three more wave strikes before breaking completely.

Air defense systems can be complicated to talk about for people who aren't familiar with the nomenclature. This is because there are a large number of different systems required for a modern air defense, which must be "layered" with different systems that intercept targets at various altitudes, phases of flight, and trajectories. The conversation can quickly become even more muddled because the launch systems have both a Russian designation and a NATO designation, and their munitions have different designations still - just for example, the air defense system which the Russians call the S-300 is designated the SA-10 by NATO, and it fires a variety of different interceptor missiles which have their own names, like the 9M83. Multiply this by the many different types of air defense systems currently in use in Ukraine, and you can see how it can easily decay into a morass of acronyms and serial numbers.

In any case, the key thing to understand about air defense systems is the layering aspect - if one node in the layer fails, not only does one lose full spectrum coverage, but the burn rate on the remaining systems increases because they are now bearing an undue load. Ukraine is now almost completely out of interceptors for the S-300 and BUK systems, which comprise almost all of its medium to long range defense. At the current burn rate, they are projected to run out by the first week of May and have had to make hard choices about where and what to defend. There is no prospect of acquiring more interceptors for these systems because they are manufactured in Russia.

To backstop these capabilities, NATO has been rushing its own systems to Ukraine and providing crash course training. What is notable, however, is that NATO is opting to send Ukraine new systems. Germany, for example, sent Ukraine four brand new IRIS-T systems in October. This was a cutting edge weapon in its first run out of the factory. The downside, of course, is that because it is new, there are no deep stockpiles of munitions from past production runs to call on - therefore, surprise surprise, the leaked Pentagon documents claim that Ukraine is already out of IRIS-T interceptors.

The leak furthermore revealed that Ukraine will be outfitted with two newer NATO systems - the American-made Patriot PAC-3 and the Aster 30-SAMP/T (I apologize for this horridly long designation, but I didn't name the blasted thing) which is a joint Italian-French creation.

Here's the issue. The US Department of Defense only purchases 230 PAC-3 interceptors per year, and the new procurement schedule does not ramp this number up at all. The Aster system is just now coming online, and Italy and France have contracted to have 700 missiles delivered in the coming years.

What all of this means is fairly straightforward: the Pentagon's plan to shore up Ukrainian air defense will force NATO to dip into its own stocks very soon, and we will see the artillery situation repeated with air defense interceptors. There simply is no surplus or large scale production to tap into to supply Ukraine; they can only be propped up by directly eating away NATO's own stocks. All of this occurs at the same time the Russian Air Force is becoming more and more assertive, using new glide bomb conversion kits to deliver colossal FAB bombs from safe distances.

Conclusion: Asleep at the Wheel

At first glance, the worst thing about this remarkable leak is the fact that it happened. This is a bewildering and embarrassing breach; an American citizen seems to have simply walked out with highly classified documents, which were then permitted to sit on a Minecraft Discord server for a month without anyone being the wiser. One must wonder how, and perhaps even more importantly why someone would do this.

Yet the leak as an act of subterfuge or treason is less significant than what the documents show. They show a conspicuous lack of alertness or long-range planning on the part of the Pentagon. American leadership seemingly has to contend with Ukraine as a black hole which sucks in money and munitions and gives nothing back; there is no strong sense of Ukrainian frontline strength, losses, or planning, and the Pentagon seems to lack any sort of independent intelligence streams.

Meanwhile, the material situation in Ukraine is degrading rapidly. Their artillery arm is running on fumes, with a miniscule shell ration and no reserve stocks to speak of, fed by a trickle of deliveries from the USA. Air defense is similarly worn thin, and the plan to repair this crucial umbrella threatens to quickly become vampiric and drain NATO interceptor stocks. The entire strategic logic of Ukraine has reversed. Rather than becoming a cheap way to drain the Russian military, NATO finds itself drawing down its own stocks to prop up the hemorrhaging Ukrainian state, with no clear endgame in sight. The proxy has become a parasite.

There does not seem to be any long term plan to sustain Ukraine's war. The Pentagon's procurement plans do not indicate any real intent to ramp up production of key systems. For FY2024, they have ordered a modest 5,016 GMLRS - the missiles launched by the famous HIMARS system. Ukraine has already fired nearly 10,000 GMLRS, making this yet another system where Ukrainian expenditures vastly exceed supply.

To salvage the situation, Kiev must place its hopes on one desperate dice roll with a mechanized attack package comprised of half-strength brigades wielding a disparate inventory of different vehicles and systems. This Frankenstein's monster of armies - sewn together with a bevy of different tanks, IFVs, APCs, and artillery systems drawn from all corners of the NATO alliance, will likely be asked to smash through the heavily fortified and robustly manned Russian lines in the south, where it will be pulverized and become only so much more mulch for the Pontic Steppe.


Big Serge Thoughts
22 Mar 2023 | 11:57 pm

4. Apocalypse: Operation Barbarossa

The beginning of the Nazi-Soviet War on June 22, 1941, was a cataclysm of an unimaginable scale. The ensuing conflict would unfold across an enormous theater and would be fought by armies of unprecedented size. Major operations were conducted from Berlin to the Volga, and from the Baltic to the Caucasus - millions of men killing each other in an arena well over a thousand miles across. It was also here, in the east, that the brutality of the Nazi regime was finally unleashed in its totality. As the Wehrmacht blasted its way into the Soviet interior, it was trailed by special SS units tasked with summarily executing identified categories of enemies, like Communist Party officials and Jews. Hundreds of thousands would be shot over open air death pits.

Thus, in geographic scale, in the sheer size of the armies, and in the uninhibited animalism of the violence, the Nazi-Soviet war stands alone. It is the war: the archetype of man-made apocalypse; unrivaled as the single greatest expression of organized violence.

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This war began in the early morning hours of June 22, 1941, when the German Wehrmacht jumped off its start lines and implemented Operation Barbarossa. This operation, like the larger war that it inaugurated, was unprecedented in its scope. The German force numbered well over three million men - dwarfing the forces involved in the invasions of Poland or France. Even more uniquely, however, Barbarossa was an attempt to wage a campaign of maneuver and annihilation on a genuinely continental scale. The planned areas of operation ranged from the Baltic States and Leningrad in the north all the way to Crimea in the south. The entire battlespace was on the order of half a million square miles. This is entirely unique. Neither before nor after would any army attempt a fully continental scale operation - and for good reason.

Barbarossa and its immediate follow up operation (Operation Typhoon) are much mythologized and frequently misrepresented in popular histories. The most simplistic story that is usually told centers strongly on the Russian winter. The Germans, it is said, were on the verge of capturing Moscow when they were caught out by the onset of winter weather, which froze their advance and allowed the USSR to recover (usually, it is said, with the generous aid of American lend-lease). A slightly more sophisticated, but still incorrect story points to the decision in the early autumn to redirect forces towards Kiev as a critical moment - allegedly, this reflected Hitler getting distracted by secondary objectives and causing a fatal delay which left the Germans unable to reach Moscow in time.

The failure of Barbarossa was in fact rooted in the highest conceptions of the operation, rather than in the details of its implementation. Barbarossa failed because it was simply impossible to successfully wage a continental scale maneuver campaign in the Soviet Union with the resources available to the German Wehrmacht in 1941. Tellingly, Barbarossa achieved all its objectives - but these successes did not translate to strategic victory.

You have heard that man's reach exceeds his grasp. In the case of the Wehrmacht in 1941, neither reach nor grasp was the deficiency. Hitler had reached and grabbed something far too big for him, and found himself grappling with a power that he had not understood and could not dominate. The enormous latent military power of the Soviet Union had been invisible to German planners, who foolishly dismissed the fighting prowess of Slavs, the sophistication of Soviet weapons systems, and especially the unparalleled organizational powers of the Communist Party, which could calmly and efficiently mobilize tens of millions of men to fight.

And so, blinded by hubris and Nazi presuppositions about Soviet incompetence and Slavic inferiority, the Wehrmacht found itself trapped in a war that it could not win, against an army that it had not understood, stranded in a vast country which mocked it with cruel distance. Above all, the Nazi regime discovered that its Soviet adversary had a totalizing ideology and powers of mobilization and coercion that outmatched its own. Stalin's empire, which Hitler dismissed as a giant with feet of clay, was much more powerful than anybody yet knew. Hitler, who yearned to bring an apocalyptic war of annihilation to the east, should have been careful what he wished for.

The Worst Surprise Ever

At first glance, Operation Barbarossa would seem to be characterized by two seemingly contradictory aspects - namely, that the German force was both the greatest accumulation of fighting power in the history of Europe, but they also managed to achieve almost total surprise. This seems as if it should be impossible - how could the Soviet Union be blind to the buildup of such an enormous force on their border - millions of men, with thousands upon thousands of artillery pieces, tanks, and vehicles, and with them the enormous supply depots, airfields, and rear area infrastructure?

The answer lay in a peculiar admixture of Stalin's own assumptions about German intentions, the dance of intelligence and counterintelligence, and a severe lack of understanding in the top echelon of Soviet leadership as to what it would look like on the ground when the Germans unleashed their mechanized attack package. Allow me the indulgence of an elaboration.

In 1941, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were still technically operating under a set of agreements which included a non-aggression pact, a trade agreement (which largely exchanged German machine tools and technology for Soviet raw materials), and an agreement on borders and spheres of influence which history knows as the Molotov Ribbentrop pact. Despite the nominally friendly alignment of the two countries, there was a shared sense that the alliance was rapidly outliving its usefulness, and that the two countries would soon be at war.

The disintegration of Nazi-Soviet relations was multi-causal. The arrangement was rather unpalatable for Hitler in the sense that it made Germany dependent on Soviet grain, oil, and other materials. Given Hitler's ideological presuppositions about the necessity of economic self sufficiency, ongoing dependence on Stalin for materials was a bitter pill to swallow indeed. Furthermore, the specific terms of Nazi-Soviet trade were strategically disadvantageous to Germany, because they were sending the Soviet Union industrial tools and technology that made the USSR more powerful over time, while receiving only consumable materials in exchange. Hanging over all of this was Hitler's general obsession with "Judeo-Bolshevism" and eastern empire.

Without going too deeply into the specifics of Hitler's worldview (another time, perhaps), it would be proper to say that the USSR was the specific place where his many ambitions were conjoined. It was in the lands of the Soviet Union where Hitler would both build a self-sufficient and resource rich German empire and also finally force a final confrontation with "the Jews." This proposed an archetypically Hitlerian solution. Hitler was above all a compulsive geopolitical gambler who loved the idea that he could solve all his problems with a single decisive stroke, and here was the perfect example. He could acquire grain, oil, and living space, end his dependency on an ideological nemesis, and kill a huge number of Jews and Communists with a single move.

The Nazi-Soviet truce, then, was never going to last. Its demise in 1941 was specifically triggered by disputes as to the relative spheres of influence in the Balkans. In November, 1940, Molotov visited Berlin and the idea was discussed to have the Soviet Union join the Axis with Germany, Japan, and Italy, but the talks broke down over the Soviet desire to have a presence in Bulgaria. What poisoned the relationship was not even particularly the issues at stake, but the fact that Hitler flew into an apoplectic fury when he was told of the Soviet proposals, and his subsequent decision to give Molotov the silent treatment. The Soviet proposal never relieved a formal reply - a silence which deeply unnerved Stalin and more or less confirmed that the truce was disintegrating.

Molotov in Berlin, 1940

How, then, could the Soviets have been caught by surprise at the launch of Barbarossa? Well, Stalin was certainly under no illusions that a war was coming. In early 1941, he gave a speech to graduates of the Red Army Main Military Academy in which he expressly predicted that a war was approaching and that the Red Army would break the myth of the Wehrmacht's invincibility. Preparations for war were underway in the Soviet Union when the attack came on June 22.


Knowing that a war will occur is different from knowing the day that it will start. Stalin enjoyed many streams of intelligence warning him that a German invasion was in the offing (including a warning from Winston Churchill), but they could not agree on the dates. Stalin knew that the Wehrmacht was massing on his borders, but could not ascertain their intentions. Furthermore, Stalin had observed a pattern in Hitler's behavior. All of Germany's previous expansions - Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, and so on - had come after the Fuhrer first made a final outrageous demand for concessions. In other words, Hitler seemed to favor first threatening his victims at gunpoint before unloading the Wehrmacht on them. Stalin in 1941 seems to have been quite confident that Hitler would threaten and make demands before attacking. The idea that the Wehrmacht would simply… attack… seems to have not seriously occurred to him.

Above all, Stalin's greatest mistake was relatively simple. He believed that he was ready for war. Stalin had moved heaven and earth to industrialize the USSR and arm it to the teeth with modern weaponry. The Red Army was the largest in the world, and it had a tank park significantly larger than the Wehrmacht's. In June, 1941, Stalin had 220 divisions mobilized, and a significant number were forward deployed on the border.

On June 19, the Party boss of Ukraine - Nikita Khrushchev - held meetings with Stalin at the Kremlin. As the sky grew dark, Khrushchev said "I really must go. War will break out at any moment, and it might find me here in Moscow or on the road." Stalin responded, "Yes, you are right." A few days later, at 1:00 AM on June 22, Stalin - under incessant urging from Zhukov - allowed the Red Army units on the border to come up to baseline combat readiness, but emphasized that "The task of our forces is to refrain from any kind of provocative action."

At the heart of the matter, Stalin - who was not a military man - simply did not understand how fast and violent the German attack package was. He presumed that the enormous Soviet forces on the border would handle whatever came their way. We could say, perhaps, that Stalin was abstractly prepared for the idea of war with Nazi Germany, but he did not understand what that would mean on the ground, or what it would look like when the Germans unleashed everything they had on Red Army.

He was ready for war, but he was not ready for the Wehrmacht.

Opening: The Mirage

Operation Barbarossa was a paradox par excellence. Very simply, it was the Wehrmacht's greatest operational achievement to date - and yet it lost Germany the war. How can this be? Let's examine.

The war began much the way other iconic German attacks had, and Red Army units on the frontier now enjoyed the same treatment as had the French in 1940 or the Poles in 1939: clouds of screeching Stukas, tanks disgorging fire on the approach, artillery concentrating on breach points, and well drilled infantry pouring on mortar, machine gun, and rifle fire. The Red Army handled it about as well as the Wehrmacht's previous opponents had. At this point in time, there was simply no military in the world that had the integration of arms to match the German mechanized toolkit, and the sheer violence, speed, and maniacally concentrated firepower at the breach was too much for anyone to handle.

German troops cross the Soviet border

The broad conception of Operation Barbarossa was essentially to take Germany's earlier campaigns and magnify them many times over. Where Poland and France had each been hit with two German army groups, Barbarossa called for three, and all of them were oversized. Poland had faced a handful of Panzer Divisions; France an eight division "Panzer Group". The USSR would be treated to a whopping four panzer groups, with a total of seventeen panzer divisions and a variety of motorized formations.

The German scheme called for three army groups to make deep thrusts into the Soviet Union with the intention of encircling and destroying the Red Army forces on the frontier. The Germans were well aware that in 1812 the Russian Army had foiled Napoleon by simply retreating deep into the Russian interior and denying him a decisive battle. The Wehrmacht was determined in 1941 to destroy the Red Army while it was still in the borderlands and prevent a withdrawal into the vast environs of the Soviet heartland.

They succeeded.

When the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, it deployed one of the most astonishing concentrations of fighting power ever seen. Hitler had amassed the equivalent of 152 divisions, comprised of over 3 million troops, augmented by more than 650,000 soldiers mobilized from German satellite states and allies like Hungary, Finland, Romania, and Italy. The German forces were equipped with some 3,350 tanks, 600,000 vehicles, 600,000 horses, tens of thousands of artillery pieces, and more than 3,000 aircraft. Even in the face of such a truly colossal force, Stalin had legitimate reasons to feel confident. Despite the enormous German buildup, at the outbreak of war there was no major arm – tanks, infantry, aircraft, or artillery – where the Wehrmacht held a meaningful numerical advantage over the Red Army. Stalin had spent most of his time in power pursuing a breakneck industrialization to transform the USSR into a military superpower, and as a result the Red Army on the eve of war was the largest and most liberally equipped in the world. The Germans did not outnumber the Soviet army arrayed across from them - they simply smashed it.

Soviet preparation for war had focused on material factors – the sheer size of tank, artillery, and aircraft inventories – while neglecting the professional aspects of command, communications, and coordination. Consequentially, despite adequate equipment and weaponry, the Red Army was, very simply, outmatched by the nimbler and more responsive Wehrmacht.

 In the first place, the performance of the Red Army cannot be separated from the fact that Stalin had conducted a widespread purge of his own officer corps only a few years prior to the outbreak of war. This appalling churn in the command hierarchy had occurred at the same time that the Red Army was expanding; as a result, Soviet officers tended to be rapidly promoted and were for the most part in over their heads early in the war, fighting a highly trained, experienced, coolly competent German officer corps, which had by now successfully undertaken two large campaigns in France and Poland, along with a variety of other specialized operations from Norway to Greece. The basic factors of experience and training were thus hilariously disposed in Germany's favor.

At the same time, the Red Army lacked a dedicated communications system and relied on civilian telephone and telegraph lines, many of which were quickly cut by the Germans. It was not uncommon during the early phases of the war for Soviet officers to have to inquire with local communist party officials (the party did have access to wireless communications) as to where the Germans were and how far they had advanced.

The Red Army fought bravely but was unprepared for war at Germany's pace

These two factors – an overwhelmed officer corps and a broken communications system – had a particularly deadly synergy. Different levels of the command hierarchy were cut off from each other and blind, while at the unit level, commanders were simply unable or unwilling to take initiative. Furthermore, the… shall we say peculiarities of the Stalinist system left the officer corps with instincts that were oriented towards political survival, rather than military exigency, and this meant not making drastic unilateral decisions.

This was an absolutely central aspect of war making that Stalin and the communists simply did not grasp; they had focused on churning out tanks, guns, and shells, while neglecting the command and control functions of the army. The Germans, quite simply, were prepared to fight war at a different pace than the Soviets: German commanders were more experienced, more decisive, more precise, more willing to act independently, and more level headed. The Red Army consequentially resembled an enormous, muscle bound fighter, but with a diseased nervous system and bad eyesight.

These vulnerabilities made the Red Army particularly susceptible to the Wehrmacht's approach to warfighting, which brought overwhelming firepower and violence at the point of attack to allow rapid penetration and movement, creating an encircled pocket, or what the Germans called a kessel, for cauldron – which could then be liquidated. By fighting multiple kesselschlachts, or encirclement battles, the Wehrmacht planned to annihilate the Red Army and destroy the Soviet Union's capacity to resist by the autumn of 1941. The objective was very clear: destroy Soviet fighting power. Annihilating the Red Army took absolute priority over capturing any specific geographic markers. Hitler himself had remarked that even Moscow was "of no great importance." Rather, the objective of Barbarossa was to destroy Soviet manpower: "The mass of the army", read the Barbarossa directive, "is to be destroyed in bold operations involving deep penetrations by armored spearheads, and the withdrawal of elements capable of combat into the extensive Russian land spaces is to be prevented."

This last portion is the key to the concept of Barbarossa, but we shall return to this later.

The first shots fired in the cataclysmic Nazi-Soviet war came in the form of an aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe, which attacked over 60 frontline Soviet air bases early on June 22. The Red Air Force lost over 1200 aircraft on the first morning of the war, ensuring German control of the air all along the line of contact. On June 24, literally two days into the war, Soviet western front headquarters informed Moscow that "Enemy aviation has complete air dominance." The wholesale destruction of the Red Air Force's frontline units was one of the most remarkable events in the history of warfare, yet it occurred so quickly that it receives scant mention in much of the war's historiography; it is as if the Soviet air force simply vanished into thin air. Meanwhile, German advance teams managed to cut many civilian telephone and telegraph lines, throwing the Red Army's command and control system into disarray and forcing the NKVD (which operated a wireless radio communication system) to act as middlemen to relay orders to the army. With the Red Army severely disoriented and bereft of air support, on came the fearsome German mechanized package.

The Soviet response was woefully inadequate. 1941 would be a year of terrible mistakes, but above all, what high level Soviet leadership – including and especially Stalin – did not understand was just how much could be won or loss in the opening moments of the war. By neglecting to put the Red Army on full combat alert, the regime allowed the Wehrmacht to achieve tactical, but not strategic surprise. Years later, one Soviet Marshal, Andrei Grechko, would make the tongue in cheek remark that the government and senior commanders were fully prepared for the outbreak of war, and the only people surprised by the German attack were the Red Army soldiers on the front line. What Stalin's team did not comprehend was that tactical surprise, mixed with Germany's particularly aggressive and mobile approach to war and the Soviet Union's sclerotic command system, could produce a total catastrophe.

The immediate response of the party leadership only served to emphasize the dangerous dynamics of the Soviet regime, as well as its blindness to how events would unfold on the ground. When the German attack began at around 3:00 AM, frontline commanders had great difficulty getting through to the authorities in Moscow. One admiral, who finally managed to get a very sleepy Georgy Malenkov on the phone, reported that he was being bombed by the Luftwaffe – Malenkov responded by asking, "Do you understand what you're reporting?" Many Red Army commanders, frantically attempting to explain that a war had broken out, were told to submit their reports in writing. Marshal Timoshenko, remarkably, ordered some anti-aircraft guns not to fire back at the Germans, because it was unclear if they had the requisite permissions to do so. Meanwhile, in Moscow, Stalin's underlings argued about who should have to wake up the boss and give him the bad news. In the end, after rousting Stalin and explaining the situation to him, the General Secretary replied matter-of-factly that the Germans would simply be "beaten all along the line." What nobody in the room understood was that, although the war had begun only hours ago, the Germans had already seized such initiative in the air and on the ground that the Red Army's frontier units were more or less doomed. The Soviet Union was simply unprepared for the pace of this war.

Operation Barbarossa organized the German forces into three enormous army groups. Army Group North was to dash through the Baltic States and capture Leningrad; Army Group South was tasked with a drive into Ukraine to secure the industrial and agricultural resources there. By far the largest formation, however, was Army Group Center, which was to blast its way along a line very similar to Napoleon's invasion route, capturing Minsk and Smolensk en-route to Moscow. The geographic objectives were secondary: the main point was to annihilate the Red Army forces along the way. The point was not so much to reach Moscow as fast as possible, but that barreling up the highway towards the capital would force the Soviets to put a large fighting mass in the way which could then be destroyed.

Their initial advance was astonishing. In the opening stages of Barbarossa, the Wehrmacht ate up the miles and heaped punishment on a disoriented Red Army. One panzer formation in Army Group North covered half the distance to Leningrad in only five days. Erich von Manstein advanced 185 miles with his Panzer corps in four days. Such an astonishing depth was not even particularly unusual; in Army Group Center, Heinz Guderian drove his Panzer group 270 miles in the first week. But this was not a leisurely drive through the country: the Wehrmacht accomplished this deep penetration while blasting past Soviet resistance, repeatedly executing classic pincer maneuvers to encircle massive Red Army formations. These encirclement battles resulted in an unbelievable number of prisoners. By August, the Wehrmacht had taken nearly 900,000 prisoners of war; a series of additional mass encirclements in the autumn months swelled the number of prisoners to nearly two million. Soviet losses were truly astonishing. By October, the Red Army had lost nearly 3 million men, over 15,000 tanks and self-propelled guns, 65,000 artillery pieces, and 7,000 aircraft. This was an unbelievable, staggering level of losses that no army in the world could be expected to absorb. Franz Halder, the head of German army high command, wrote in his diary in early July "It is thus probably no overstatement to say that the Russian campaign has been won in the space of two weeks."

Halder's diary offers a barometer of the German mood through the war

Of course, not everything was perfect. The Soviets counterattacked relentlessly – isolated affairs that were easily dealt with, but each attack cost the Germans time, men, and equipment. The nimble German formations were able, time and time again, to encircle huge pockets of Soviet forces, but even when encircled the Red Army fought stubbornly, and the Wehrmacht found that liquidating the pockets was a nasty business and many Soviet troops were able to escape – some slipped behind the German lines and joined partisan groups which waged guerrilla war in occupied territory. These encirclements were so huge, and took place so deep in the Soviet Union, that even the enormous panzer groups (packing several panzer divisions and motorized infantry divisions) were simply not able to "seal" the pockets tightly - they had to wait for the foot powered infantry divisions to catch up and fill in the gaps. Meanwhile, the Germans found that Soviet equipment was surprisingly formidable. Dealing with the newest Soviet tank models – KV1s and T-34s – was especially difficult, with most German antitank weapons proving unable to penetrate the armor.

Still, the losses inflicted on the Red Army were unbelievably high, mounting into the millions. This war was surely over.

Let us now return to the operational conception of Barbarossa. The preoccupation was with the encirclement and destruction of the formidable Soviet forces arrayed near the border. This was, to be sure, no small task. The frontline Red Army contained more than 150 rifle divisions (infantry), and dozens of tank divisions. German war planning, however, was gravely mistaken as to what proportion of the Soviet Union's military force was forward deployed. They presumed that this roughly 3 million man force represented the bulk of Stalin's military capability, and that its destruction would leave the USSR prostrate. The preoccupation, therefore, was to move with great decision and destroy the Soviet frontline armies before they could withdraw into the Soviet interior.

They succeeded in this objective, with Soviet casualties swelling into seven digits in the opening phase of the war. At the battle of Minsk alone, the Germans killed or captured more than 400,000 Soviet troops in a large pocket. Halder assessed that "the objective to shatter the bulk of the Russian Army this [western] side of the Dvina and Dnepr [Rivers] has been accomplished." He believed that to the east of these rivers, the Wehrmacht "would encounter only partial forces."

The pace of Germany's opening advance and the scale of the casualties they inflicted on the Red Army were of a truly historic scale. No army could be expected to have five army groups shattered at the starting gun and survive.

But something was wrong.

The Red Army was not destroyed. Their casualties were mounting into the millions, and yet the Soviets were still in the field, fighting hard at every point. What was happening? Where were they getting these men? What kind of army could absorb three million casualties in the opening campaign and not collapse? What sort of force could lose dozens of field armies and yet remain in the field everywhere?

The Soviet Union had a power that was largely invisible to Barbarossa's planners: the Red Army had an ungodly capacity to mobilize fresh forces and regenerate its fighting power. Prewar Red Army doctrine, in fact, had specifically emphasized mobilization power and reserves. Soviet planners expected that they would have to replace all their formations every four to eight months in a high intensity war, and they had trained a huge number of reservists for that purpose.

In 1940, while preparing for Barbarossa, German army staff gamed out a scenario where the Soviets could mobilize 40 fresh divisions. This was wildly out of touch with Soviet capabilities. Instead of 40 divisions, by December 1941 the Red Army managed to mobilize a staggering 800 divisions and equivalently sized units, deploying over 14 million men. Just by the end of June alone the Soviets had already managed to call up five million reservists. This means that in less than two weeks, the Red Army was able to call on a manpower surge roughly 60% larger than the entire German invasion force. Of course, these men were not available for combat immediately; they had to be equipped and organized, and new formations had to be assembled in the rear before deployment. But they were there, and it gave the Soviet Union a depth of defense that no other country on earth could match.

Thus, we arrive at the basic paradox of Operation Barbarossa. From an operational perspective, it was one of history's greatest victories. The Wehrmacht utterly shattered the frontline Soviet armed forces and overran the Soviet Union's western rimland in a matter of weeks. Yet this operational success was paired with one of the great military intelligence misfires of all time, with the Germans flying blind as to the USSR's mobilization capacity. As a result, Operation Barbarossa, strictly speaking, achieved its objectives: it destroyed the Red Army formations on the frontier before they could withdraw into the Soviet interior - and yet the completion of this audacious objective did not win the war.

Naturally, mobilizing reserves did not immediately solve any of the Red Army's problems. These newly called up troops were not as well equipped as the frontline units which the Germans were destroying, and the problems with the Soviet officer corps persisted. A cumbersome command and control system would plague the Red Army for years. Nevertheless, 1941 was shaping up to be a year of horrifying revelations for both sides. The Soviets were learning that they had catastrophically underestimated the operational skill of the Wehrmacht, while the Germans discovered that they had been totally blind to the awesome mobilization powers of the Soviet state. In the end, the Nazi-Soviet War was an apocalypse that neither side was ready for.

Smolensk: First Doubts

The first signs that something might be wrong with the war came at a place that neither the German nor Soviet command ever anticipated to be an important battlefield. Smolensk was in the operational interstitial zone, in the first layer of the Russian interior. The Germans presumed that the Red Army would be defeated before the advance ever got to Smolensk, while the Soviets did not believe that the Wehrmacht would reach Smolensk at all. Thus, both armies got to be surprised by the dramatic events that unfolded there.

The Germans approached Smolensk in the first week of July, as Halder was making his fanciful prediction that only "partial" Soviet units would remain to oppose them. They were therefore rather surprised to find five whole Soviet field armies taking up positions around Smolensk.

This was disconcerting, in the sense that these armies were not expected to exist. But there was business to attend to. The Wehrmacht went back to its basic playbook - violent, concentrated thrusts around the city, rolling up Soviet forces in yet another promising encirclement. All very well - they would liquidate the pocket, bag several hundred thousand more prisoners, and move on. Heinz Guderian even dedicated one of his three Panzer corps to push further east and capture a bridgehead over the Desna River at the town of Yelnya, so that it it could be used as a launching pad for the next phase.

Guderian and his staff stop to check the map

Instead of quickly crushing the encircled Soviets at Smolensk and moving on, the Germans found themselves engaged in a ferocious fight. Stalin demanded that the Red Army stop attacking with piecemeal units and "begin creating fists of seven or eight divisions". In response, the Soviets would bring seven additional field armies to the Smolensk sector and launch a series of counterattacks which, although they were defeated, bogged the Germans down and inflicted serious casualties. Guderian's bridgehead at Yelnya was pounded mercilessly, and the Wehrmacht was eventually forced to abandon it after suffering heavy losses. One Soviet general commented that "Our activity apparently also puzzled the enemy command, which encountered resistance where it was not expected; they saw that our troops not only fought back but also attacked (even if not always successfully)."

Indeed, the entire course of the battle at Smolensk seemed to wrongfoot the Germans. In particular, an aggressive Soviet attack against the Wehrmacht's southern wing was at first dismissed by Field Marshall von Bock (commander of Army Group Center) as being comprised of "scraped together elements." A few days later, those elements proved to be three whole Soviet armies which were threatening to cave in an entire Panzer Corps, and Bock was forced to move two additional corps in to restore the position. It was, he admitted in his diary, "a quite remarkable success for a badly battered opponent."

Field Marshal Fedor von Bock - Commander of Army Group Center

The conduct of the Smolensk operation broadly reflected a German force that truly believed its own claims that the Red Army had been degraded to only partial forces. In particular, Guderian's decision making surrounding his ill-fated Yelnya bridgehead demonstrated the emerging crisis. At the moment that Guderian chose to push 46th Panzer Corps east to Yelnya, he was actually under orders from Bock to close the ring around Smolensk. Guderian, we must remember, was an old-school sort of hard driving Prussian commander, who understood that a certain sort of latitude and independence was granted to the field commander when it came to taking aggressive action. After all, it had been this same sort of insubordination that bagged the great encirclement in France. Pushing himself further east to prepare for the move on Moscow was perfectly in keeping with this spirit, but it was not welcome news to Bock, who watched Soviet units leak out of the pocket through the hole that Guderian had left unplugged. When Guderian finally moved forces in to close the gap, the only unit he could spare for the job was the severely understrength 18th Panzer Division, which by this time had lost three quarters of its tanks and half of its antitank guns.

Guderian's stunning lack of prudence, given the general exhaustion of his panzer group, exemplified the breakdown of Germany's war. Here was a panzer force at the limits of its supply lines, operating with mounting tank losses and only a modicum of infantry support, bizarrely attempting to take on multiple difficult objectives - trying to not only complete the encirclement around Smolensk but also control a bridgehead further east. Some of Guderian's divisional commanders reported plainly that only one objective could be achieved. Meanwhile, at Army Group command, Bock wrote with incredulous exasperation: "There is only one pocket on the army group's front! And it has a hole!"

The Germans won the Battle of Smolensk in 1941. The entire operation cost the Soviets another 350,000 total casualties, and the city was captured in the end. But from the German perspective, the entire battle was wrong. The Soviets were supposed to be collapsing, and they were certainly not supposed to be able to throw a whole slew of new field armies into this front. Furthermore, German casualties - although lower than the Red Army's - were still severe. The Wehrmacht lost some 110,000 men in the Smolensk operation, in addition to valuable time. The difficulty of closing the ring; the relentless Soviet counterattacks; the growing weakness of the panzer forces; the creeping sense of paralysis and disagreement in command - all indicative of a war that was going horribly wrong, even though the Wehrmacht had not yet suffered a single defeat.

The battle was finally over by July 31. By this time, a sense of disillusionment and horror was creeping into German minds. On July 13 – only five days into the operation - Bock had already confided to his diary:

"Because of extreme attrition of their material and equipment, the [two] panzer groups are only effective if they are employed as one entity."

A few weeks later, he would add that "If, after all the successes, the campaign in the east now trickles away… it is not my fault."

In early September, one German officer succinctly noted:

"No victorious Blitzkrieg, no destruction of the Russian army, no disintegration of the Soviet Union."

General Gotthard Heinrici wrote a letter to his wife which admitted:

"The Russian is very strong… The war here is without doubt very bad… All past campaigns seem like child's play in comparison with the present war. Our losses are heavy…"

The kicker, however, came from Army Chief of Staff Franz Halder. After previously boasting that the war had been won in two weeks, his diary entries from early August showed a clear shift in tone:

"It is clearer and clearer that we have underestimated the Russian colossus… At the start of the war, we reckoned on some 200 enemy divisions. Now we have already counted 360. These divisions are definitely not armed and equipped in our sense, and tactically they are in many ways badly led. But there they are… If we destroy a dozen, the Russians put another dozen in their place."

Buyer beware.

Kiev: Annihilation and Crisis

The paradoxes of this war - operational victory juxtaposed against total strategic defeat - were only beginning for Germany. After the successful liquidation of the pocket around Smolensk, the Wehrmacht faced a decisive moment. It was the beginning of August, leaving an adequate window to prosecute further operations before the mud season came on - but operations to what end?

By this point in the war, the front had organically created an enormous salient around Kiev. The German advance into central Russia now jutted out over the top of the southern front. In essence, Army Group Center had advanced much deeper than Army Group South had, with the latter's progress grinding to a halt as it reached the mighty Dnieper river.

This was a tantalizing opportunity. A strike southward by units from Army Group Center had the potential to scoop up almost all of the Soviet southwestern front in what promised to be perhaps the biggest encirclement yet. But such a move would entail denuding Army Group Center of its all important panzer divisions, precluding further progress in the center and necessarily delaying any move on Moscow.

Hitler makes a plan

For some, therefore, Hitler's decision to detach critical panzer units from Army Group Center and send them south towards Kiev is the moment Germany lost the war. Distracted by the prospect of another big encirclement, the Fuhrer foolishly delayed the advance on Moscow and cost Germany its best opportunity to win the war in 1941. This theory is obviously tempting, particularly because it allows all the blame to be shifted to Hitler. Mr. Mustache has for obvious reasons become a popular scapegoat for German defeat: in the postwar period, he could not defend himself because he was dead, and nobody else would defend him because he was Hitler. It is therefore common and convenient to blame Hitler for the particular decisions that led to German defeat. This, however, is wrong.

It is fair to accuse Hitler of being wicked, or neurotic, or any number of unpleasant things, but he was not overly responsible for any particular decisions that led to German defeat. One could say, of course, that as the commander in chief he bore ultimate responsibility, and fairly so. But he was at all times advised by staff officers and served by an officer corps that implemented his orders dutifully, and in 1941 there were many German officers cheering on their Fuhrer's decision to send the panzers south toward Kiev. Instead of portending some sort of world historical screwup, they hailed a titanic victory. More to the point, the decision to redirect forces to the Kiev axis was perfectly in keeping with the longstanding assumptions of Prusso-German war-making, which prioritized destroying the enemy's fighting mass above all else. This was, according to conventional wisdom, the absolutely correct way to wage war.

Furthermore, from an operational perspective, this was nothing less than a perfect opportunity to wage the mother of all annihilation battles. No instructor at the German military academies could have cooked up a more dreamy scenario. The map had fallen in a favorable way for the Wehrmacht owing to the natural flow of the Dnieper, which bends like something approximating an enormous "S" around Kiev. German Army Group South had advanced up to Dnieper line, with the Red Army strongly holding the bend of the river with four armies (the 5th, 21st, 26th, and 37th). However, Army Group Center's advance to Smolensk in July meant that the Germans were already over the river (that is, to the east of the Dnieper) to the north of Kiev. As a result, the Soviet position around Kiev had come to form a giant salient, with German lines protruding towards their rear in both the north and south.

Further adding to the enticement of the position (from the German view) was the fact that the key positions on the wings of the salient were already held by Panzer forces - Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group in the north, and Kleist's 1st Panzer Group in the south. This made it possible to directly strike across the Soviet salient without rearranging the line. Guderian's Panzer Group had to do little more that turn to the right.

This was, therefore a conceptually very simple operation. 1st and 2nd Panzer groups would drive towards each other, seal off the enormous salient around the Dnieper bend, and trap four Soviet armies in a pocket.

It is curious, then, that such a sublime and clean opportunity to fight yet another annihilation battle has been transformed into some sort of unhinged decision by Hitler which cost Germany the war. This interpretation largely results from the fact that two of Nazi Germany's more widely read memoirists - Heinz Guderian and Franz Halder - went out of their way to dramatize it as a turning point where Hitler ignored their advice.

A brief note, perhaps, on the institutional curiosities of the Nazi war machine. The term "high command", in this case, is an inadequate descriptor, as Nazi Germany had two prominent bodies that fit the descriptor. One was the OKH - Oberkommando des Heeres, or Army High Command. This was the body that conducted strategic planning for Army Groups and Armies. Its supreme commander was General Walther von Brauchitsch, and the chief of staff was the oft aforementioned Franz Halder, who kept a diary which became a foundational primary material for scholars after the war. However, there was also the OKW - Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or Armed Forces High Command, run by Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl. In theory, this was a body above the OKH which coordinated the operations of the Army (Heer), Navy (Kriegsmarine), and Air Force (Luftwaffe), but it in practice operated as a rival decision making center to the OKH.

This all fit the standard operation procedure of the Hitler regime. The Fuhrer liked setting up rival centers of power which would compete for resources and approval, both because this enhanced his personal power (by letting him arbitrate between competing minions), and because it generated ambitious proposals, with underlings constantly under pressure to bring bigger and bolder ideas to him.

In the postwar period, it became standard fare for members of the Army staff (OKH) to portray themselves as pure professionals and not really Nazis at all, in contrast to the OKW men, who were written off as fanatically Hitler worshipping yes-men. This was seemingly solidified by the fact that the prominent OKW figures, like Jodl and Keitel, were convicted of War Crimes at Nuremburg and hanged, while the OKH men like Halder were largely let off. The upshot of all this is that it became common for the Wehrmacht to be portrayed as consisting of a "clean" faction (Halder, the OKH, and many of the field commanders) and a "Nazi" faction (the OKW and the Waffen SS). In fact, this theory is little more than a continuation of the power struggle between the OKW and the OKH which long predated either Auschwitz or Nuremburg.

In the early autumn months of 1941, the Wehrmacht found itself held up by just such a power struggle. The OKH (particularly Halder) were in favor of an immediate drive on Moscow, while the OKW was in agreement with Hitler that the priority ought to be the clearing of the flanks. Therefore, when the memoirs of someone like, say, Guderian are read, it ought to be understood that this was not simply a matter of Hitler unilaterally ignoring his advice and opting to go another direction - rather, Guderian and Halder were on the losing side of an intra-service struggle for Hitler's signature. In the longer run, this bizarre and sclerotizing institutional fissure was patched up when Hitler made himself commander in chief of the OKH directly and ran the war in the east through that body, with the OKW taking responsibility for the other fronts.

Hitler with the staff of the OKH

The truth, of course, is that both the OKW and the OKH were full of officers who were perfectly willing to implement the Fuhrer's orders, whether those orders related to the liquidation of racial enemies or to the diversion of 2nd Panzer Group southward towards Kiev. Guderian argued against the southward turn at first, but once he was brought to discuss the matter with Hitler face to face he predictably melted (Guderian tended to be rather overawed in Hitler's presence and usually came away agreeing with the boss) and enthusiastically implemented the order.

All that being said, the decision had been made. Rather than move directly on Moscow, much of Army Group Center's strength - particularly the panzer forces - would be diverted north and south to assist other objectives. Units from Panzer Group 3 would go north to help seal the front around Leningrad, while Guderian's Panzer Group 2 would wheel south and help bag an enormous cauldron around Kiev.

It is a great tragedy, but Hitler was probably right. Contrary to the vain protestations of the OKH, the road to Moscow was not wide open - there was a wall of Soviet armies deploying in the way. Army Group Center was still in the process of shoring up its logistics. Truck transport was in tatters, rail lines needed to be repaired, supply dumps needed to be established, and replacement vehicles needed to be railed in. In this circumstance, clearing the flanks before blasting further into the Russian interior was an entirely sensible course of action. The idea that Army Group Center could have simply walked into Moscow in September 1941 is an absurd post-war fabrication.

All of this, perhaps, ignores the real issue. The Battle of Kiev in 1941 was, from the traditional German view of warfare, one of the most spectacularly successful operations of all time, in that it destroyed the equivalent of an entire Soviet Army Group in a matter of weeks.

The scheme worked essentially to perfection. Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group shot directly south along the inner bend of the Desna River and attacked at the hinge between the Soviet 21st and 40th Armies. Simultaneously, Kleist's 1st Panzer Group crossed the Dneiper to the southeast of Kiev and broke through the lines of the Soviet 38th Army. The Germans now had two powerful Panzer Groups (wielding a combined nine panzer divisions with trailing motorized infantry divisions) breaking into the rear of the Soviet armies in the Dnieper bend, with three field armies (the 2nd, 6th, and 17th) pinning the rest of the Soviet lines around Kiev.

At this crucial juncture, the Soviets needed to move decisively to save these armies. The four armies now trapped in the rapidly closing pocket ought to have immediately sorted themselves out for a breakout to the east, aided by numerous Soviet armies loitering in the theater. Unfortunately, the Red Army at this point had neither the experience needed to quickly arrange such a complex operation, nor the political will to simply abandon a city as important as Kiev. Therefore, apart from a few divisions of the 21st Army which managed to withdraw through the gap before it closed, the Soviet armies instead shrank their positions into a fragile shell where they were trapped in the broad arc of the Dnieper and Desna Rivers, with two Panzer Groups walling up the only exit.

The end came remarkably quickly. The Soviet 21st conducted itself a bit better than the rest, with a few divisions escaping eastward and the rest at least maintaining a cohesive front for a time. The other armies in the bend - the 37th, 5th, and 26th - were quickly bottled up in shockingly small pockets, where they were pummeled without mercy by the Luftwaffe and by German artillery. These pockets were abnormally tight, and more than one German officer commented on the shock of looking through their binoculars and seeing so many vehicles and men crowding into such small spaces.

A larger question presents itself. The Battle of Kiev had cost the Red Army an astonishing 700,000 total casualties. Whole armies were swallowed up into firebags to either die or surrender. Tank losses were somewhat lighter (the destroyed armies being largely conventional infantry), but the Red Army did lose an eye popping 28,000 heavy guns of all types (flak, artillery, anti-tank). The scale of this battle and of the Red Army's losses had few historic precedents.

Can a battle which inflicts so much damage on the enemy ever truly be called a mistake?

Certainly, from the viewpoint of the annihilation battle (the only view that the German Army had ever found useful), Kiev was a masterstroke. In one neat maneuver, it wiped out an entire Soviet army group, captured much of Soviet Ukraine, and protected the Army Group Center's southern flank - and the entire operation took less than a month. For Hitler, the victory was another personal success which vindicated his military instincts, and the Reich propaganda ministry was appropriately prepared to milk it for all it was worth.

The Wehrmacht was now four months into its eastern war, and had already fought three enormous annihilation battles, in Belorussia, at Smolensk, and at Kiev.

So why was the enemy not annihilated?

Vyazma: The Culmination Point

Few moments in World War Two are as misunderstood as the Battle for Moscow. There is a popular version of the story, known to all the western boys who have grown up with a fascination in the war, which goes like this: after a series of stunning victories throughout the summer, the Wehrmacht made a final push for Moscow, where they came within a few miles of winning the war – famously, German troops could see the towers of the Kremlin through binoculars – before coming up just short due to the terrible winter weather, supply problems, and inopportune meddling by Hitler. The implication of this story is that early December 1941 in the suburbs of Moscow are the specific time and place at which Germany lost the war.

This is all wrong. In fact, Germany's war effort was more or less doomed many weeks before they made their fateful lunge for the Soviet capital. Arguably, the war was doomed from the start, baked into the brute mathematics of Soviet manpower. The essential problem for the Wehrmacht was that the Red Army was able to assemble and field a seemingly endless line of reserve armies, which made it impossible for the Germans to fulfill the original design of the invasion and destroy Soviet fighting power in one grand operation; ultimately, this was an unsolvable problem for Germany which had nothing to do with the Russian winter.

The mythology of the fight for Moscow reflects an attempt by the German officer corps to reconcile a difficult paradox: how could they be losing a war in which they had won every battle? Moscow marked the first real operational setback for Germany in the three years since they had invaded Poland – as the first defeat, it must therefore also be the place where the war was lost. Even more conveniently, Moscow was a point in the war where Hitler's interference became more intense, allowing German memoir writers to blame the defeat on their Fuhrer. But Moscow had never been of any obvious importance to Germany's officers – the point of Barbarossa was to destroy the Red Army. Once it was clear that the Wehrmacht had failed to achieve this objective, the focus shifted to Moscow.

By telling themselves – and the world – that Hitler lost the war in the winter at the gates of Moscow, the German generals retroactively absolved themselves of losing the war in the late summer by failing to kill the Red Army. Memoirs like those of Panzer General Heinz Guderian, Franz Halder, or Erich Manstein spend lavish attention on the fight for Moscow, and strongly insinuate that it was that blasted Hitler who ruined everything. Such claims go unopposed – after all, who wants to defend Hitler? In fact, by the winter of 1941 there was little that Germany could have done on an operational level to win the war. It sounds strange: the Nazi-Soviet War lasted for three years, ten months, two weeks, and two days – could Germany really have been fighting a losing war for 95% of this time? But the Wehrmacht was fought out; its blade was blunted by the ferocious Red Army resistance at every point in the field. Nazi Germany had delivered a sucker punch to the Red Army's jaw, and had a broken hand to show for it.

Germany's lunge for Moscow in the autumn of 1941 reflected the Wehrmacht's dire situation. Barbarossa, despite its brilliant operational results, had failed to break the Red Army. What then? What does one do when a lightning operational maneuver fails to knock the enemy out of the war?

For the Wehrmacht, with its limited playbook, the answer was clearly to launch yet another offensive. German officers were trained to think of war in a very specific way, and to seek solutions on the operational level, which is to say the aggressive movement of large formations – the sort of chess piece maneuvering that appeals to the wargaming mind. In this case, the solution was Operation Typhoon: a Barbarossa follow up which called for a pincer maneuver to encircle and destroy the Soviet forces on the approach to Moscow before capturing the city itself.

For optimists in the German command, Typhoon could be framed as a knockout blow to an opponent who was already dazed and battered by Barbarossa. More realistically, however, Typhoon betrayed an unfolding military catastrophe: despite taking horrible losses, the Soviets were somehow still upright in huge numbers – and winter was approaching. Whatever tropes persist about the Germans being surprised by the Russian winter; this is unequivocally not the case. They had explicitly banked on winning the war in the first year to avoid fighting in the winter. Time was running out – hence Typhoon, as a last-ditch effort to win the war before temperatures plummeted.

To deliver this much needed knockout strike, forces were reassigned from the northern and southern army groups to concentrate maximal fighting power in Army Group Center, whose commander – Field Marshal Fedor Von Bock – now wielded three of the Wehrmacht's four panzer groups. Bock's army group had now swelled to roughly 2 million men, making Typhoon the largest single German field command of the entire war. This was a formidable force, but the impressive order of battle on paper belied just how much damage the dogged Red Army defenders had dealt out over the previous three months.

This was not the same army that had invaded the Soviet Union on June 22. Despite many mistakes made by high command, the rank and file of the Red Army fought ferociously and bravely, and had inflicted severe losses on the Germans. Bock's three panzer groups were by the start of Typhoon reduced to only 52.8% of their authorized tank complements. Losses of trucks were similarly crippling; by one estimate, the panzer groups had lost between 30 and 40% of their motorized transport. In all, the Wehrmacht had lost something on the order of 200,000 vehicles during the summer months – to offset these staggering losses, Hitler signed off on a replacement batch of a mere 3500 trucks for the eastern front.

Due to the depth of the Wehrmacht's advance into the Soviet Union (and the difficulty of modifying German trains to be compatible with Soviet track) Typhoon was to be poorly supplied. Before the operation ever began, Wehrmacht logistics personnel warned that the offensive could not be properly supplied all the way to Moscow. The pristine, superbly equipped army which had invaded the Soviet Union in June was now severely degraded – Halder would ruefully admit that "such an army will not be available to us again."

The scale of the Wehrmacht's operational successes had largely blinded German leadership to the abysmal state of their own army. This was, as one analyst has phrased it, an army in the process of being "de-modernized." The Wehrmacht wanted to fight a war of maneuver, moving quickly and artfully to flank and disorient the Red Army, but after heavily bleeding tanks and vehicles during the summer fighting, the army was running perilously short on mobility and punching power. A successful invasion of the Soviet Union would have required an army capable of initiating multiple successive offensive operations, with fresh, fully supplied panzer divisions and motorized infantry that could land a sequence of blows. The Wehrmacht was simply not the army for this job. When Typhoon began on October 2, they endeavored to land a knockout hit using half strength Panzer divisions and an enormous number of tired and poorly supplied infantry units. The lack of motor transport further ensured that any further forward progress would be of the stop-start variety – tanks lunging forward, then pausing to allow infantry and supplies to catch up. As Bock himself wrote in his diary, "How a new operation is to start from this position with the slowly falling combat value of the troops, who are attacked again and again, I don't quite know yet."

An overarching issue by this point was the inadequacy of Germany's rail and truck transit. Contrary to popular belief, Soviet scorched earth efforts had not totally disabled the railways (in fact, they tended to keep the railways running to evacuate factory equipment right up until the last possible moment), and German engineering units managed to restore rail connectivity to Army Group Center in preparation for Typhoon. The problem was simply that there was inadequate rail capacity to supply such an enormous army, and this forced the Wehrmacht to make impossible choices, in terms of allocating limited capacity to various needs like replacement vehicles, spare parts, ammunition, fuel - and winter clothing. Logistical pinches were amplified by the unrestrained optimism of the Army's quartermaster, General Eduard Wagner, who as a rule tended to drastically overpromise and underdeliver.

Lacking the ability to either adequately supply the army or reinforce it, the Germans had to resort to half measures and patch jobs to scrape together the necessary force for Typhoon.

In no arm was this more apparent than armored vehicles - tanks in particular. Cumulative German tank losses were enormous, even in an unbroken string of victories. On paper, Army Group Center began Operation Typhoon in October with more tanks than it had in June, but this increase in strength was achieved through a variety of stopgap solutions which papered over the overall degradation of the Wehrmacht's fighting power.

Tank losses had been severe, and logistics were held together by a thread, and all of this was amplified by the Wehrmacht's now endemic reporting issues. Wehrmacht units tended to waver back and forth between over and under reporting their losses, depending on how they wanted to manipulate supply. It was common to over-report tank losses and breakdowns in order to request replacement vehicles and spare parts, but under-report them in order to get more ammunition and fuel. More broadly, the inadequate state of German supply created a strong incentive to lie. As a result, German commanders did not have a precise sense of the actual combat strength of their all-important panzer units - but they did know that the situation was dire.

On average, the tank strength of the Wehrmacht in the east by the beginning of September was approximately 30% permanent losses, 23% under repair, and 47% ready for combat. In Army Group Center, however, only 34% of the original tank strength was action-ready - these units having seen particularly fierce fighting at Smolensk. One of Hitler's adjuncts reported the Fuhrer's emerging alarm at the state of the panzer force:

"How was he to conduct a war, if he was counting on 1,000 additional tanks, and then someone told him there were actually only 500? He had assumed that the people in the Ordnance Office could at least count."

To beef up Army Group Center for Typhoon, the Germans had to play almost all their immediately available cards. This included transferring a Panzer Group from Army Group North (so that Bock had 3 of the eastern army's 4 panzer groups), dispatching both of the panzer divisions in Army High Command's strategic reserve, allocating a batch of 316 replacement vehicles from storage, and sending captured French tanks to conduct rear area security tasks so that German panzers could be freed up for frontline action. Even with all of these measures taken, Army Group Center was still significantly under strength.

On a unit by unit basis, the army simply was shockingly degraded. Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group, which had begun the war in June with 900 tanks, was down to a mere 256 combat ready panzers by the end of September, to which they could add 149 promised replacement vehicles.

The Germans did manage to put together a powerful package for Typhoon. Bock now commanded 60% of the German forces on the eastern front. But even after giving Bock an extra Panzer Group, and deploying panzer divisions from the strategic reserve, and sending replacement vehicles, Army Group Center only barely managed to match its tank strength from June. The real crusher, however, was the fact that railing in all of these new units and replacement vehicles meant that there was no longer rail capacity for spare parts, and consequentially broken down vehicles had a tendency to stay that way.

When Typhoon finally launched, it teased yet another stunning victory for the Wehrmacht. This would be the last uncontestable victory; the final stunning annihilation battle before the mirage evaporated and the Wehrmacht could no longer ignore the apocalypse.

Schematically, Typhoon was merely an expansion of previous German movements in the Soviet Union. In both Belorussia and at Smolensk, Army Group Center had bagged huge encirclements using its two panzer groups as pincers - General Hoth's 3rd Panzer as the northern pincer and Guderian's 2nd as the southern. Now, with 4th Panzer Group under General Hoepner added to the inventory, there would be three pincers, with Hoenper's group slotting into the middle.

The entire operation at first looked like yet another flawless implementation of the standard Wehrmacht package. Hoepner's panzer group blasted a gap in the Soviet front while Guderian and Hoth curled around the edges. The Soviet response was sluggish and confused, largely due to the fact that the Soviet commander of the front, Ivan Konev (who would later prove to be extremely competent) had been ordered by Stalin and the Stavka to mount a frontloaded defense of a wide front with insufficient forces. This left the front lines thin and easy to penetrate, and Konev was unable to withdraw his units after losing communications with most of his frontline commanders due to Luftwaffe bombing of command posts. More or less hung out to dry, Konev watched helplessly as a whopping seven armies were either partially or completely encircled on the approach to Moscow.

The defense against Operation Typhoon probably marked the absolute low point of Soviet operational conduct. Within the first three weeks of October, the Red Army lost more than 900,000 men defending the approach to Moscow, and the road to the capital was looking perilously open. And yet, at the end of October, it was the Wehrmacht that felt desperation. They were out of energy and out of time.

Snow fell on the night of October 6. The following morning it quickly melted and created mud.

October was a terrible month to get anywhere in the Soviet Union; most roads were unpaved dirt, and the autumn rains quickly turned them into muddy nightmares. German vehicles everywhere were bogged down and unable to move; victims of the Rasputitsa (literally, time without roads). One German commander, after the war, would write:

We had anticipated this of course, for we had read about it in our studies of Russian conditions. But the reality far exceeded our worst expectations… The infantryman slithers in the mud, while many teams of horses are needed to drag each gun forward. All wheeled vehicles sink up to their axles in the slime.

German soldiers who had been on campaign, trekking across these vast expanses for months, now struggled to move very short distances. And still, despite the complete destruction of the Soviet forces at Viazma, there were still Red Army forces in the field, fighting back. Between the mud, the shortage of vehicles and fuel, general exhaustion, and a continuous Red Army defense, the Wehrmacht was now crawling forward. Furthermore, the slow going affected not only the advance of the combat units at the front, but also the German supply line, which by now was completely overwhelmed and providing only a trickle of the food, fuel, and ammunition needed to sustain the army. This in turn forced more hard choices - every ton of fuel and shells that was painfully hauled up to the front represented a large number of winter uniforms that were left behind.

Can't park there, Hans

Bock, trying his best to explain the situation to high command, bluntly said that "the objectives… surely cannot be reached before winter, because we no longer have the required forces and because it is impossible to supply those forces."

The German forces painfully blasting their way forward towards Moscow were hardly recognizable as the same world class troops that had shaken the pillars of Europe. Their speed, precision, and vitality was gone. Instead of fighting a war of maneuver and movement (the type of war that Germany excelled at), they were now waging a battle of attrition, which was the sort of game that the Soviet Union was always going to win. One German officer explained, "We gradually lost the ability to manoeuvre. War became one of linear movement… We were no longer instructed to surprise, outflank, and annihilate the enemy. We were told: "you will hold the front from such a point to such and such a point, you will advance to such a line"." On the other side of the line, despite the sequence of defeats, some Soviet officers could sense the shift in Germany's ability to fight. Lieutenant General Vassily Sokolovsky boasted that "The Blitzkrieg has developed into a continuous grinding of the German war machine." Now, it was grinding to a halt.

Army Group Center slowly trudged its way up to the outskirts of Moscow as the temperature dropped, giving rise to the enduring myth that Germany was within sight of winning the war. Utter nonsense; the German forces now grabbing at Moscow with their fingertips were fought out and exhausted, with most of their units now at between one third and half of their normal strength – and those soldiers who were still upright were now severely fatigued, improperly equipped for winter, and poorly supplied. German officers were taught to prize aggression and strength of will above everything else, and across the line they desperately tried to move their men forward. But this battle was lost. German soldiers being within binocular sight of the Kremlin is merely a mildly interesting bit of trivia; it was not as if the Germans would win the war if they could just push forward and touch the Kremlin gates – as Napoleon could have testified. This was not a game of tag; getting into Moscow would merely have meant a bloody urban battle, and it was pure fantasy to think that this wrecked remnant of the Wehrmacht had the strength to take the city block by block. And so, across the front, German units broke down and stopped, like an engine running on fumes. Typhoon, like Barbarossa, had failed, and the Red Army was still in the field.

Reality Check at Moscow

In hindsight, it is very clear that the German decision to push for Moscow in the closing months of 1941 had no serious chance of success and placed Germany in a strategically perilous position. Even the disastrously bungled Soviet defense at Vyazma cost the Germans more than enough time and casualties to doom the attack, proving that Typhoon was simply not an adequate solution to Germany's problem – after all, if an operation can annihilate an entire enemy army group and still fail, this suggests that the operation was unworkable from the beginning.

Operation Typhoon was, after all, a choice. There were many other potentially fruitful activities that Hitler's team might have engaged in: for example, beefing up the logistics pipeline, proclaiming the end of collective farms and recruiting the Ukrainian populace to overthrow Bolshevism, or ramping up conscriptions and war production back home (shockingly, even months after invading the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany was not on so-called "total war" economic footing). Perhaps, after annihilating the Red Army forces on the approach to Moscow at the end of October, the Wehrmacht could have dug into winter positions and looked to refit and reorganize for 1942, rather than attempting the final crawl through the mud and the snow towards the city.

Instead, the Germans did the only thing that they knew: draw up another offensive operation and try for another knockout blow, pushing forward until it was impossible to move further. Knowing, as one does now, that Typhoon was never going to work, it is easy to criticize the limited scope of the German expertise. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that whatever their limitations in other aspects of warmaking, the Wehrmacht remained the most operationally skilled army in the world, and in 1941 the Red Army proved completely incapable of countering them. Typhoon failed to take Moscow, but it did destroy an entire line of Soviet field armies guarding the approach to the capital, and inflicted horrific casualties on the Soviets. For Stalin and his associates at Stavka, the situation map told of a rapidly unfolding catastrophe.

To the residents of Moscow, including Stalin, it was not immediately obvious that the city would hold. By late October, as the Germans were battling to liquidate the Red Army pockets on the highway, Moscow had acquired a clear aura of impending doom. Civilian infrastructure broke down, with public transportation interrupted and electricity available only intermittently – coal supplies were now being hogged by armaments plants. Remarkably, there were instances of civil unrest: a rare occurrence in a population which had long ago reached the point of submission courtesy of the NKVD.

Contrary to German hopes, however, incidents of disorder in the street did not reflect a swelling anti-Soviet mood among the populace, but rather a growing fear that the government would abandon them. Some Muscovites observed how unprecedented and ominous it was that the city's bakeries were now distributing several days' worth of rations all at once – was the government expecting to be disrupted? In fact, Stalin and his crew had already made plans to abandon the city. On October 15, Stalin issued an order initiating the evacuation of the government and preparations to demolish factories, supply depots, and infrastructure in the event the Germans successfully entered the city. A substantial number of factories had already been evacuated, and plans were now in motion to turn what remained into a wasteland for the Germans.

A rare candid photo of Stalin shows a man burdened and weary

Stalin – usually imperturbable and stony – seemed to be at low ebb. "Are you sure that we can hold Moscow?" he asked Zhukov, "I ask you about this with a pain in my soul. Tell me truthfully, as a communist." Zhukov – a 'whatever the cost' military man par excellence – answered "We will, without fail, hold Moscow."

After the mid-October panic, the mood in the capital stiffened into defiance. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were conscripted to dig anti-tank ditches and construct field fortifications in the outskirts of the city, while able bodied men continued to be put into uniform. Zhukov and Stalin even agreed to hold the November 7 parade for the annual commemoration of the revolution, as a demonstration of resolve.

After reviewing the parading troops, Stalin addressed the crowd. His speech, which was printed in all the newspapers the next day, admitted that the USSR was in dire straits, but insisted that Soviet victory was inevitable. "The whole world is looking at you", he said, "for it is you who can destroy the marauding armies of the German invader." He also, significantly, recalled the great heroes of Russia's military history, like Alexander Nevsky, Dmitri Donskoi, Alexander Suvorov, and Mikhail Kutuzov. As early as July, the Soviet regime had begun rehabilitating a specifically Russian sort of patriotism by drawing a corollary between the German invasion and the villains of Russia's past, like Napoleon and the Mongols. Stalin once again played up this theme with the Wehrmacht at the gates. His closing line, "Death to the German occupiers!" nicely encapsulated the mood.

After toying with evacuating in October, Stalin was now set on staying in the capital to fight it out. On December 1, the General Secretary received a phone call from Zhukov's forward headquarters in the village of Perkhushkovo. The alarmed staffer on the other end of the call reported that the Germans were very near, and asked if headquarters could be relocated further to the east. Stalin replied by asking if they had shovels on hand. The officer, bewildered at first, replied that they did have shovels and asked what should be done with them. "Comrade Stepanov, tell your comrades to take your spades", replied the dictator, "and dig themselves some graves. The Stavka's not leaving Moscow. I'm not leaving Moscow. And they're not going anywhere from Perkhushkovo."

Evaluating Stalin's performance in the war is difficult. It is very easy to point to Stalin's terrible errors: he did massively churn up his officer corps in the prewar years; he did botch the deployment of the Red Army in the lead up to war; during Barbarossa his leadership did lead to the mass encirclement battles which wreaked havoc on the Red Army. It is harder to give Stalin credit for his successes – it feels nicer to instead acknowledge and praise less - shall we simply say controversial - figures like Zhukov.

It is, however, a simple matter of fact that Stalin was at the center of Soviet victory, as the undisputed leader of the country, intimately involved in all critical decisions. Stalin was viewed as indispensable by all his subordinates (he continued to derive great legitimacy from his seemingly superhuman workload), and in fact his general popularity rose substantially during the war as he came to serve as the archetype for the state and its stubborn, stoic stand against the storm. In the waning months of 1941, as the German onslaught reached its apex on the approach to Moscow, Stalin's defiance personified a growing Soviet rage in the face of the apocalypse. As Stalin himself said, to thunderous applause from the crowd in Moscow, "The German invaders want a war of extermination against the peoples of the Soviet Union. Very well then! If they want a war of extermination they shall have it!"

This sense of a heroic stand at the gates of hell was exhilarating, and not only to Soviet citizens. One American journalist, who had also been in France in 1940, recalled:

Every newspaper man who witnesses a momentous occasion of this kind tries to think of the one phrase which tells the full, thrilling story… While I was watching the Germans occupy Paris… the best I could do was: "Paris fell like a lady." Now, the best I could find was: "Moscow stood up and fought like a man."

Stalin, with his regime and his army, braced for a ferocious fight for the city. But the tremendous collision never came; instead, the Germans stopped. By the start of December, with temperatures plunging, Army Group Center was essentially stuck in place at every spot on the line. It was not just the cold them kept them frozen in place (an egregious pun), but also a general exhaustion and shortage of men, food, and fuel, and ammunition. The cold made things miserable, but the frontline units of Army Group Center were so chewed up and undersupplied that they would not have achieved much even in summer weather.

With the Wehrmacht thinly strung out and unable to move, the strategic initiative by default passed to the Red Army for the first time in the war. Zhukov wasted no time, and immediately initiated a ferocious counteroffensive to drive the Wehrmacht back from the doorstep. On paper, Army Group Center outnumbered the Red Army forces in the Moscow region (perhaps 1.7 million Germans against 1.1 million Soviet troops), but the Red Army had reserve armies in the process of being formed, its forces, unlike the Germans, were fresh and close to their supply and communication hubs, they had access to functioning railways, and even more importantly, the Soviets were now able to concentrate troops at targeted points on the line. Despite inferior numbers on the front, concentrated attacks gave the Red Army a numerical advantage of more than 2 to 1 at key points. The attack began on December 5, and soon managed to throw the leading edges of the German line back from Moscow.

Zhukov's decision to waste no time and immediately hit the exhausted Germans proved decisive, and the Red Army put Army Group Center in a very difficult position over the winter. On December 8, Hitler issued War Directive 39, which ordered the army to "abandon immediately all major offensive operations and go over to the defensive." The order was a belated recognition of a reality that already existed on the ground. For many German soldiers clinging to their positions outside Moscow, "the defensive" was already all too real.

If the summer months witnessed the height of German hubris, December would give rise to similar overconfidence among Soviet leadership. After months of crushing operational defeats and terrible losses, the sudden shift in momentum was intoxicating. The Red Army did achieve significant operational breakthroughs which eliminated the imminent threat to Moscow and caused a genuine crisis for German command. However, the contrast between the panic of October and the successes of December convinced Stalin that the Germans were on their last legs, and led to massive inflation of expectations.

The best that the Red Army could aim for in the winter was to eliminate the direct pressure on Moscow and push the Germans off the doorstep – but Stalin and his minions became convinced instead that it was possible to encircle major German formations and potentially destroy Army Group Center altogether. In one memo, Stalin expressed his confidence that the winter offensive would "ensure the complete defeat of the Nazi forces in 1942."

Unfortunately, the Red Army simply was not capable of such ambitious operations. The Soviets remained deficient in the technical and logistical elements of waging an offensive war. The Soviet officer corps was inexperienced and unable to properly coordinate the maneuver of their units the way German officers could, Soviet supply and control systems were still cumbersome and unable to back up a deep offensive, ammunition and hot food were tightly rationed, and the Red Army struggled to coordinate a successful combined arms battle. On the other hand, the Wehrmacht – although badly chewed up – was still the world's most lethal army, and was able to hold together with cool nerves, tactical superiority, and carefully timed counterattacks. The tragedy, therefore, was that neither army was capable of defeating the other in 1941.

In the end, the Battle of Moscow was much less climactic than the mythology suggests, although no less decisive. The story of the battle was less about the timely intervention of the winter weather, and more about the attrition and fatigue of the German forces finally taking its toll, exposing an exhausted Wehrmacht to a well-timed counteroffensive by Zhukov. The Germans were not stopped outside of Moscow because it was cold; they were stuck in the cold because their offensive had failed.

While the myth of a German chance at victory is just that – a myth – December 1941 did witnessed the first shift in the trajectory and the nature of the war, as the conflict widened and – for the first time in years – Germany lost control of the strategic initiative. But conditions on the ground in the Soviet Union were not the only thing changing to Germany's disadvantage. On December 5, Zhukov unleashed his reserve armies and began to batter Army Group Center. Two days later, a Japanese strike force launched a surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the Nazi-Soviet War was joined with a growing World War.

Maneuver Becomes Attrition

There is often a tacit assumption when discussing warfare that, at a given moment, one side is "winning" and the other is "losing." The Nazi-Soviet War, especially in 1941 and 1942, dispels this notion. Disorientation, desperation, anger, and suffering were ubiquitous for both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht. Both sides could point to certain successes, but these came in the context of a broader catastrophe. The Wehrmacht could celebrate a series of brilliant encirclements and battles won, but these – Smolensk being the ideal example – came against the backdrop of a cataclysmic misread of Soviet mobilization power: the Germans continued to encircle and destroy Soviet units, but these units were not supposed to exist, and the Red Army was supposed to have collapsed. On the Soviet side, the successful evacuation of many critical factories – especially tank factories – was (and still is) held up as a great victory by the communist regime, but of course these factories were evacuated because the Red Army was being smashed up and down the line, and crucial industrial regions were being overrun by the Germans. In the end, both parties found themselves engaged in a desperate struggle for survival which no one was prepared for: the scale and intensity of the warfare was simply without precedent. The river of suffering and death had spilled its banks.

This leads to the larger point. In 1941, neither the Red Army nor the Wehrmacht was capable of destroying the other outright. No decisive victory was possible for either side, which means that this war was precisely that thing which the Germans had dreaded - a war of attrition.

The Wehrmacht took huge numbers of prisoners, but could not break the Red Army

Individually, the German operations had all the characteristics of a war of maneuver, with their artful pincer movements and the powerful and decisive application of their mechanized package at decisive points. They produced enormous encirclements which ballooned Soviet casualties to outrageous levels. The problem was that these victories did not bring overall strategic decision.

The Germans fought four enormous cauldron battles in 1941 - in Belorussia, at Smolensk, at Kiev, and Vyazma on the approach to Moscow. When an army is forced to fight a sequence of maneuver campaigns, each one failing to bring about a decisive result, the cumulative effect is attritive. And this was Germany's problem. The Red Army was simply too powerful, the manpower reserve too enormous, and the Soviet state too tenacious to destroy in one, or even two big maneuver campaigns, and the Wehrmacht was trapped in a war of attrition whether it wanted one or not.

Ultimately, this revealed that the Wehrmacht, while extremely gifted in the operational and tactical domains of warmaking, was fatally incompetent in other domains, like military intelligence and logistics. In particular, German assessments of Soviet mobilization power were perhaps the greatest military intelligence misfire of all time.

The Soviet Union's mobilization powers were truly awesome, and perpetually made a mockery of German military intelligence. In early August, reports were presented to Hitler which predicted that the Red Army no longer had sufficient forces to form a continuous defensive front, and was likely near the end of its resources – "The number of new units being organized may have reached its peak. The creation of more new units is hardly to be expected." The report predicted that, at the absolute maximum, the Red Army could field 390 divisions. This number was an upward revision from pre-invasion estimates and yet it still represented a laughable understimation.  By this time, the Soviet mobilization had raised the Red Army's line strength to 401 divisions – a number which would grow to 450 by September, and 592 by December. Perhaps most astonishingly, the Stavka achieved this tremendous organizational feat and then replicated it in the first half of 1942 by fielding 10 additional field armies.

In the ultimate analysis, Germany lost the war because it was engaged in an attritive struggle that it did not expect and could not understand, and it could not adjust to these conditions due to ideological constraints.

By the autumn of 1941, critical grain-growing and industrial regions were behind German lines. Of course, the entire point of Barbarossa was to allow Germany to exploit the economic resources of the western Soviet Union, and especially Ukraine, to create an economically self-sufficient greater German empire – one important assumption by German leadership, therefore, was that Barbarossa would swing the economic dimension of the war in Germany's favor. This proved to be an utter fantasy.

The Soviet Union spent a considerable amount of energy evacuating factories out of the German path, although contrary to communist boasting these industrial assets were not rebuilt without a hitch in the rear areas. Evacuating a single factory involved hundreds, if not thousands of rail cars worth of equipment, and in the chaos of the war these loads tended to congregate at railway junctions, creating great heaps of disorganized machinery and equipment. By one estimate, roughly 1.5 million railcar loads worth of factory equipment were evacuated to the rear areas (the Urals, the Volga valley, Siberia, and Central Asia). For obvious reasons, most of these factories were not immediately reassembled in 1941, and the following year would see an enormous drop in Soviet industrial output – some estimates suggest that 1942's output had dropped by more than one third from 1940 levels.

The main benefit of the factory evacuations, therefore, was simply to deny the Germans access to these assets. Despite these disruptions, the Soviet Union did manage to juggle an improvised, emergency economy in response to the German invasion, followed by a return of successful planning beginning in 1943 – successful, at least, by Soviet standards; the USSR's military production never came close to matching the continent sized factory called America churning away across the oceans. Nevertheless, Stalinist development of industry in the interior regions of the USSR, especially the Urals, proved critical for giving the country a sort of economic depth that allowed it to survive the German invasion, and the investment in not only equipment but also skilled workers, managers, and technicians allowed the USSR to produce vast quantities of tanks and weaponry throughout the war.

Ironically, even though the Soviet Union lost economically valuable territories in 1941 (and Germany by extension gained them), it was the Third Reich that soon found itself facing serious economic difficulties.

The Soviet regime managed to evacuate or destroy enough valuable infrastructure that the Germans found it difficult to get any real value from captured regions. Exploiting Ukraine, for example, required redirecting German trains and coal to get things moving, but the sprawling Nazi empire was already short on both of these things. To function in the Soviet Union, the Germans had to repair track and infrastructure – but this required labor, and already Germany was facing a severe labor shortage. Additionally, moving resources out of the Soviet Union would require allocating rail capacity that was needed to move supplies in to keep the army going. The economic situation was growing so desperate that some German planners suggested shutting down the entire armaments industry for the winter to save coal. In the end, the occupied portions of the Soviet Union provided less economic value to Germany than tiny, occupied Belgium.

Insofar as the Nazis found Ukraine to be a wasteland, they merely reaped what they sowed. Remarkably, German leadership specifically chose not to abolish the Soviet collective farms – a simple gesture which could have won the support of many Ukrainians.  One German official suggested that "Long-term secure deliveries of raw materials and foodstuffs to the German Reich could be achieved with fewer forcible means through a sympathetic treatment of the nationalities concerned" – bureaucratic jargon for trying to win over the Ukrainians by treating them with a bare minimum of humanity.

This sensible suggestion was dismissed outright. The Nazis were planning to starve the Slavs to death anyway, the collective farm seemed like a useful system for doing so, and the Germans never doubted that they could run them more efficiently than the communists had, and so the collective farms stayed. But the Germans, caught up in a cataclysmic war, with no knowledge of the local areas and no compelling ideology like communism, could not control the peasants like the Soviets could, and so Ukraine would not feed Germany the way Hitler wanted it to. Any hope held by the local populations that the Wehrmacht came to free them from communist oppression evaporated instantly upon contact with German barbarity.

Stalin and the communist party had set a very high bar for cruelty, and yet the Germans managed to clear it without difficult. It is worth wondering how the story would have gone if the Wehrmacht had declared the end of the collective farm and portrayed themselves as liberators (even dishonestly), making a halfhearted attempt to win the support of Ukrainians. But then, this is to wonder what it would have been like if Hitler were not wicked; but then he would not have been Hitler, and the Wehrmacht would not have been in Ukraine at all.

"Close your hearts to pity."

In the end, due to a combination of German cruelty and the Soviets' effort to evacuate or destroy economically valuable assets, Barbarossa failed to shift the industrial aspects of the war in favor of Germany. The most immediate economic implication of the invasion for the Germans was rather the rapid exhaustion of their fuel reserves, and the costly responsibility of supplying an enormous army hundreds of miles deep in enemy territory.

Unable to implement their bloody vision of racial paradise in the east, a frustrated Nazi regime began executing compensatory crimes. The original plan was to steal Ukraine's grain and starve tens of millions of Slavs to death. Unable to do so, the Wehrmacht instead starved where they were able. They would murder roughly 3 million Soviet prisoners of war – half a million by shooting, and the rest by forcing them into open air holding pens and waiting for them to starve to death. In Leningrad, cut off from supplies by the German siege, hunger was already a problem by the end of 1941, and by the time the Red Army rescued the city in 1944 roughly 1 million people had starved to death.

This was an apocalyptic crime by the Wehrmacht, but it was all wrong. These crimes occurred because Germany had not won the war and could not commit the crimes Hitler had planned on. Soviet prisoners were starved because the Wehrmacht was short on supplies and hoarded every calorie it could get for its own soldiers. Leningrad was the scene of mass starvation, but the city was besieged and starved because the Germans could not capture it outright. Hitler had originally planned to demolish it entirely, and so the starvation of its citizens represented the flailing rage of a Nazi regime that was about to watch an empire slip through its fingers.

So too, the decision to begin the mass murder of Jews betrayed the fact that the German war effort was doomed. Hitler made four important promises about Barbarossa: first, that the Red Army could be destroyed in a rapid campaign; secondly that the Soviet state would collapse under the strain of the war; third, that the lands of the Soviet Union would provide an economic bounty for Germans; fourth and finally, that the fall of the Soviet Union would allow for a final solution to the Jewish problem. Everything was going wrong. The Red Army was still putting fresh formations in the field everywhere; the Soviet state had not collapsed, but was instead stoically arresting, shooting, moving, and conscripting people on an enormous scale; the occupied Soviet territories were not providing grain or coal or metal, but were instead soaking up huge amounts of material and fuel. In the face of failure in the east, Hitler shifted the parameters of the war to emphasize the extermination of the Jews – a tacit acknowledgement that this was now the only war aim still within immanent reach. Originally, the Final Solution was to be implemented after the Soviet Union collapsed – therefore there were at first no real plans for how it might be achieved. With the Red Army standing strong, the war against the Jews had to be moved up the priority list, and so the SS commenced shooting Soviet Jews at a frenetic pace and experimenting with industrialized ways of murdering them.

The Holocaust, in a very real sense, was a consolation prize for a lunatic who was caught on the wrong end of his own apocalypse.

Coda: The Limits of Maneuver

It would be deeply wrong to call 1941 a Soviet success story. The military decisions made by Stalin and his team at Stavka - in particular the impetus to hold ground and counterattack relentlessly - colossally swelled Soviet casualties, wasted much of the Red Army's premiere frontline units, and allowed the entire western rim of the USSR to be overrun. Nevertheless, amid this catastrophe the Soviet state demonstrated a tenacity, a durability, and powers of mobilization that utterly confounded German notions of a single decisive campaigning season.

Taken in a vacuum, the operations of 1941 showed off a Wehrmacht at the height of its powers, hunting and destroying enormous Soviet forces in a sequence of great victories. Cumulatively, however, these battles destroyed the Wehrmacht, which never recovered from the losses of officers, veteran troops, and equipment that it suffered in this crucial year. Declawed, defanged, deflated - it was now only a question of when and how, not if Germany would lose the war.

In August, one German divisional officer made a passing note which proved to be far more prescient than he could have imagined. The division, he noted, would have to find a way to reduce its casualty rate "if we do not intend to win ourselves to death."


Big Serge's Reading List

I apologize for initially forgetting to include a reading list. For the sake of ease I have organized it roughly by topic.

General Histories Operational Histories Soviet Union & Red Army Economics and Industry Memoirs
Big Serge Thoughts
1 Mar 2023 | 7:46 pm

5. Russo-Ukrainian War: Schrodinger’s Offensive

Winter War on the Steppe

Where is the big Russian offensive? This is, at the moment, the million dollar question that inevitably intrudes on any discussion of the war's current course. It is probably not surprising (to those of us that are familiar with human nature, at least) that this question becomes a Rorschach test in which everybody sees their own prior assumptions about the Russian military.

The answers to this question do indeed vary widely. On one extreme, there are those who believe that hundreds of thousands of Russian troops are prepared to launch an enormous "big arrow" offensive at any moment. We see this both from commentators like retired US Colonel Douglas MacGregor and from some Ukrainian sources who are likely trying to foment a sense of urgency to extract more aid from the west. On the other extreme, we have those who claim that the Russian military is so depleted that there will be no offensive at any point whatsoever. There are also some in the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda western intelligentsia, like the Nuland Institute for the Study of War or Michael Koffman, who argue that the offensive has already begun but is so lame and weak that nobody noticed.

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Okay. So either a giant offensive will happen any minute now (it might have just started while I was typing that), or it will never happen at all, or it already happened, or perhaps it's in a state of quantum superposition in which it has both succeeded and failed, at least until we open the box.

A thorny issue indeed. There is, at the moment, a great deal of important and intense combat occurring in many different sectors of front - but what relation do these operations have to any big arrow action by the Russians? Is this an underwhelming entrée or an appetizer?

I would like to suggest an alternative to all these theories, because what the world needs most right now is more opinions.

At the moment, Russia has the initiative across the front. Ukraine's reserves are in a tenuous state right now (especially given their politically imposed mandate to try and accumulate a force for an offensive against the land bridge to Crimea), and Russia is driving high intensity combat in important sectors right now.

These operations, I would argue, serve three different purposes at once. First and foremost, they are valuable shaping operations in their own right that have important implications for launching future operations. Secondly, they function essentially as spoiling attacks in that they keep the burn rate at the front high and degrade Ukraine's ability to form reserves. As a sort of metaphor for this, there are already rumors that some of Ukraine's new Leopard tanks will be sent into combat around Bakhmut rather than held in reserve for a future offensive. Whether the Leopard rumor is true or not, in manpower terms Ukraine continues to pump units into Bakhmut in an unconscionable waste of men. Third and finally, all the combat in the east is occurring under an umbrella where Russia's supply lines and ISR are robust, creating conditions where Ukraine continues to trade at abysmal loss ratios.

The synthesis of all these points is that Russia is currently driving the attrition of the Ukrainian army and denying Ukraine any chance at regaining operational initiative, while at the same time pursuing important shaping objectives. I believe this is occurring against the backdrop of moderate, but not catastrophic organizational disorder and restructuring in the Russian armed forces, which are delaying its readiness to launch a large scale offensive. In other words, the current pace of Russian operations supports the overall attrition of Ukrainian manpower and implies that there is no need to rush an ambitious operation until organizational issues have been sorted out.

In the remainder of this space, I'd like to examine what these organizational considerations are and examine two of the ongoing Russian operations (the Ugledar and Kreminna axes), looking at them on a fairly granular scale. We'll also briefly touch on the bizarre rumors of an immanent widening of the war towards Moldova.

I apologize for the time which sometimes lapses between articles, but as you will see my writing often metastasizes and these entries become much longer than I initially anticipate, and may technically qualify as novellas based on word count. In any case, I hope that the volume and quality of the content may compensate for the interval, and if not the comment section is open for you to voice your displeasure and anti-Serge polemics.

Organizing an Army

For young men, fascination with war goes through distinct phases. Most of the time it begins with equipment and broad, big arrow views of battles. The sizes of the cannons on the main battle tanks of World War Two, for example, is probably a disproportionately well known fact among 8-16 year old boys. They mostly want to know about the big battles, the big movement patterns, and big guns.

Over time, however, the inescapable conclusion sets in that armies have an intensely bureaucratic backbone, and that seemingly mundane factors like unit composition, rear area logistics, and organizational charts have tremendous implications on the battlefield. This is where those dreaded order of battle charts and unit diagrams come into play, and you inevitably have to start memorizing what the myriad little symbols mean. Eventually, you realize that the construction of units and other organizational factors are, within reason, far more important than the minutia of the equipment and armaments, and you should have been contemplating the bureaucratic aspects the whole time, and that (tragically) the size of the cannon on the Sherman Firefly tank was not actually a particularly decisive factor in world history.

It still looks cool, for the record.

Russia is currently sorting through organizational issues which were created through the country's unique mixed service model (which mixes contract soldiers and conscripts), and in particular the wearisome Battalion Tactical Group (BTG).

I talked about the Battalion Tactical Group at length in a previous article, but let's briefly recap. The Russian army utilizes a mixed model of professional contract soldiers and conscripts, and these two types of personnel have an important legal differentiation. Conscripts cannot be deployed in combat outside of Russia without a declaration of war. This means that a given Russian unit (let's just use a brigade as the standard example) has a full ("paper") strength comprised of mixed personnel, and a rump core of contract soldiers that can be deployed abroad. The question for Russian leadership therefore becomes how to design these units to fight without their conscripts. The answer to this problem was the Battalion Tactical Group, which is a derivative formation that spins off (if you will) from the brigade. The design of these units has other considerations of course, but the basic concern driving the creation of the BTG was the need to craft a force that could fight without its conscripts.

The BTG, as has been noted, is heavy on firepower, with a strong organic complement of artillery tubes and armored vehicles, but exceptionally light on infantry. This has implications for both offensive and defensive operations, which we saw very clearly in the first nine months of the war in Ukraine.

On the defense, the BTG (being infantry poor) has to fight from behind a thin screen, and inflict defeats on the enemy with its ranged fires. This isn't a unit that can fight doggedly to hold forward positions; it's built to maul the attacker. More generally, however, BTGs are fragile units, by which we mean relatively low losses in infantry or tanks make them unsuitable for further combat tasks. This makes the unit something of a glass cannon - capable of dealing out tremendous firepower but not built to sustain operations after moderate losses. Being a fundamentally "slimmed down" unit, it struggles to sustain and recover combat capability without rotating to the rear to receive replacements or cannibalizing other units.

In a sense, this is what you'd expect given the constraints of the contract-conscript model, which by its very nature forced the Russians to design a stripped-down, manpower light subsidiary to their full strength brigades. This is why Russia had a general scarcity of manpower that began to compromise its overall operational effectiveness over the summer of 2022 as Ukrainian mobilization and western aid resulted in an enormous UA numerical advantage. At the peak, the first phase of the war probably saw no more than 80,000 regular Russian combat personnel in Ukraine, and even with the DNR, LNR, and Wagner providing an infantry buffer, the total Russian force was outnumbered at least 3-1. The BTG could still inflict huge damage, but the construction of the force in Ukraine was simply not sufficient for the scope of the theater, leading to a huge section of front in Kharkov being hollowed out. Hence, mobilization.

The Battalion Tactical Group proved to be a powerful but fragile unit

Here is where the signs of organizational issues begin to appear. The time had come, with mobilization finally giving Russia the deployable manpower that it needed, to pivot away from infantry poor BTGs and begin conducting large unit operations, but it is clear that the organizational process for incorporating mobilized personnel into the army and assembling large units (brigades and higher) has not been efficient. The mobilized seem to have initially been utilized in a variety of ways. Some were sent to existing units in the operations zone as replacements, others were placed into new units comprised entirely of mobilized personnel. The result is a grab bag of variegated units that have yet to be organized into large units for offensive operations.

A bit of chaos was probably to be expected, given that nobody alive has experience conducting a general mobilization for a continental war, and the entire process for Russia is a bit murky due to the many different classes of personnel and the legal barrier to utilizing conscripts. Broadly, however, it seems clear that the process of pivoting from the stripped down BTG expeditionary army back to larger parent formations has been inefficient, and Russia is still in the process of forming large units. Additionally, there remains something of a backlog delivering upgraded infantry fighting vehicles (BMPs especially) to the forming motor rifle units.

Against the backdrop of this process, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu announced a new program of military reorganization. Perhaps the most significant item on the list of changes is the decision to begin converting existing brigades into divisions. This may sound like bureaucratic vanity, but it is not. Let's discuss.

At the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union wielded the largest and most powerful army in the world, capable of fielding millions of men, armed to the teeth with unparalleled inventories of all manner of heavy equipment. The fact that this powerful military apparatus saw virtually no mutinies or breakdown at the end and yet it was not deployed to preserve the communist system is one of the great curiosities of modern history, but that is a story for another time.

In any case, in the wake of the Soviet collapse, Russia inherited the bulk of the Soviet military legacy, but amid economic turmoil and general societal distress, it could hardly afford to keep this massive force active (nor did it have the men, having lost access to much of the Soviet manpower pool). This led Moscow to convert much of the Soviet Army into what are known as "Cadre Formations" - essentially, a particular division would be stripped down to skeleton personnel (as small as a few hundred, mostly officers and NCOs) who would form the core around which the division would be brought back up to combat strength. Thus, those enormous Soviet divisions could be downsized to warehouses full of equipment and a small pool of cadre personnel, more or less putting the division into hibernation for future use.

In 2008, Russia undertook a major military restructuring under former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. The 2008 reforms were a belated attempt to transition away from the Soviet leftover army. Elements of the reorganization included the elimination of the cadre divisions and a move to convert all the existing divisions into brigades. This moved Russia away from the Soviet division structure towards a more western brigade model.

The dual effect of eliminating cadre formations and downsizing divisions to brigades was to slim down a bloated officer corps and create a more streamlined force. While a few divisions were retained, these were the exception rather than the rule. In general, a Russian brigade is perhaps 40-50% the size of an equivalent type division - IE, a Motor Rifle Division might be 8,500 men strong, but a Motor Rifle Brigade may be around 3,500-4,000 men.

Russia's move to downsize from divisions to brigades was beneficial during peacetime - it reduced the cost of a bloated overstretched officer corps, and generally supported Russia's austerity regime. Armies, however, are ultimately built for war.

Russian leadership has clearly concluded that the stripped down, manpower-lite army is not adequate for a high intensity war. This fits the overall lesson learned by everyone involved - war is still an industrial enterprise, and success requires mass - big units firing lots of shells. Thus, NATO's admission that the expenditure of ammunition vastly outstrips their production capacity and Russia's decision to expand the army are two sides of the same coin.

Shoigu's announcement of a reversion to Divisional structure indicates a desire for more robust formations

This brings us back to Shoigu's announcement that existing brigades will be converted back into divisions - effectively undoing a key element of the 2008 reforms. Russia's experience in Ukraine has shown that stripped down units are simply not robust enough (particular in terms of manpower) to sustain themselves adequately in combat.

The picture that emerges is that of a Russian Army that is attempted to manage three different transitions at once. Namely: (1) the intake of a large number of mobilized personnel who have to be organized into large units capable of offensive operations, (2) an overall expansion and reorganization of the army back into a divisional structure, and (3) a massive expansion in armaments production, with the Russian military-industrial complex retooling to produce a mix of systems based on the experience of combat in Ukraine.

It seems like the most likely verdict is that at this point in time, these organizational challenges are not fully resolved, limiting immediate Russian activity to shaping operations and the maintenance of attritional death pits (like Bakhmut) under the safety of Russia's ISR and fires umbrella in the east. This will continue until the regular Motor Rifle and Tank units are ready for attacking operations.

This is why, at the moment, much of Russia's offensive duties are being handled by units at the high and low end of the unit spectrum - that is, either elite units like VDV (airborne) and Marines, or irregular units like Wagner and the DNR/LNR. The middle rung of the ladder - regular motor rifle units - are mostly visible holding defensive positions.

This is not to say that mobilization has not already had a major effect on the battlefield. The conditions that allowed Ukraine's offensive in Kharkov oblast last autumn have been rectified. There are no longer thinned out sections of front, and Russia's positions are now properly manned. Ukraine to this date in the war still has not successfully broken through a strongly held Russian position, and mobilization has allowed Russia to at last properly man the enormous front. It has not, however, led to a visible increase in offensive force generation, and it would seem that this is broadly due to the organizational chaos associated with rolling the BTGs back up into brigades and divisions.

From the Russian point of view, that's the bad news. The good news is that even with much of the mobilized army still in a state of organizational flux, Russian combat strength is more than enough to sustain combat on existing axes, disrupting Ukraine's attempts to accumulate reserves and pursuing important shaping objectives.

Lost in the Woods

As the world endlessly debates Schrodinger's Offensive, something significant is being missed. Regardless of the absence, now or in the future, of "big arrows" that look nice on a map, the combat that is ongoing right now in the Donbas is very important from an operational perspective. Let us shrink the scope down and look at an unloved little section of front and think about what is going on there at the moment. In particular, I would like to look at the Kreminna axis.

Kreminna is a small town of no more than 20,000 people (prewar) with a rather serendipitous location. It sits near the border of the Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts, and in particular it occupies the spot where a critical rail line approaches the dominant geographic feature in the area, which is the Donets River (alternately called the Severodonetsk River).

Rivers are always important, but the Donets particularly so, because its banks - in particular the northern bank - are the site of a thick forest belt (some of it natural, but largely a plantation forest). This forest has become a critical feature of combat in this sector.

The Donets Forest Belt

Over the summer of 2022, forested zones such as this one became one of the first signs that Russia needed to raise its force deployment in Ukraine. Both in this belt along the Donets and in a similar forest zone around Izyum, Russian forces had difficulty fully sealing the front and securing the forests. This was largely due to two factors. First, heavy forests necessarily weaken Russian ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance) by obscuring visibility. The second (closely related) factor was Russia's paucity of infantry. As the initial Russian force was decidedly understrength on infantry, the Russian army preferred to fight with a light screen of infantry behind which overwhelming ranged fires could be directed - an overall scheme which breaks down in the woods, where ISR is weak and there are insufficient infantry to man continuous lines.

All that is simply to say that in the summer of 2022 these forest belts were a problematic setting for the Russian force. Now, however, they have rectified their manpower deficiencies and find themselves in a position were securing the Donets forest belt is a high operational priority. This is because the belt runs horizontally (that is, east-west) below Russia's axis of advance towards Lyman.

Kreminna became a sector of high intensity combat in the last few months as perhaps the only axis where Ukraine had any realistic notions of achieving an operationally decisive result, with the rail line to Lysychansk apparently within striking distance. This precipitated a series of failed Ukrainian attacks on Kreminna itself, which collapsed with heavy loss of life before Russia began to push westward on the axis back towards Lyman.

The forest, however, complicates matters. Ukraine retains free access to the forest crossing because it controls the southern bank of the Donets River. Thus able to reinforce and sustain combat groups in the forest belt, Ukraine is able to pressure the flank of any extended Russian attack westward toward Lyman. This is why the last few weeks have seen Russian efforts westward slacken in favor of attacks southward into the woods themselves.

It is clear that sealing off this forest is a critical task that must be achieved before offensives can be continued towards Lyman (itself a crucial interim operational target before the assault on the Slavyansk line). Fortunately for Russia, it has a way to achieve this that will be easier than a protracted fight in the woods. Ukrainian sustainment in the forest belt relies on control over the south bank of the Donets river, but Russia's lines are currently only about five miles away at Zolotarivka.

The entire front becomes an instructive lesson in the interconnectivity of such operations and the crucial nature of these battles which are frequently dismissed as mere "shaping operations", fighting over small and insignificant objectives.

A Russian attack on a northwesterly basis towards the south bank of the Donets River would aim for small settlements with such forgettable names as Serebryanka and Grygorivka. Surely, the capture of such villages is hardly likely to put the fear of God in the Jake Sullivans and Victoria Nulands of the world - I fear nothing earthly can. Yet a Russian push towards the south bank of the river will sever the routes being used to sustain Ukrainian forces in the forest belt on the *north* bank of the river. This, in turn, would allow Russian forces out of Kreminna to secure the forest belt and neutralize the threat on their left flank as they resume attacking actions westward towards Lyman. They don't even need to capture Lyman itself in the near term, as reaching the village of Yampil would be sufficient to cut the last remaining supply artery to Siversk (the southern routes having been severed by Russian forces around Bakhmut) and create the conditions for Russia to liquidate the entire Siversk salient.

In short, this forest zone and the corridor from Kreminna to Lyman acts as the hinge between the Lugansk and Donetsk fronts, and even more specifically this forest belt directly along the Donets river acts as the hinge between Kreminna and Siversk. In 2022, this was the sort of terrain that Ukraine had success exploiting owing to Russia's infantry-light force composition. With this problem now being rectified, Russia has the forces to properly secure these forests, and can accelerate this process by severing the river crossings that Ukraine relies on to sustain its units in the forest belt.

Ugledar: Anatomy of a Battle

At the moment, the front in Ukraine is active in many places, with measured Russian advances on the Oskil River river line, a steady grind of heavy combat in the forest zone between Lyman and Kreminna, and of course the Wagnerian death pit at Bakhmut. These are important and high-intensity areas of combat, but there is at present nothing that could be rationally called a "big arrow" developing.

In light of this overall situation, I thought that this might be a good opportunity to look at a particular section of the front and think about the ongoing battle in high resolution. More specifically, I want to make a close examination of the ongoing battle in the Ugledar sector - let's discuss not only why it is important, but also see the granular details of the Russian assault, Ukrainian countermeasures, and potential future progress.

Ugledar (some maps may use the Ukrainian formulation "Vuhledar") is a rather curious little town with a prewar population that probably never exceeded 15,000. The town itself is a dense cluster of concrete apartment blocks sitting out on an expanse of remarkably flat steppe - flat even by Ukrainian standards.

Ugledar and its environs

Ugledar has an outsized operational significance for Ukraine, both for offensive and defensive purposes. The current frontline has Ukrainian forces holding a bulge, or salient, to the southwest of Donetsk city. This bulge is distinctive in that it is the Ukrainian position which is closest to the trunk rail line connecting Donetsk with Mariupol and the land bridge to Crimea (and thus presents the most immediate Ukrainian threat to Russian logistics in the south). The shoulders of this bulge are anchored by Ugledar and Marinka - and behind Ugledar in particular there are no good places for Ukraine to anchor their defense of the salient.

Ugledar and the Donetsk Salient (Map by MilitaryLand)

So long as the Ukrainians hold Ugledar, they will hold this salient and have a position from which to threaten Russian rail traffic. If they lose Ugledar, the rollup of this entire salient will be a forgone conclusion. It is thus trivially obvious why this position is a priority for both Russia and Ukraine.

This brings us to Ugledar itself and the ongoing battle for its control. It is immediately obvious why the town would be difficult to crack. It is characterized by densely packed and extremely robust concrete apartment blocks, and the flatness of the terrain on the approach gives the Ukrainian defenders a clean field of vision. This is a physically resilient position with a commanding view of the surrounding area.

The aerial view of Ugledar from the northwest

The battlespace here is small and easy to parameterize. Ugledar is roughly a mile away from the Russian-held towns of Pavlivka and Mykils'ke. The field on the approach is extremely flat, which makes crossing it in the open an extreme hazard. The most viable line of approach is instead towards the feature known colloquially as the "dachas" - a cluster of houses on the southeastern edge of Ugledar proper.

The dachas are an important feature for two reasons. First, they offer the only real cover on the outskirts of Ugledar itself, and thus become the only real staging point or toehold outside the town. Secondly, they are the natural destination for anyone seeking to advance intelligently, which is to say by way of the tree lines. The fields in this area are separated from each other by very thin and very straight lines of trees. These constitute the only cover on the approach, and are therefore hot real estate. Ukrainian forces routinely dig their trenches directly under these sorts of tree lines, and they create the avenues of advance for Russian forces as well. In the case of Ugledar, following the tree lines brings you directly to the dachas, and as a result these dachas become the natural focal point of any attempt to move on Ugledar itself.

The other feature that is highly relevant is a large coal mine located about a mile and a half to the northeast of Ugledar up the road. This coal mine (though not the mine shaft itself so much as the compound of industrial buildings around it) is a subsidiary Ukrainian position with a garrison of its own as well as logistical elements.

Thus, we get a battlespace that looks like this:

With this understanding of the spatial and geographic aspects, we can look at the ongoing battle for Ugledar. On January 25, Russian forces came surging out of Pavlivka and Mykils'ke and stormed towards Ugledar, rapidly reaching the dachas and largely clearing them out. There was at this point confirmed fighting within Ugledar itself, although it is likely that the Russian intention was not to storm the town block by block but rather to cut it off (there are really only two roads into Ugledar under Ukrainian control) and force a UA withdrawal through a rapid envelopment.

This initial Russian surge seems to have caught the Ukrainians off guard, based on the speed with which they were able to clear the dachas and advance up into the eastern outskirts of Ugledar. An officer with 105th DNR Regiment, which participated in this first assault, told Russian correspondents that they believed the Ukrainian grouping in Ugledar could be finished off with a strong push overnight and that an ultimatum to surrender would be issued (indicating that they anticipated enveloping the town).

It was at this point that the Ukrainians responded quickly and with great force. A few factors were at play here. First, UA command clearly views Ugledar as a priority position and almost immediately sent reserves in to the town (Ukrainian sources claim that reserves earmarked for the Kreminna axis were redirected).

Secondly, Ukraine benefits from having artillery batteries in Kurakhove, some fifteen miles to the north. This is pushing the extremity of ranges for some systems, but Kurakhove is a strong firing position because it allows Ukraine to cover both the Ugledar and Marinka sectors. If you remember the bulge in the line that we noted earlier, Kurakhove is something like a pivoting fire point that allows Ukrainian artillery to reach around the perimeter of the bulge.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Russian assault force neglected to attack or at least suppress the coal mine to the northeast of Ugledar. Ukrainian forces there were able to organize a quick counterattack, which came at an oblique angle towards the dachas. Once reserves arrived in Ugledar and counterattacked as well, Russian troops were forced to fight for their position in the dachas.

Ukraine's quick counterattack, artillery coverage from Kurakhove, and the arrival of reserves ended Russia's chance of overwhelming Ugledar in the first wave, and the battle has now developed into a much larger affair with more forces being committed by both sides. The struggle has largely centered on the dachas and, of course, those tree lines which form the avenues of advance for both sides. Satellite imagery shows that shelling has been concentrated along these tree lines

Maxar satellite images of shell impacts

Even more impactful, perhaps, have been the UA's intensive efforts to mine the approaches, including with remote laid mines (essentially, hollow artillery shells are packed with a stack of mines and scatter the little buggers all over). Given the difficulties of making the approach to Ugledar over the open ground even in the absence of mines, and the confined and linear nature of the avenues of approach, a direct assault on Ugledar is at this point a fool's errand, and it seems Russia is no longer attempting this at all.

The battle appears to be undergoing a clear shift. Two items in particular stand out - first, that Ukrainian forces not only advanced through the dachas, but even managed to cross the field towards Russian held Pavilvka and Mykils'ke. Secondly, however, Russian forces are holding positions and pushing out to the eastern edge of the dachas and have brought reinforcements in through Mykils'ke.

This suggests the following scheme, broadly speaking. Russian efforts now seem to be shifting away from Ugledar towards the coal mine. This would further isolate the Ugledar garrison and position Russian forces to envelop it from the east. Simultaneously, however, the Russian force seems to have given up the approach to Ugledar and allowed the Ukrainians to come out.

A few days ago, some Ukrainian sources were triumphantly claiming that they had reached the Kashlahach River. This surprised me immensely - advancing that far is a very bad idea for the Ukrainians. It is extremely unlikely that Ukraine can successfully attack in this direction - Pavlivka and Mykils'ke are both under well consolidated Russian control, and perhaps most importantly the main highway supplying these towns is behind the river. If Ukraine opts to attack, then all the aforementioned difficulties of the terrain now play in Russian favor, and it will be the Ukrainians attempting to project a force across the field along those narrow tree lines, with no way to screen or cut

Furthermore, the avenue of approach for the Ukrainians happens to emerge between the two Russian held towns. Any successful Ukrainian attack would therefore require them to force a river while under threat of envelopment. All in all, the best decision for the Ukrainians would be to move out no further than the dachas, and remain safely in Ugledar's shadow. But if they want to come out across the field into a killing zone, I suspect the Russians are happy to let them do so while they prepare work on the coal mine.

Ugledar has so far presented as a fascinating and fiercely contested battle. The initial Russian surge towards the town was uncharacteristic of a Russian army that has shown a preference for methodical and plodding movement. At the same time, there is no denying that Ukraine contested the Russian attack decisively and intelligently. The media and propaganda sphere has attempted to portray the battle as the scene of horrific Russian losses. There was a claim made, for example, that the entire 155th Marine Brigade was destroyed. This, needless to say, is a bit hard to believe given that the 155th Marine Brigade is still actively fighting in this sector and a steady drip of combat footage continues to emerge. Funnily enough, this brigade was also supposedly destroyed in November in a supposedly failed attempt to capture Pavlivka, and in the end neither the destruction of the brigade nor the failure of the attack turned out to be true. Oh well.

All that being said, Russian losses are real - probably on the order of 300-400 men and a few dozen assorted vehicles, but this is simply the reality of high intensity combat. Ukrainian losses in this sector are similarly intense, and the successful stabilization of the front forced Ukrainian command to denude their reserves in other critical sectors of front. Perhaps even more importantly, the surge of Ukrainian forces into this sector completely changed the calculus of the battle, with Russia bringing more heavy weaponry to bear and creating yet another attritional death pit.

The future at Ugledar remains cloudy. New footage was released this morning (February 24) showing Russian airstrikes on Ukrainian positions around the coal mine, suggesting that they may indeed proceed with an attempt to assault the mine and envelop Ugledar from the east. It is also possible that Ugledar becomes yet another grinding positional battle, which could be undone for the Ukrainians by a Russian advance elsewhere. If, for example, the Russians break the Ukrainian line in Marinka and advance to threaten Kurakhove, Ugledar could lose the vital artillery umbrella that has made the successful defense possible.

For now, this battle is fascinating because it shrinks the entire drama of the war to a very small scale. Tens of thousands of men have been bravely contesting the issue in an arena of no more than fifteen square miles, and in many cases life and death has been adjudicated by control over a narrow dirt track under a line of trees.

Amid the grand pronouncements of political leadership and endless fretting over big arrows drawn on the map, it does us well to remember that the fate of the world is built on the accumulated efforts of these brave individual soldiers. Indifferent to the endless bloviation about war aims and the inane chattering about "the rules based international order", multipolarity, and mundane geopolitical interests, events on the ground are carried forward by men whose war aims are very simple indeed. On the snow covered Pontic steppes around Ugledar, what the warrior desires more than anything is not to be shot.

Scars of Empire: Moldova and Transnistria

Perhaps one of the more notable developments in the last few weeks was the simultaneous emergence of two alleged plots to widen the conflict. On February 21, the Ukrainian government claimed to have intelligence warning that Russia planned to perpetrate a "coup" in Moldova by seizing the airport in the capital of Chișinău and inserting troops by airlift. Within 24 hours, Russia countered with a claim that Ukraine was in the process of preparing to invade the interstitial and legally ambiguous territory known as Transnistria.

This is probably all very confusing to casual observers. If Eastern European history and/or politics are not your cup of tea, then you have probably only heard of Moldova in passing, and perhaps you've never heard of Transnistria at all, so it may be that a brief foray into the historical background may be useful.

A Russian Nesting Doll of Imperial Debris

Moldova is one of those little states that was predestined to be a piece of geopolitical shrapnel. Moldovans themselves (as an ethnos or people) are really a derivative of Romanians - the supermajority of the country speaks Romanian and the dominant religion is Eastern Orthodoxy in liturgical Romanian. Genetically, Moldovans seem to have more Slavic ancestry than Romanians proper, but that is perhaps outside the scope of this little essay.

In any case, this begs the question: why is Moldova a thing, as opposed to simply a nice coastal province of Romania? The answer, succinctly, is that the state simultaneously sits at two important convergence points - one political, and one geographic.

Politically (that is, historically) speaking, Moldova sat at a sort of connective tissue where three great empires abutted each other - the Russian, Ottoman, and Austrian empires more specifically. In particular, for much of modern history the territory which is now Moldova lay directly on the border of the Russian and Ottoman Empires, and was thus highly coveted. The desirability of this lithospheric little region was further enhanced by its geographic qualities. Very simply, Moldova occupies a historic territory known as Bessarabia, which comprised the easily traversable gap between the Carpathian Mountains and the Black Sea.

Bessarabia (the future Moldova) was subject to perennial coveting and hand changing, with both the Russian and Ottoman powers desiring to control that crucial corridor between the mountains and the sea. The emergence of an independent Romanian state in the 1800's further complicated matters with yet another party desiring this strategic parcel. In the end, the Second World War brought about an end to the controversy, with a victorious Soviet Union planting the hammer and sickle over the Bessarabian Gap through the creation of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Moldovan question was resolved… for a time.

The Berlin wall fell. The Soviet Union began to unwind, and again Moldova's political future became an open question. In June 1990, the Moldovan Republic became one of a number seeking to leave the Union, but not everyone agreed. Soviet loyalists and ethnic Russians living in Moldova recoiled at the thought of leaving the Union and being left alone in a majority Romanian state, and in response they declared the formation of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, which would soon be better known as Transnistria.

The name Transnistria is actually a very useful and descriptive one. A derivative of "Trans-Dniester" - it refers very literally to a strip of land between the Dniester River and the Moldovan Border, which seceded from Moldova in 1990 and declared an ongoing commitment to the USSR. A rather peculiar question then arises - is Transnistria a loyalist or a separatist entity? From the point of view of Moscow, the Transnistrian authorities are loyalists who refused to join the Moldovan exit from the USSR. For Moldovans, of course, the Transnistrians are separatists. How they will be regarded by history will almost certainly be determined by who wins and loses the struggle for power in Eastern Europe.

All this is to say, there are now two statelets on the Black Sea littoral that represent imperial debris. Moldovia is an ethnic Romanian state occupying most of the gap between the Carpathian Mountains and the Black Sea, and Transnistria is a pro-Russian pseudo-state which broke away from Moldova during the Soviet collapse. Now, in February 2023, Ukraine and Russia are accusing each other of plotting to invade these little strips of geopolitical shrapnel.

Let's begin with the Transnistrian issue. Two salient questions manifest themselves: why would Ukraine want to invade Transnistria, and would such an attempt be successful?

The rational for Ukraine invading Transnistria is somewhat muddled. Many have suggested that Ukraine might be motivated to seize the contents of Transnistria's Cobasna Ammunition Dump - once a logistical support for the Soviet 14th Guards Army which was stationed in the region. Now, the Cobasna depot is one of the largest ammunition dumps in Europe, with up to 20,000 tons of Soviet era munition still located there. With widespread reports that Ukraine is desperately low on ammunition, the Cobasna facility is perhaps a lusty target buxom enough to rustle the jimmies of the Ukrainian general staff, though it is unlikely that the entire contents of the depot are usable. Many of the munitions are likely defunct due to age and neglect at this point, but there's probably still a significant stock of usable ordnance. The fact that the ammo dump is less than three miles from the Ukrainian border raises the appeal to perhaps irresistible levels.

The Cobasna Facility

Transnistria, of course, is not exactly defenseless. Given that it is more or less a statelet formed around hardliner remnants of the Red Army, it is much more militarized than one would expect for a region with a population of less than half a million. In fact, Transnistria has more heavy equipment than Moldova does, and can field a handful of passable motorized infantry brigades. There is also a garrison of Russian soldiers in Transnistria, though these are relatively lightly equipped and were deployed mostly as a tripwire force during peacetime.

The verdict on Transnistria is that it punches above its weight class and is probably a much tougher nut to crack than one would initially assume, but it is isolated and would be unable to resist a determined Ukrainian attack under normal circumstances, though at this point it's unclear what sort of resources Kiev could dedicate to what would amount to an armed raid to steal ammunition.

The Glorious and All Conquering Armed Forces of Transnistria

All that being said, we must remember that the Cobasna ammunition dump is located extremely close to the Ukrainian border, and securing it would thus not require pacification of all of Transnistria. The Ukrainian army would merely need to secure a salient a few miles deep and screen the depot from the nearby city of Ribnita while they transferred its contents back to Ukraine. It would be difficult for the forces in Transnistria to contest an objective so close to the Ukrainian border, and it's therefore highly likely that measures have already been taken to destroy the ammunition dump in the event of a Ukrainian incursion - an act which could produce an explosion nearly the size of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, albeit without the pesky radiation.

This suggests a paradox. The Cobasna depot is so vulnerable to a Ukrainian raid that it ceases to become a realistic target, as it will be simply be detonated the moment the UA comes near it. Ukraine would then find itself facing a pointless new front in its rear which would almost certainly require Ukrainian regular units (not just territorial defense) to pacify.

This brings us back to Moldova. The Transnistrian issue is a sensitive one for Moldova, which views the little Transnistrian statelet as a separatist Moldovan province, and tends to view it as a Russian mechanism to both forward deploy troops and put pressure on the Moldovan government. It is not quite correct to view Transnistria as some sort of Russian plot, simply because the creation of Transnistria was the result of spontaneous ground-up action in the region itself, and not centrally directed by Moscow, but it is undoubtedly a sore spot for Moldova.

This is why Ukraine has consistently framed the Transnistrian question as being "up to Moldova." In other words, Ukraine will probably by hesitant to move on Transnistria in a naked attempt to steal the Cobasna stockpile - it would instead like to portray its intervention there as being at the request of the Moldovan government - "this is Moldova's land, and we are intervening at their request to help them get it back." This is likely the reason Ukraine has been claiming of a supposed Russian plan to overthrow the Moldovan government - they would like to create a political environment where Moldova greenlights a move on Transnistria, and participates with its own forces.

Let's take stock of the larger situation and figure out what's going on with these rumors. Widening the war to Moldova and Transnistria does not suit Russian interests. Any operations occurring on the Transnistrian axis would be very difficult for Russia to manage, as they would have to be sustained entirely by airlift, and even more specifically overflights of Ukrainian or Moldovan territory.

Meanwhile, Moldova almost certainly wants to maintain its neutrality (which is codified in the country's constitution and is the reason the country is not a NATO member) and is thus highly unlikely to greenlight a Ukrainian move into Transnistria in the absence of some prior Russian provocation.

Ultimately, the only party that would seem to benefit from widening the conflict into the Moldovan space would be Ukraine, both because it covets the Cobasna depot and because widening the conflict is generally a Ukrainian goal - in their crude calculation, any escalation that raises the probability of direct western intervention is beneficial. Moldova, of course, is not a NATO member, but no doubt Ukraine would like to set off a spiraling expansion of the theater and see if, say, Romania could be dragged in. All that being said, Kiev should probably expect the Cobasna depot to simply be detonated the moment they move on it, making the entire scheme an ill-conceived waste of resources.

On the whole, I'm skeptical that anything will occur on this front. The simultaneous finger pointing by Moscow and Kiev is strongly reminiscent of the period last year where both parties began to simultaneously accuse the other of plotting to detonate a dirty bomb. Ukraine tries to manufacture a crisis to raise more urgency in the west and to stoke panic and distraction in Russia, and Russia replies with counter-accusations and escalation management. Above all, this is a stark reminder that for Ukraine - being entirely dependent on its western benefactors to sustain its war making - this war is being fought in front of an audience.

I have been fairly consistent from the beginning in that I expect the war in Ukraine to be fought to its conclusion and remain a contained conventional conflict - that is to say, I neither expect nuclear weapons usage nor additional belligerents to enter the war, be it Belarus, Poland, Moldova, or NATO proper. I believe we've already seen the qualitative extent of outside involvement in the war - NATO providing training, ISR, weaponry, maintenance, and sustainment, Belarus being used for Russian deployments, and Russian allies like China and Iran providing mainly standoff weaponry. For now, none of the developments around Transnistria seem to credibly upset this calculus. For now, we wait and see if Ukrainian ammunition shortages become so dire that they simply can't resist taking a pass at the Cobasna depot.

Summary: Life in the Death Pit

For someone sitting safely in their home far away from the Donbas, it is easy to trivialize the combat that is currently ongoing as unimportant, simply because places like Ugledar, Bakhmut, and the forest belt south of Kreminna do not seem to be particularly important places. This, of course, is rather silly. What makes a place important, in that unique context and under the novel strategic logic of war, is the fact that two hostile bodies of armed men are colliding there. History is replete with such reminders - Gettysburg, Stalingrad, and Điện Biên Phủ were not particularly important of their own accord, but they took on an outsized significance because that's where the enemy was.

Victory in Ukraine will be won when one army or the other has lost its ability to offer armed resistance - either through the breaking of political will, the destruction of heavy equipment, shattered sustainment, or manpower losses. The word "attrition" has become rather commonplace and is routinely thrown around in reference to the current Russian approach, but few want to contemplate what this really means - for it implies, above all, killing Ukrainian soldiers in large numbers, hunting and destroying critical systems like artillery and air defense, and making Ukrainian rear areas non-functional. Where better to fight than Bakhmut, where Ukrainian infantry survive for mere hours on the front line?

Russian command could, perhaps, paraphrase American Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who famously said of Vietnam: ""By God, they sent us over here to kill Communists and that's what we're doing."

One of the great peculiarities of this war is the degree to which Kiev is dependent on western help to sustain its war making. This is in some ways both an advantage and a disadvantage for Russia. The downsides are obvious, in that it puts most of Ukraine's ISR, armaments production, and sustainment beyond Russia's reach. Moscow can hardly begin shooting down American AWACs planes or bombing Lockheed Martin facilities, and so in this regard the dynamic of the war gives Ukraine a unique strategic resilience. But the flip side of this coin is that Ukraine is not truly sovereign, as is Russia with its entirely indigenous war making.

Because Ukraine relies on foreign assistance to continue its war, it must constantly be in a performative mode and under pressure to deliver visible successes. This is why it is anticipated that Ukraine will use the vehicles currently being delivered to launch a counteroffensive against the land bridge to Crimea. It really has no choice in the matter. In contrast, Russia is under no intense time pressure except that which it imposes on itself, and this freedom of action gives it the luxury (so long as battlefield events do not interrupt it) of sorting out an organizational overhaul and resisting the temptation to move prematurely.

Of course it would be much better not to have organizational problems in the first place, but discretion remains the better part of valor. And for now, there is no great hurry, for the entire front has become a death pit which is absorbing Ukrainian manpower and equipment and sapping the Ukrainians of reserves and initiative.

The vain world that we inhabit in the west is being exposed to the realities of true power. After yet another impotent condemnatory vote in the United Nations and a visit to Kiev by America's favorite gerontocrat, the western clerisy's interest in the Ukraine War shows little signs of waning, but perhaps gradually they are becoming aware that this is a plane of existence that they can little comprehend, let alone influence. They can only watch.

In the forest around the Donets, on the steppe at Ugledar, and in the burning death trap at Bakhmut, words matter little. Indeed, the destructive power now at work is so great that even the deeds of the individual can do little to alter the course of the battle - and yet on both sides, men of superior will continue to execute their duties, demonstrating discipline and bravery in the face of the constant possibility of death. Such men of iron are perhaps beyond the understanding of postmodern cultures, but it is they who will determine the fate of Ukraine and Russia.


Big Serge Thoughts
17 Feb 2023 | 8:32 pm

6. German Rebirth: Blitzkrieg

Few words have electrified the military lexicon like Blitzkrieg. The word has taken on something of a paradoxical form over time - signifying so many different things that it almost seems to mean nothing at all, and yet it has universal recognition and a powerful cachet. It is, to be sure, not immediately obvious what is meant by Blitzkrieg. Is this an operational term, referring to penetration and encirclement of large enemy formations? Or is it rather a tactical designation related to the combined arms use of airpower and armor? Or perhaps it is neither - in some cases, Blitzkrieg (which means simply lightning war) is simply used to refer to any very rapid victory.

Despite the fact that nobody can seem to agree on a definition, we all seem to know what is meant by the word. By and large, what people mean is the warfighting system by which the German Wehrmacht won a series of spectacular and extremely rapid victories across the breadth of Europe from 1939 to 1941. While the precise nature of this nexus is not always well understood, Blitzkrieg stands for a certain impression of war with particular imagery associated with it: columns of panzers and trucks hauling down the road at high speed, dive bombers screeching out of the sky, a vicious attacking style characterized by extreme violence and speed, and the swastika waving victoriously from Warsaw to Paris.

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It is my intention here to give a more full form to this imagery, and interpret Blitzkrieg as a particular nexus of operational, tactical, and technical systems. More specifically, the German system of warfighting that was unveiled in 1939 represented the admixture of longstanding German operational concepts (in the tradition of Helmuth von Moltke), with the infiltration and penetration tactics developed late in World War One, made technically possible through the use of mechanization, radio communication, and ground support aircraft. This system allowed the Wehrmacht to control the pace of operations by delivering high levels of sustained firepower along chosen axes of advance, fully unlocking the advantages of maneuver by seizing the initiative and never giving it back.

Blitzkrieg may have seemed to be something entirely new to the various armies that found themselves being shredded from 1939 to 1941, but in many ways it was intimately recognizable to the scions of the Prusso-German military tradition. From the very beginning, the Prussian aristocratic-officer class had always believed that winning wars was conceptually simple: find the enemy and attack him. "The Prussian army always attacks" had been Frederick the Great's simple maxim. The tanks and bombers may have been new, but the ethos was very old indeed.

The Panzer Division

It can be said without any hint of exaggeration that the Panzer Division was the single most important and potent military innovation in the interwar period - and yet, in many popular histories, the concept is either poorly understood or glossed over. Most of the time, the idea is presented as the Germans simply "concentrating" their tanks rather than distributing them in small units around the army. This is perhaps adjacent to the brilliance of the Panzer division, but does not really address the key distinctives. Concentrating tanks was not an innovation unique to the Germans - the British, for example, developed "Armored Divisions" which packed in hundreds of tanks and few supporting units. One British General even explicitly argued that infantry "are not meant to fight side by side with your tanks in the forefront."

The Germans, in designing the panzer division, did something unique. The panzer division, rather than being purely a tank or panzer formation, was instead a comprehensively equipped combined arms formation in which all the supportive arms were motorized to match the mobility of the tank. The result was a fast, flexible, and versatile formation with suitability for virtually any combat task.

Early Model Panzers on the Belgian Plain

The origins of the panzer division as a true combined arms formation lay, ultimately, with two particularly important men - one a virtual unknown named Ernst Volckheim, and the other perhaps Germany's most famous tank commander: Heinz Guderian.

Volckheim today enjoys virtually no name-brand recognition, but he was probably the first German officer to think about armored warfare in a systematic way. He also managed to get hands on experience with tanks before Germany began making panzers by taking advantage of a curious interwar arrangement. Germany was prohibited from building tanks by the Versailles Treaty - but the Soviet Union was not. From 1929 to 1933, Germany and the USSR operated a secret joint tank-training school near Kazan, where German officers (of whom Volckheim was perhaps the most prominent) were able to get practical experience with tank tactics and maneuvers in exchange for training Soviet tank crews. Knowing how mercilessly these two armies would clash a decade later, the arrangement seems ludicrous, but it was certainly a useful tool for allowing both to get their tank forces up to speed in the 1930's - for obvious reasons, the January 1933 appointment of Adolf Hitler to Reichskanzler fouled the relationship and brought an end to the tank school.

Volckheim used his experience at the Kazan tank school and his own musings on tank combat (the topic being his obsession) to produce a series of lectures and papers on armored warfare, which formed the first systemized treatment of what would become the German panzer arm. These strands of thought were picked up and made famous by the best known panzer commander of them all.

Heinz Guderian - the Panzer Leader

In one of history's many delicious contingencies, Heinz Guderian made the cut when the Treaty of Versailles restricted the size of the German officer corps to a mere 4,000 men. With his military career thus kept alive, he spent the late 1920's becoming something of an armored warfare guru, devouring the literature on tanks from around Europe, heavily absorbing the ideas of Volckheim, and writing several papers and short books of his own on the subject. This raised his profile and earned him a promotion to the inspectorate of motorized troops. Throughout this process, Guderian became ever more convinced of the need for a cohesive combined arms formation.

We'll let him tell it in his own words:

In this year (1929) I became convinced that tanks working on their own or in conjunction with infantry could never achieve decisive importance. My historical studies, the exercises carried out in England and our own experience with mock-ups had persuaded me that the tanks would never be able to produce their full effect until the other weapons on whose support they must inevitably rely were brought up to their standard of speed and of cross-country performance. In such formation of all arms, the tanks must play primary role, the other weapons being subordinated to the requirements of the armor. It would be wrong to include tanks in infantry divisions; what was needed were armored divisions which would include all the supporting arms needed to allow the tanks to fight with full effect.

Guderian finally got his big chance in 1933, when he put on a field demonstration of weapons for Germany's newly installed Chancellor. When a platoon of Panzer I's trundled onto the field and began their maneuvers, Hitler (according to Guderian) grew very excited and shouted "That is what I want!"

By 1935, the Wehrmacht had organized its first three panzer divisions, and in 1937 Guderian published a book on armored operations titled "Achtung Panzer!" - Beware the Tank!

The composition of panzer divisions would change over time, of course, and especially late in the war they were typically far below their allotted, or "paper" strength of tanks and vehicles, but the panzer division on the eve of war was constructed roughly as follows:

  • A panzer brigade of some 300 tanks (organized into two regiments). This was later deemed too clumsy for division command to handle, and was downsized to a single tank regiment of 150 tanks per panzer division.

  • A motorized infantry brigade, including heavy infantry weapons (mortars and machine guns), and fully motorized with trucks and motorcycles.

  • A reconnaissance battalion equipped with light automobiles and motorcycles.

  • An anti-tank company equipped with truck-towed anti-tank guns.

  • A motorized artillery regiment bearing six truck-towed howitzer batteries for a total of twenty four guns.

  • A motorized field engineering battalion (called "Pioneers" in the German parlance) for construction and demolition work, including a bridging unit.

Rounding out the division would be various support elements including an anti-air (Flak) battalion, signals and communication, medical, field repair and maintenance, and a quartermaster (supplies).

As new systems were developed during war time, the loadout of the Panzer Divisions shifted away from trucks and towards more purposeful vehicles. Instead of anti-tank guns and howitzers being towed behind trucks, self-propelled artillery pieces and tank destroyers were introduced, and the infantry units swapped out their trucks for armored half tracks, but the basic design of the unit was the same. This was a self-contained fighting force with comprehensive capabilities, and everything - all the way down to the field bakery - was motorized to give it the mobility of the tanks.

A Panzer I crew has a rest

The Germans had, in effect, designed the first fully motorized combined arms formation. Rather than simply saying that they "concentrated their tanks", we should say that they concentrated their mobility. Much of the Germany army continued to consist of standard infantry divisions, which relied on good old fashioned feet and horses to get around (in 1939, only the anti-tank units in a standard infantry division would be motorized), but the panzer divisions formed a highly potent leading element to the German order of battle. On the eve of war, in 1939, the Wehrmacht had just six panzer divisions in the field (out of almost seventy divisions to participate in the invasion of Poland), but even in these limited numbers they proved to be an awesome striking force.

There was a curious irony to the vaunted German panzers. The most famous German tank models tend to be the heavily armed monsters of the late war period - the "big cats", like the Panzer V Panther and the famous Tiger. The irony, of course, is that Germany did not begin to field these tanks until 1943, by which time they were decisively losing the war. All of Germany's operational successes came from 1939 to 1942, when they were fielding tanks that were objectively of inferior quality to allied vehicles. For the campaign in France in 1940 - just to take a single division as an example - the 1st Panzer Division had 248 tanks in its inventories, of which 150 (60%) were either Panzer I's or II's - light tanks with both weaponry and armor insufficient for dueling British and French models. The Panzer I had actually been explicitly designed as a training vehicle and had no cannon at all, only machine guns, but was still deployed in large numbers in both Poland and France due to insufficient inventories of the newer models.

The Panzer II was largely obsolete by 1940

The great success of the panzer divisions, therefore, did not hinge on some superior fighting capability on the part of the German tanks themselves, but on the cooperative and comprehensive capabilities of the entire formation, and on its ability to move lithely and precisely. This, in turn, hinged on a solution to the command and control nightmares which had plagued armies in the first world war.

Commanders in 1914 quickly discovered that it was horribly difficult to get their large units to behave on the battlefield. The mass army was simply too large, the battlespace was too vast and complex, and communication technology was too slow and cumbersome to allow commanders to know what was going on in real time and provide their subordinates with up to date instructions. The introduction of fully motorized units like the panzer division at first threatened to make these problems even worse, because now there would be forces moving even faster and ranging ever farther from command. If controlling slow moving infantry formations was hard, directing mobile panzer units as they careened around the battlefield would be even harder.

Enter the radio - the lynchpin technical solution needed to make the entire panzer experiment work. While the radio was hardly a unique German asset, they seem to have been the first to identify it as an absolutely critical, paradigm altering technology. A series of field exercises in 1932 impressed that one very simply could not have too many radios, and by the time war began in 1939 the Wehrmacht standard was for every vehicle in the Panzer division to have a radio - not just command vehicles, as was the norm in competitor militaries.

Guderian in his command vehicle, maintaining constant radio contact with his units

This, then, was the strength of the panzer division: a cohesive and comprehensively equipped striking force, with its own armor, artillery, flak, infantry, engineering, reconnaissance, and anti-tank units, with every single element in the division motorized in one form or another and controlled through an integrated radio network. This was a unit that hit hard, moved fast, and could turn on a dime.

All the great power militaries in the late 1930's had some sort of tank program. They all had radios, airplanes, and modern artillery. In fact, in 1939 the German tank park was significantly smaller than either the Soviet or French inventories. What mattered most, and a key source of Germany's tremendous edge in combat effectiveness in the early years of the war, was their determination to create a fully motorized combined arms formation that could serve as their armored spearhead, for breaching enemy lines, driving into the rear, turning this way or that and rapidly deploying a full mechanized combat package as circumstances required.

The German military establishment had long nurtured particular views about how war ought to be fought. From Frederick the Great's maniacal lust for the enemy's flanks, to Moltke's lively maneuvers against Austria and France, to Hindenburg and Ludendorff's frustrating and futile attempts to restore operational level mobility in the Great War - this was a military tradition that wanted to get big, powerful units mobile and set them to hunting the enemy's main body.

In the panzer division, they finally had the perfect tool for the job.

Operational Synthesis

At last, we come to Blitzkrieg. If ever there was a word which has bedeviled historians, it was this. In relatively short order, "Blitzkrieg" or "Lightning War" became the standard western parlance for the Wehrmacht's mobile operations, and has since metastasized into a general synonym for maneuver warfare of any kind. And yet, the origin of the word itself seems to be largely an invention of western press, attempting to explain Germany's sequence of rapid victories. The word does not appear in German military texts, handbooks, or operational drafts. Hitler decried it as "a completely idiotic word", and Heinz Guderian dismissed it as a sloppy attempt by Germany's enemies to explain their successes.

And yet, Blitzkrieg as such enjoys near universal cachet and has certain hallmarks or motifs - rapid movement and penetration, mechanization, close air support, and combined arms warfare. Blitzkrieg is something that most people recognize, and yet its seminal practitioners denied that it ever existed, and today the word has come to be used for any military operation characterized by speed and great violence. Robert Citino, a preeminent historian of German operations, has said that "the term blitzkrieg remains the classic example of conceptual fuzziness. It can mean so many things that, in the end, it has come to mean nothing." Still, we cannot deny that when people speak of a German "Blitzkrieg", they are referring to something that is clearly discernible. There's something there - but what exactly is it?

The German officer corps in World War Two conceived of their operational art not as some entirely new form of war-making, but as a restoration and enhancement of their characteristically mobile and aggressive operations through technical, tactical, and organizational enhancements.

A conceptual representation of Blitzkrieg

Let us return to a few fundamentals. The Prussian army had a long tradition of battlefield aggression which emphasized marching at top speed towards the enemy's main body and attacking as quickly as possible. Aggression was the defining characteristic, rather than sophisticated maneuver or encirclement - for neither of these things were particularly feasible with musket armies. None of the great early-modern Prussian generals, not even Frederick the Great or Blucher, fought anything approximating an encirclement or annihilation battle. The key to their operational form was instead tempo, speed, and decisive attacking elan - closing with the enemy and savaging his main force.

It was Moltke who elevated this form to include what we would call "maneuver on the operational level" - the movement of large formations (divisions, corps, and armies) in separated, but synergistic patterns. His trademark victories over Austria at Konnigratz in 1866 and France in 1870-71 were both achieved by separating the army into dispersed formations, which then maneuvered towards each other as if to catch the enemy in a clamp.

It was after Moltke, during the uneasy runup to the Great War, that German officers began to speak of "annihilation battles". Alfred von Schlieffen, the Chief of the General Staff, had a minor obsession with Hannibal's ancient victory at Cannae, in which an entire Roman army was encircled and destroyed. It was hoped that modern operational planning and complex command and control systems could make it possible to achieve genuine annihilation of large armies. Germany's operational scheme in 1914 aimed to achieve just this against the French, but the limits of mobility and communications frustrated the scheme, and they could not quite get their operational level units to move the way they wanted.

In short, Germany had an idealized form of warfare that they had never been quite able to fully realize - what they called "Bewegungskrieg", or "Movement War". The aspiration was to achieve genuine annihilation battles against operational targets (large enemy units like corps and field armies). They had glimpsed the ideal at Sedan in 1870, when Moltke had surrounded and destroyed an entire French army, but later attempts to duplicate the feat had failed.

In the interwar period, they realized that technical, organizational, and tactical innovations had made it possible to restore operational movement and elevate the art to hitherto undreamed of levels. The sentiment among German officers was not at all that they had created something new, but rather that they had restored their old way of fighting - Moltke's art had been revived, on a larger and more powerful scale. One German General even wrote an article in a 1939 edition of a Wehrmacht military journal that "The most important fact, indeed, is that Bewegungskrieg, so often pronounced dead, has risen once again in its old glory."

Sixth Panzer Division on the move

The technical solutions are perhaps the most obvious. Maneuver in the Great War had failed, in the final analysis, due to the deficiency of transportation and communications technology, which were still anchored to static infrastructure like telegraph and rail lines. This fact always gave the defense a decisive advantage in mobility and command and control. These advantages were obliterated with the adoption of motorization and the wireless radio. These, in a word, unchained attacking forces from their infrastructure and granted unprecedented mobility as well as reliable and instantaneous communication at all levels of the army.

The internal combustion engine and the wireless radio were not, however, the unique province of Nazi Germany. Every army had these things. What they lacked were particular German organizational and tactical innovations.

The tactics had clearly been previewed in 1918, in Ludendorff's great spring offensive. This operation had been the great trial of Germany's storm troopers and their infiltration tactics, which aimed to bring overwhelming firepower to bear on small, carefully selected sections of the line. The storm troops were tasked with blasting narrow breaches in the enemy defenses and moving into the enemy rear, followed by regular infantry units who would widen the breaches and spill in behind the storm units. The key aspect of these new infantry tactics were, above all, the use of high firepower units at decisive points to create breaches for the bulk of the infantry to follow through. Storm units were in other words not tasked with defeating the enemy in detail, but with penetration and paving the way for follow-on units.

The essence of Germany's military revival can be summed up rather simply as the use of the panzer division to implement a perfected version of the storm units' infiltration tactics, which in turn made it possible to restore operational level movement. Panzer divisions were, above all, tools for breaking through the enemy line and driving into the rear, paving the way for the standard infantry units which formed the bulk of the Wehrmacht. In this way, the panzers created the conditions for encirclement, but they did not liquidate encircled enemies themselves - that task was left to the infantry units that trailed behind them.

The power of panzer divisions to create breaches and force holes in the enemy defense was formidable, and made possible by their ability to direct a tremendous amount of firepower at narrow sections of the enemy front, both with their organic tank and motorized artillery and with close air support.

The extensive nature of Germany's radio network made it possible to coordinate precise air support - most famously with the iconic Stuka dive bombers. The Stuka is a legendary aircraft that remains instantly recognizable. As a boy, I felt that I could spend hours staring at pictures of them, basking in the brute magnificence of the gull wings and fixed landing gear. The experience of coming under aerial attack was terrifying, with the Stuka' infamous sirens screeching as it dove at nearly a ninety degree angle on attack. Leaving aside the psychological effects, however, the combat meaning of Luftwaffe close air support was to provide a surge of firepower at the point of attack.

The Stuka greatly magnified firepower at the point of attack

The German panzer attack package was truly terrifying. Weak sections of enemy front were carefully selected; tank columns deployed off the road and roared through gaps in the line, discharging fire as they went. The division's towed (later self propelled) artillery unlimbered into batteries and began pounding - their fire corrected by organic reconnaissance elements, while Stukas swooped out of the skies to disgorge their bombs. Infantry followed the panzers into the breach - dismounting from their trucks and pouring in fire from machine gun, mortar, rifle, and grenade. When overwhelmed defenders tried to retreat, they frequently found the panzers on the road behind them in blocking position. This was a tactical package predicated on overwhelming firepower and violence at narrow points, and it was terribly efficient.

The final ingredient required to make this fearsome fighting machine tick was also the secret repository of Germany's strength: the officer corps. Despite the strictures of the Versailles settlement, Germany approached the next war with a robust and highly trained officer corps that formed the nucleus of a rapidly expanding Wehrmacht. This was owed largely to the efforts of Hans von Seeckt, Chief of Staff in the years after the Great War. Seeckt believed strongly that war was an unavoidable aspect of human political life, and that no matter what the treaty said, Germany must be prepared for the next war. With the officer corps being limited by the treaty to only 4,000, Seeckt took two measures. First, all the remaining officers were trained to command units higher than their paper grade (so that although the 4,000 included officers of every rank, in educational terms it was stuffed with majors and higher), and secondly the army focused on perfecting its training programs and maintaining academies so that the officer corps could rapidly expand when the time came. Seeckt, perhaps even moreso than Guderian or Volckheim, thus became the true progenitor of the Wehrmacht's great victories.

Seeckt nurtured the core of the Wehrmacht officer corps through the depths of the Versailles disarmament

It was not simply that that German officers were well trained - it was that they were all trained to see war the same way. The German academy inculcated a preternatural sense of battlefield aggression and decisiveness. In other words, the mobile and attacking campaign was driven by the aggression of officers from the bottom up. Orders rarely had to come down from high command to attack; more often, high command was informed that the attack was underway.

This was coupled with the army's tradition of independent decision making by commanders in the field. It has become fashionable today to speak of "Auftragstaktik" - so called "mission based tactics". The notion here is that commanders issued objectives, rather than detailed instructions, and left it to subordinates to decide the best way to achieve the objective. As in the case of Blitzkrieg, however, Auftragstaktik is a term that the Germans themselves did not widely use. They were much more prone to speak of the tradition of the independence of the commander in the field. What this meant, very simply, was that going back to the time of Frederick the Great, a Prusso-German commander who saw an opportunity to attack the enemy was virtually never reprimanded (let alone punished) for taking it. German history was full of aggressive field commanders who threw off larger plans and orders because they saw a chance to grab the enemy and kick him in the face, and the Wehrmacht likewise acknowledged (at least in the first years of the war) the prerogative of the commander in the field to attack.

This created an implicit, rather than explicit communication within the army, with the entire body organically seeking a mobile and attacking war. This system brought Germany an unprecedented sequence of victories across the breadth of Europe between September 1939 and December 1941. From Paris in the west to Kiev and Smolensk east; from Norway to the Mediterranean; in the mountains of the Balkans, on the island of Crete, in the fjords of Scandinavia, and in the fields of France - the Wehrmacht simply won.

The Demonstration: Poland, 1939

Amid the enormous mass of content on the Second World War - books, documentaries, films, and so on - the opening campaign of the war generally gets short shrift. Given the enormity of what was coming down the pike - both in the magnitude of the campaigns, variegated horrors and crimes against humanity, and the metastasization of conflict over six years and across multiple continents - the Wehrmacht's lively little romp in Poland in the September of 1939 seems relatively small and unimportant. Poland's fate is so certain, her fight is so hopeless, and her tragedy is so great that the actual operational details of Germany's campaign seem like an irrelevant distraction on the road to bigger and more terrible things.

It is a fairly unambiguous fact that Poland had no real chance of winning a military victory in 1939, largely because of the tremendous diplomatic bungling by the country's leadership. Without going too far into the weeds of interwar intriguing and alliance-making, we can simply say that Polish security was predicated on a fundamentally untrue premise. Sandwiched between two much more powerful states (Germany and the USSR), Polish leadership was convinced that their country's security depended on maintaining a neutral balance between the two. Neither Germany nor the USSR, went the reasoning, would attack Poland for fear of driving Warsaw into alliance with the other. Seeking to be a balancing force, the Poles never seem to have really contemplated that Moscow and Berlin might simply agree to destroy Poland together, simply to clear the map of limitrophe states. This indeed is what happened with the signing of the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, better known to history as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Tough luck, Poland

Poland's fate was more or less guaranteed, given the fact that she had no allies with contiguous borders (and thus there was nobody who could immediately offer meaningful assistance), and she was now slated for invasion from almost every direction. We can thus say without any real controversy that from the time the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed on August 23, 1939, it was more or less a forgone conclusion that the 2nd Polish Republic would be destroyed.

This, however, is a general statement about the fate of the state. The particular way that the Polish Army was destroyed by the Wehrmacht was an entirely different matter - a technical one, which shocked the world with its speed and violence.

The Wehrmacht was obviously the prohibitive betting favorite against the Polish armed forces, though not quite for the reasons that people general believe. There remain stubborn stereotypes about Polish backwardness, and in particular the story is still retold that Polish cavalrymen with lances engaged German tanks in combat. This almost certainly did not happen, and was probably a story invented by the German propaganda apparatus to demonstrate how primitive and slavish the Poles were.

In fact, the Polish army was as large, professional, and well equipped as one could have asked for given Poland's economic and demographic resources. The Poles had inventories of modern and effective artillery and anti-tank guns, including a 75mm model which proved perfectly capable of shredding 1939 vintage Panzers. Poland even had a tank park of its own, which while not up to German or Soviet standards was larger and more advanced that the American inventory at the time.

The problem was not that Poland was a primitive state with a 19th century army. The problem was that they were not only outgunned but woefully outmatched on the operational level by the Wermacht's attacking elan. The manpower advantage was not particularly decisive: Poland fielded some 376 infantry battalions against the Wehrmacht's 559, or roughly a 50% German advantage. By the time Polish reserves were mobilized, the numbers were nearly even - some 1.5 million German troops against 1.3 million Poles. However, German forces enjoyed a much higher density of heavy weaponry. So while the Germans had only a slim margin in manpower, they had nearly three times as many heavy artillery pieces, and more than five times as many anti-tank guns and armored vehicles as had the Poles.

The Poles fought bravely, futilely, and briefly

The critical factor from the operational perspective was the fact that, by September 1939, Germany more or less bordered Poland on three sides. East Prussia, located on Poland's northern flank, was separated from the rest of Germany by a thin strip of Polish territory commonly called the Danzig corridor. To the south, Germany's annexations in former Czechoslovakia had pushed German territory further to the southeast. As a result, much of Polish territory had become an enormous salient vulnerable to invasion from three different directions.

Sadly, Polish command - once it became clear that war was coming - opted for a disastrous deployment plan which attempted to defend everything by placing Polish defensive lines at the perimeter of the country. In contrast to western naming conventions which usually designates armies with numbers, Poland's scheme mobilized multiple field armies which were named after key cities in their operating zones (IE, Cracow Army in the southwest, Lodz Army in the center, and so on). No less than five such armies were forward deployed near the borders.

This forward deployment scheme, which generally aimed to defend the maximal extent of Polish territory, put much of the Polish army in an exposed position - a weakness which was amplified by the fact that most of the Polish rear area infrastructure (ammunition depots, troop concentration sites, and the like) were actually placed in the western part of the country, due to previous assumptions that the most likely invader would be the Soviet Union. Since the Red Army would be invading from the east, military infrastructure had been built in the rear (the west), which was now the front. In short, much of the Polish military apparatus was held out at arms length for Germany to snatch it.

Nobody particularly expected that Poland could defeat Germany. Still, Poland was able to field a million men, supported by hundreds of armored vehicles, airplanes, and heavy weapons. They were disciplined, brave, professional, and highly motivated. Outmatched, yes, but the first world war had demonstrated that these sorts of states could still be very difficult nuts to crack. Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania had all managed to hold out against the great powers for months, and Poland was far more powerful than any of them. Even outgunned as they were, it was hardly expected that the entire Polish Army would be shattered in 12 days.

The German deployment plan formed two army groups. A northern grouping comprised of five corps was tasked initially with liquidating the Danzig corridor and connecting East Prussia with Germany proper, while a much larger ten-corps southern grouping wielded the bulk of the striking power, including 4 of the Wehrmacht's six panzer divisions.

Given that Poland had come to resemble an enormous salient, the concentric movement of these army groups towards each other would press the bulk of the Polish forces in between two enormous pincers. This was an operational concept firmly rooted in the traditions of Moltke, in that it aimed to maneuver independent armies towards each other and catch the enemy mass in the middle. Indeed, this is precisely what happened, though the speed and ferocity of the operation was shocking.

The German invasion began before dawn on September 1, with Luftwaffe bombers infamously attacking the town of Weilun as German ground forces launched off their start lines. The basic problem - almost immediately evident - was that the Poles simply had no answer for the German assault package, which concentrated, as we have said, very heavy firepower at narrow points before bursting at high speed through the gaps. Given that the Germans had advantages in every heavy weapons class to begin with, the Polish decision to try and man the entire frontier ensured an overwhelming German firepower advantage at the chosen breaching points.

Here we go again

The panzer units, of course, served as the deepest driving spearheads, but the paucity of panzer divisions meant that much of German fighting power came from infantry divisions. Even with virtually no armored forces in some sectors of front, the Germans broke through almost everywhere and soon were deep in the Polish rear. By September 8, some of the leading panzer units from Tenth Army had already reached the outskirts of Warsaw, while Cracow, farther to the south, had already fallen by September 6th.

The broader issue, operational speaking, was that entire Polish armies were on the verge of complete encirclement. Cracow Army attempted to withdraw into the interior to the northeast, but by this time two great thrusts from the German 14th Army were well behind it. Units of Pomorze Army were encircled and destroyed in the Danzig corridor in the opening days of the war.

Perhaps the most startling situation, however, faced Poland's Poznan Army. Tasked with the most westerly sector of frontage, it faced no major German combat formations at the outset of hostilities - only border guards. Untouched, but doomed: the German pincers were closing behind it. It attempted a half hearted withdrawal back towards Warsaw, but the speed of the German advance made it only a formality when it was bottled up well to the west of the Vistula, along with the frantically retreating remnants of Lodz army.

German motorized infantry on the move in Poland

By September 12, all Polish forces west of the Vistula were operationally neutralized - that is, they were either destroyed or caught up in encirclements of various sizes. It was impossible for the Poles to stabilize any sort of front or even assemble meaningful rear echelons, because the German advance reached assembly areas while the mobilization was ongoing. The so-called "Prusy Army" - intended to be the primary strategic reserve - had to mobilize directly into active combat, with Polish infantry attempting to debark their trains right into the face of the full German mechanized package - panzers, artillery, and Stuka attacks. Individual Polish small units fought bravely and knocked out panzers here and there, but there was simply nothing that willpower could achieve here other than the honorable discharge of individual duty. Operationally, the Polish Army's back was broken on contact.

The standout unit, perhaps, was the 19th Corps, lead by none other than hard hitting Heinz Guderian. Wielding the 3rd Panzer Division and a pair of motorized infantry divisions, Guderian was first on the scene crossing the Danzig corridor and linking up with the German army in East Prussia. With this accomplished, he took his corps on a fantastic cross country drive - crossing all the way over the lines of operation of 3rd Army - and ending up far to the east of the Vistula. This somewhat fouled the situation map - Guderian's entire corps was "out of line", so to speak, and ended up far away from the rest of Fourth Army. But he had driven far and dealt out terrific damage, and this was precisely the sort of battlefield initiative that the German military tradition was designed to tolerate and inculcate. No commander would expect to be punished for getting after the enemy too vigorously - and Guderian would show forth more wonders yet.

History books will generally say that the Polish campaign lasted for 35 days - marking the days from the outset of hostilities on September 1 to the surrender of the last active regular Polish army units on the night of October 5-6. In fact, the cohesive defense of Poland on the operational level lasted for eighteen days at most. By the second week of the war, the Polish army had been broken into disparate pockets which continued to fight bravely but futilely - in encirclements on the west Polish plain, in besieged Warsaw, and in individual units retreating eastward. By September 19 (hence, the common German reference to an "eighteen days campaign) the entire country had been overrun with the exception of Warsaw. At the time that the Red Army joined the war with its infamous invasion of the Polish rear on September 17, there was nothing in the way of operational level resistance remaining, and Soviet casualties were correspondingly very light.

Casualties in the Polish campaign revealed the coming pattern of the Wehrmacht's attacking operations. Polish losses were, of course, terrible virtually everywhere. Killed and wounded ran up to 200,000 men, most in the first two weeks of fighting. It was in the captured category, however, that Polish losses swelled to obscene levels. Those deep drives into the Polish rear areas - big arrows, moving with sustained momentum and overrunning secondary lines of defense - allowed for the capture of tens, or even hundreds of thousands of men in enormous Kessels, on the mold of Sedan. All told, the Germans took some 587,000 prisoners. It was these encirclements and the resulting mass surrenders which allowed the Wehrmacht to wipe the bulk of a million man army off the field at the cost of only 11,000 dead and 30,000 wounded of their own.

The Stuka dealt out horrific damage in Poland

The German reaction of course included a fair amount of jubilation (and soon a great deal of cruelty in occupied Poland), but the German officers corps mainly seemed to exhibit relief that mechanization, the radio, and the Luftwaffe had now allowed them to fight the way they'd always wanted to. Operationally, the entire scheme would have been intimately familiar to Moltke or Ludendorff, but now the Panzer and the Stuka provided firepower deep in the operational space, allowing tactical breakthroughs to be converted into true operational victories. This was, in other words, a marriage of modern technical solutions with traditional German operational sensibilities - and the results spoke for themselves. One general wrote in the Werhmacht's military magazine:

The essential difference between the conduct of the current eastern war and that of the World War is that the present army has both armored and motorized formations. They turn each tactical breakthrough into a rapid and comprehensive operational one. In the World War, because of our lack of tanks, this was possible only through a long continuation of the attack, sometimes stretching out for weeks.

Of course, doubters would always point to Poland as perhaps a less than ideal demonstration of this new war-making synthesis. Fair enough. It was to be sure a second tier power with weapons inferior both in quality and quantity to German models, fighting in a geographically impossible position. But in any case, the Wehrmacht could ill afford to simply rest on its laurels. They may have been unable to save the Polish Republic, but the French and the British had at last been stirred out of apathy and declared war on the Reich.

Poland was crushed, but the Germans now faced the horrifying prospect of refighting the western front: A second descent into hell? Or a chance at martial redemption for a resurgent Germany army?

The Pinnacle: France, 1940

Amid several years of essentially uninterrupted military successes, no campaign better exemplified German ascendance in Ares' domain than the spectacular defeat of France in 1940. The rapid destruction of a modern and well-equipped French army - achieving in six weeks what the Kaiser's army had been unable to do in 4 years - and the dramatical reversal of the humiliation at Versailles (the French were famously forced to sign surrender documents in the same railcar where the Armistice had been imposed in 1918) seemed to signal a complete German revival and the comprehensive overturning of the Great War.

It was, to be sure, a victory without compare, either before or after. France was a peer competitor to Germany in every way, and yet she suffered a total strategic defeat in a campaign so short that it beggared belief. The rapidity and totality of German victory over a rival great power will likely never be matched.

And yet, the campaign itself was curious - almost serendipitous, in fact. At the beginning, the German general staff had no plans for an ambitious coup de main. There was no long premeditated blitzkrieg. In fact, the original German operational scheme was remarkably lame. It amounted to little more than a repeat of the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan, yet was even more restrained in its objectives. The plan first presented to Hitler called, yet again, for an army group to swing northward through the Netherlands and Belgium - yet the stated objective was not to defeat France outright, but only to destroy the Belgian army and capture bases and territory to set Germany up for a longer war against the French and British.

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Big Serge Thoughts
2 Feb 2023 | 6:29 pm

7. The Great War: Groping for a Solution

This is Part 9 of our series on maneuver in warfare, which will itself be just one of multiple series on various aspects of military history. Simply as a refresher, here are the preceding entries in this series:

  • Part 1 examined the basic notion of maneuver as a means to create battlefield asymmetry, using the battles of Leuctra, Gazala, and Crimea as examples.

  • Part 2 discussed the use of dispersion to create ambiguity and paralyze the enemy, using campaigns by Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Helmuth von Moltke as examples.

  • Part 3 covered the archetype of the annihilation battle, using ancient examples like Lake Trasimene, Cannae, and Walaja.

  • Part 4 introduced the peculiar geometry of musket armies, drawing lessons from the battles of Breitenfeld, Leuthen, and Zondorf.

  • Part 5 was a comprehensive look at Napoleon's art of war, including his victories at Austerlitz and Jena.

  • Part 6 examined the first signs that conventional offensive action was beginning to falter in the American Civil War.

  • Part 7 studied the prosecution of the Franco-Prussian War by Helmuth von Moltke, and how his campaigns set a template for the German approach to war.

  • Part 8 discussed the famous breakdown and failure of maneuver warfare at the onset of World War One, and contemplated the causes of this failure.

As the astute reader will no doubt have noticed, there is an element of chronological progression here, and we are rapidly approaching the Second World War. Before we get there, however, we must look at the ways that armies of the Great War attempted to revive viable offensive operations in the final years of the conflict. In particular, we will take up, in turn, notable solutions (and attempted solutions) by the Russian, German, and Anglo-French armies.

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This is of the utmost importance before advancing to the great mobile campaigns of the Second World War, because the new technologies, tactics, and concepts of that war did not arise entirely sui generis in the interwar period. They were, rather, an extension of innovations that were already clearly present by the end of 1918. Thus, we can say that just as the causes of the Second World War were seeded in the First, the methods were as well.

Brusilov: Dispersal and Suppression

One of the chief ironies of the First World War was the tragic arc of Russia's participation. From a military-technical perspective, no great power disappointed as badly as Russia in the first years of the war. Russia's enormous population and strategic depth was greatly feared by Germany - at one point in the prewar period, the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg bemoaned that "Russia grows and grows. She lies on us like a nightmare." German (and Russian) planners presumed that the sheer mass of Russia's armies would be a strategic nightmare that would make a two-front war virtually unwinnable for the Central Powers.

Instead, Russia's armies in 1914 proved to be woefully incompetent to an extent that completely nullified their numerical advantages. 85 percent of Russia's soldiers were peasants, and the vast majority of these were illiterate - even those serving in technical capacities. Even in the railway battalions, where duties were logistical and technical in nature, over a third of the men were unable to read. By one assessment, three quarters of Russia's officer corps lacked technical training directly relevant to their duties. This lack of training, combined with technical deficiencies in the artillery arm and problems with shell production, left the Russian army greatly overmatched against the Germans.

The result was two years of defeats and high casualties. Russia's opening invasion of Germany met disaster at Tannenberg, and by the end of 1915 Russia had been forced to withdraw from Poland, Galicia, and the Baltic coast - abandoning a huge swathe of prewar Russian territory and pulling the frontline nearly all the way back to Minsk. So while prewar German planners were terrified of being crushed by Russia before they could defeat France, after the first 18 months of the war the Russian front was the one place where Germany was unequivocally winning.

From this nadir, the Russian Army actually began a course of marked improvement in 1916 and 1917. A reinvigorated industrial policy began to rectify the shell shortage, while the army at the front showed greatly improved combat effectiveness. In fact, in 1916 Russia launched what would be by far its most successful offensive of the war - arguably one of the most successful operations by any army. While the Germans retained an advantage in combat effectiveness, Russia did manage to essentially crush the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1916 and bring it to the verge of collapse. In the end, Russian defeat was brought about by the rot and collapse of the political system, not by battlefield defeat - for at the time the Tsarist regime fell in 1917, the Russian army was fighting better than it had in 1914.

This temporary Russian comeback was owed largely to one specific officer - General Alexei Brusilov. As a result of churn in the Russian command hierarchy (with a series of indecisive or incompetent generals being dismissed), Brusilov was finally put in command of Russia's Southwestern Front (a front being the Russian/Soviet equivalent of an Army Group). In this position, he would prove to be by far Russia's most competent and innovative commander of the war.

General Alexei Brusilov

In 1916, the Russian Stavka (high command) began to conceive of a broad offensive aimed at achieving two goals. The first was to relieve the pressure on France (which was engaged in a horrific battle at Verdun) by forcing the Germans to redeploy forces to the east, and the second was to achieve a breakthrough which would allow Russia to recapture the Baltic coastline. Accordingly, Russia's northern and western fronts were to be the main striking forces. Brusilov, in command of the Southwestern front, was to launch a diversionary offensive simply to ease the pressure on the other two fronts.

Brusilov could have simply thrown forces into a massed frontal attack, achieving his diversionary task with minimal creativity and high loss of life. Instead he pursued an innovative approach which turned his "diversionary" attack into the most successful Russian offensive of the war and shattered the Hapsburg Army for good.

Brusilov's innovations were both operational and tactical, and can be broadly grouped into two categories: force dispersion and the use of artillery in a suppressive, rather than destructive role.

One of the first critical decisions that Brusilov made was that his attack would have no center of gravity or schwerpunkt. Instead, he instructed all five of the field armies in his Southwestern Front (again, the Russian term for an army group) to plan offensives in their own sectors, and furthermore each Corps was ordered to prepare its own attack. Thus, rather than concentrating reserves and firepower to hammer on a single section of the frontline, Brusilov planned to activate virtually his entire front, attacking along a line some 200 miles wide, practically from Pinsk in the north (modern Belarus) all the way to the present day border between Ukraine and Romania.

This dispersal of effort required Brusilov to abandon longstanding notions of generalship - transitioning from what we will call a push to a pull model of the attack, and eschewing conventional wisdom about the necessity of concentrating forces.

An elaboration:

Generalship, as archetypically practiced by Napoleon, conventionally featured the general making operational decisions like a chess player, deciding where to commit his main effort and then feeding reserves and firepower into these key positions. The general impression of such battle consisted of a top-down information flow - the general observing the course of the battle and "pushing" his reserves in at the place of his time and choosing. Brusilov, in contrast, created a broad front with greatly dispersed effort - the commitment of reserves and exploitation would therefore be determined by a bottom-up information flow. Not every attack along the entire 200 miles would succeed, but reserves would be "pulled" into reinforcing successful breaches. Thus, the guiding animus for the continuation of the assault became on the ground feedback in the lower echelons of the command hierarchy, rather than the premeditation of the overall commander.

Brusilov's decision to attack in a dispersed manner across his entire front ran in direct contravention of the conventional wisdom of the day. Virtually all armies in this period aimed to accumulate massive reserves (of men, guns, and ammunition) in relatively narrow sectors. Both the allied offensive at the Somme and the German operation at Verdun targeted sections of front less than 30 miles wide.

It had furthermore become customary for generals to pout, threaten, complain, and otherwise do everything possible to cajole high command to assign them every single man, gun, and shell possible before actually attem.pting an offensive. Brusilov's counterpart, General Alexei Evert, was in command of the Russian Western Front and was tasked with the primary thrust of Russia's offensive. As the focal point of the operation, Evert endlessly demanded more men, more munitions, more guns, and more time - delaying the attack by weeks in the process. Brusilov, however, being tasked with a mere diversion, had to make do with what he had.

Therefore, at a time where standard operating procedure was to amass the absolute maximum possible combat power on a small and targeted section of front, Brusilov - despite being a low priority for reinforcements and material - planned to attack everywhere in his sector, with every corps in his command planning its own attempted breach of the Austrian lines.

The operational choice to favor dispersion over concentration had a brilliant synthesis with Brusilov's other innovation, which occurred on the tactical level. Given that his task was diversionary in nature, his southwestern front was a low priority for shell deliveries relative to Evert's forces. Brusilov therefore had to think carefully about how to conduct the attack with limited resources. On the whole, Brusilov enjoyed a narrow advantage in manpower over the Austrians in his section of front (perhaps 500,000 Russians against 440,000 Austrian troops) and a similar number of artillery pieces, though Brusilov was working on a shoestring budget of heavy artillery shells.

Russian Infantry run through their drills

Brusilov's solution was to conduct extensive reconnaissance and use his artillery in a suppressive, rather than overtly destructive role. He assigned his air forces (perhaps 100 planes) exclusively to reconnaissance duty, making extensive flyovers of the Austrian lines and creating thorough sketches of the enemy defenses.

Brusilov's attack finally began on June 4. Troops on all fronts of the war were by this time accustomed to agonizingly lengthy artillery bombardments precipitating attacks. It was not uncommon for defenses to be barraged for a week or more before infantry attacks began, with the intention of simply smashing the frontline of the defense to bits with thousands upon thousands of indiscriminate shells. Brusilov, working on a tight ration of shells, instead targeted specific hardpoints, with careful coordination to end the barrage just as his infantry arrived at the enemy trenches - a span of time which was itself shortened by his ambitious program of digging trenches and tunnels into no-man's land, so that in many cases Russian troops only had to cover 40 yards or so to reach the Hapsburg defenses.

The synthesis of all this was complete confusion and panic on the Austrian side. The Russian bombardment was focused and short lived, and the defining experience of the Hapsburg troops was bewilderment when the shelling abruptly stopped and Russian troops began to spill into their trenches. Many frontline Austrian troops were captured still huddling in their shelters - they did not even have time to come out and re-man the lines after the end of the artillery preparation.

Hapsburg officers loitering aimlessly

The decision to attack across a widely dispersed front had the further effect of paralyzing Austrian command, as it was not immediately clear where the main point of Russian effort was directed - and by extension, where they should send reserves.

The results seemed to portend a decisive Russian victory. This was a war where offensive attempts generally defined success as a matter of only a few kilometers. At the Somme, for example, 141 days of combat and some 600,000 casualties managed to gain the allies a salient in German lines that was only 10 kilometers deep. In contrast, Brusilov's offensive managed to bash huge breaches in the Austrian line (in some sectors, the entire first belt of defenses was captured on the first day) so that by the middle of June the Russians had already pushed 60 kilometers into Austrian lines in some places.

The rapidity and the breadth of the Russian advance left Austrian units overwhelmed, disoriented, and frequently cut off from both neighboring units and command. Thus, Russian success in taking territory quickly spiraled into outright collapse among many Austrian units, and the Russians began to take a huge number of prisoners. The Austrian 7th Army, for example, lost 100,000 men in just two weeks, many of them captured. It looked as if the Hapsburg force was on the verge of total failure.

Unfortunately, several factors conspired to prevent Brusilov from leveraging his tremendous tactical success into a true strategic victory.

The first such factor was the utter uselessness of Brusilov's counterpart to the north - General Evert, commander of the Russian Western Front. Evert repeatedly postponed and delayed his own offensive (frequently to demand more men and more shells from Stavka), to the effect that there was absolutely no pressure elsewhere on the eastern front. This allowed the Germans to allocate some of their own reserves to backstop the Austrians and help them stabilize the front. Had Evert's offensive been launched roughly concurrent with Brusilov's attack, the Germans may have been unable to assist and Brusilov could possibly have cracked the entire Austrian front beyond repair.

The other problem, broadly speaking, was that Brusilov simply did not have a clear vision for how to exploit his success. The ideal operational target would have been Kovel - a major railroad intersection which would slice the Central Powers' transit in the theater in two if it were captured. Unfortunately Brusilov did not receive clear direction from Stavka, and he opted to spend the crucial days of mid-June consolidating his gains rather than exploiting the hole that he had created.

As a result of Evert's inactivity and a lack of exploitation, the Central Powers were able to restore the integrity of their front and launch a counterattack (with the Germans doing all the heavy lifting) which stopped Brusilov's advance towards Kovel. Further attempts to keep the advance going failed - by this time, Brusilov's army group was simply at its limits, owing to mounting losses, exhaustion of munitions stocks, and the strains from fighting so far from Russian railheads.

A Russian artillery battery prepares for action

So, what to make of all this? Brusilov's offensive was by far Russia's most successful operation of the war. It pushed the entire front with Austria some 50 to 60 kilometers to the west, and inflicted huge casualties on the Central Powers. The Austrians alone lost some 600,000 men, the majority of whom were captured. When German losses are taken into account, Central Powers casualties were well over 850,000. Unfortunately, Brusilov's failed efforts to continue the offensive through the late summer months caused his own losses to balloon as well, and the entire operation became essentially a manpower wash, with both sides taking similar total losses.

In the end, Brusilov definitively succeeded in two major achievements. The entire point of his attack had, in the first place, been diversionary - and what a spectacular diversion it became. Brusilov's front ended up sucking in 30 extra divisions in German and Austrian reinforcements, denuding the Central Powers on other fronts and finally taking the pressure of the French at Verdun. Secondly, the huge losses taken by the Austrians essentially broke their ability to function independently - they were forced to enter into joint command with the Germans, and for the rest of the war they were unable to conduct operations independent of German oversight and assistance.

For us, Brusilov offered early hints that there was, indeed, a tactical solution to the trenches. While he was unable to convert his tactical success into a true strategic breakthrough, Brusilov demonstrated that careful tactical preparation could indeed break through fortified defenses, and in particular that artillery could have better success being used in a precision role, rather than as a brute instrument for mindlessly clubbing enemy lines. Furthermore, his broad dispersion and operational ambiguity prevented the Austrians from rushing reserves to the front. In contrast, the other two Russian front commanders, Evert and Kuropatkin, would concentrate their offensives on narrow sectors (8 to 10 km wide) and both attacks collapsed with heavy loss of Russian life.

Ultimately, the fairest assessment of Brusilov is that he was a competent officer who successfully solved the tactical problem of breaching prepared defensive belts, but was neglectful and indecisive on the operational level - that is to say, leveraging a tactical success into meaningful objectives. Or, as a contemporary Russian general put it:

The command of the Southwestern Front gave its particular attention to the irresistible completion of the first part of its task - completing a breakthrough - but did not sufficiently value the second part -the best use of that breakthrough to put our army in a better strategic position… when we got out in the open, when we broke out from the trenches of the enemy's fortified belt, when we needed to maneuver… our strategy suffered from its neglect and led us to a dead end at Kovel.

Brusilov had done better than anyone before him, but even so, three years into the war maneuver and decisive operations seemed as elusive as ever. Soon, however, it would be Germany's turn to shake things up.

The Kaiserschlacht

For Germany, 1917 was an agonizing year of missed opportunities at the highest levels. This was, at the same time, the year that Germany gained the best opportunity to win the war while also making egregious decisions that guaranteed her defeat. In 1917, Germany was victorious in the east - pursuing a sort of hybrid warfare against Russia by mixing battlefield action with destabilizing political intrigue - arranging for the transportation and financing of an anti-war Russian pamphleteer named Vladimir Lenin. This mixed strategy worked. The Russian home front (in particular the political sphere in Petersburg) collapsed before the Russian army did, and by early 1918 Russia had completely dropped out of the war.

The collapse of Russia afforded Germany a real opportunity to win the war. They were now mercifully freed from the burden of the two front war, freeing up troops which gave the German Army a substantial numerical advantage in the west for the first time in the war. Unfortunately for Berlin, this advantage was squandered by one of the all-time great strategic misfires. Also in 1917, the Germans made the unwise decision to begin unrestricted submarine warfare against allied shipping, which necessarily entailed sinking American vessels and trigging American entry into the war.

Thus, the Germans found themselves at the end of 1917 in the peculiar position of enjoying a powerful but temporary military advantage in the west. The defeat of Russia gave them an edge in both manpower and firepower, but this advantage would last only until American units began to arrive in Europe. The order of the day for Hindenburg and Ludendorff, therefore, was to contrive a way to win the war during this narrow window of opportunity.

Ludendorff had neither the facial structure nor the technical means to sustain a mobile operation

The ensuing German offensive is known by many names. Formally designated Operation Michael, it is also variably called the German Spring Offensive, the Ludendorff Offensive, or - most cinematically, the Kaiserschlacht: the Kaiser's Battle.

This final roll of the dice by Germany was characterized by two notable deviations from prior offensives.

The first was the return to classically Prussian plans for operational level maneuver. After the failure of the Moltke Plan in 1914, German operations in the west had become very limited in scope and were largely limited to contrived attempts to attrit allied forces. With Operation Michael, however, Ludendorff aimed to return to mobile operations targeted at army level allied targets. More specifically, the German plan was to attack the "hinge" in the allied line between the British and French sectors. The German offensive would target the connective front between the British 5th Army and the French 6th; having breached this gap, they would attempt to swing northward, cutting the French and British off from each other and hopefully pinning the British against the Channel. An added benefit of this plan was that the sector slated for attack was also directly on the path to Paris. Paris was not the operational target - the British Expeditionary Force was. But the attack, simply by virtue of creating a threat in the direction of the French Capital, contained within it the prospect of misdirecting the French.

The second great deviation in the spring offensive was on the tactical level. Germany, like all combatants, had come to understand that massed attacks with stereotyped formations were simply too costly to be a viable way to breach fortified defensive belts. Cognizance of this fact led the Germans to steadily develop their infamous Stormtroopers, or Shock Troops.

Stormtroopers were trained in methods which were colloquially called Infiltration Tactics, but the reality was less sinister than it sounded. We can enumerate the changes of these new infantry tactics as follows:

  • Devolution of tactical tasks to smaller units

  • Irregular pace of advance

  • Heavy use of fire and movement tactical maneuver

This is much less complicated than it sounds. First, the base tactical unit shifted from the company (several hundred men) to smaller units like the platoon (perhaps 50 men). These smaller groups would then conduct their advance irregularly, that is to say, more spread out and making proper use of cover. This was the end of the "charge", as such. Rather than units of many hundreds attempting to rush across open ground to assault the enemy position, smaller units would work their way forward at a judicious and measured pace.

Storm units were trained in recognizably modern small unit tactics

The final point in particular - the use of fire and movement - is where the German infiltration tactics clearly showed themselves to be the precursor of modern infantry combat. Fire and movement is, to this day, an absolutely essential and basic infantry tactic. It involves the cooperative action of the unit (be it a squad or a platoon) split into two elements. A "firing element" suppresses the enemy position by firing upon it, covering the approach of the "maneuvering element." In Operation Michael, the first echelon of assault troops were liberally equipped with light machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers, and grenades, enabling them to effectively suppress and destroy enemy positions.

Possibly, this seems very rudimentary and obvious to the modern reader. At the time, however, this was a rather significant shift in thinking, because it required surrendering the centralized control that had long characterized armies. By their very nature, infiltration tactics gave unprecedented importance and initiative to junior officers by turning small units, like platoons and squads, into maneuvering and dynamic forces. In the armies of Napoleon's day, lieutenants simply did not make decisions. They existed to keep discipline in the lines and call out repetitious and formulaic orders to march, reload, and fire. For a stormtrooper unit in 1918, however, a lieutenant would be expected to make vital and creative decisions about an assault on the spot. In other words, we might say that the tactical changes which occurred during the war led to an expansion and a deepening of the thinking, decision making officer corps.

The German storm or shock troopers clearly foreshadowed the future of infantry tactics, with their ability to function in small units, their cooperative use of arms like machine guns and mortars, and their professional, task oriented conduct led by officers like lieutenants. Crucially for the Germans, however, in 1918 only a small portion of the infantry had been trained and equipped according to these new standards and tactics. Therefore, the Germans adopted a mixed solution - each standard infantry regiment (still fighting in a more traditional, stereotyped way) was paired with a single storm platoon, which would lead the charge. This made the German army something of a diamond tipped spear. The point was very deadly indeed, but the strength of the shaft was questionable.

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Big Serge Thoughts
20 Jan 2023 | 8:22 pm

8. Russo-Ukrainian War: The World Blood Pump

Iron, Ash, and Blood

Since Russia's surprise decision to voluntarily withdraw from west bank Kherson in the first week of November, there has been little in the way of dramatic changes to the frontlines in Ukraine. In part, this reflects the predictable late autumn weather in Eastern Europe, which leaves battlefields waterlogged and clogged with mud and greatly inhibits mobility. For hundreds of years, November has been a bad month for attempting to move armies any sort of significant distance, and like clockwork we started to see videos of vehicles stuck in the mud in Ukraine.

The return of static positional warfare, however, also reflects the synergistic effect of increasing Ukrainian exhaustion along with a Russian commitment to patiently attriting and denuding Ukraine's remaining combat capability. They have found an ideal place to achieve this in the Donbas.

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It has gradually become apparent that Russia is committed to a positional attritional war, as this maximizes the asymmetry of their advantage in ranged fires. There is an ongoing degradation of Ukraine's warmaking ability which is allowing Russia to patiently maintain the current tempo, while it organizes its newly mobilized forces for offensive action in the coming year, setting the stage for cascading and unsustainable Ukrainian losses.

In Ernest Hemingway's novel, The Sun Also Rises, a formerly wealthy, now down on his luck character is asked how he went bankrupt. "Two ways", he replies, "gradually and then suddenly." Someday we may ask how Ukraine lost the war and receive much the same answer.

Verdun Redux

It is safe to say that western regime media has set a very low standard for reporting on the war in Ukraine, given the extent to which the mainstream narrative is disconnected from reality. Even given these low standards, the way the ongoing battle in Bakhmut is being presented to the population is truly ludicrous. The Bakhmut axis is being spun to western audiences as a perfect synthesis of all the tropes of Russian failure: in a nutshell, Russia is suffering horrible casualties as it struggles to capture a small town with negligible operational importance. British officials, in particular, have been highly vocal in recent weeks insisting that Bakhmut has little to no operational value.

The truth is the literal opposite of this story: Bakhmut is an operationally critical keystone position in the Ukrainian defense, and Russia has transformed it into a death pit which compels the Ukrainians to sacrifice exorbitant numbers of men in order to hold the position as long as possible. In fact, the insistence that Bakhmut is not operationally significant is mildly insulting to the audience, both because a quick glance at a map clearly shows it at the heart of the regional road network, and because Ukraine has thrown a huge number of units into the front there.

Let's take a step back and consider Bakhmut in the context of Ukraine's overall position in the east. Ukraine began the war with four operable defensive lines in the Donbas, built up over the last 8 years both as part and parcel of the simmering war with the LNR and DNR, but also in preparation for potential war with Russia. These lines are structured around urban agglomerations with road and rail links between each other, and can be roughly enumerated as follows:

Ukraine Defensive Lines in the East (Map by me)

The Donbas is a particularly accommodating place to construct formidable defenses. It is highly urbanized and industrial (Donetsk was the most urban oblast in Ukraine prior to 2014, with over 90% of the population living in urban areas), with cities and towns dominated by the typically robust Soviet buildings, along with prolific industrial complexes. Ukraine has spent much of the last decade improving these positions, and the frontline settlements are riddled with trenches and firing positions that are clearly visible on satellite imagery. A recent video from the Avdiivka axis demonstrates the extent of Ukrainian fortifications.

So, let's review the state of these defensive belts. The first belt, which ran roughly from Severodonetsk and Lysychansk to Popasna, was broken in the summer by Russian forces. Russia achieved a major breakthrough at Popasna and was able to begin the full rollup of this line, with Lysychansk falling at the beginning of July.

At this point, the frontline sits directly on what I have labeled as the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian defensive belts, and both of these belts are now heavily bleeding.

The capture of Soledar by Wagner forces has severed the connection between Bakhmut and Siversk, while around Donetsk, the heavily fortified suburb of Marinka has been almost completely cleared of Ukrainian troops, and the infamous keystone Ukrainian position in Avdiivka (the place from which they shell Donetsk city's civilian population) is being flanked from both directions.

The frontline around Avdiivka (map courtesy of MilitaryLand)

These positions are absolutely critical for Ukraine to hold. The loss of Bakhmut will mean the collapse of the last defensive line standing in the way of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, which means Ukraine's eastern position will rapidly contract to its fourth (and weakest) defensive belt.

The Slavyansk agglomeration is a far worse position for Ukraine to defend than the other belts, for several reasons. First and foremost, as the belt farthest to the west (and thus the farthest from the February 2022 start lines), it is the least improved and least fortified of the belts. Secondly, lots of the, shall we just say "good stuff" around Slavyansk is to the east of the city, including both the dominating high ground and the major highways.

All this to say, Ukraine has been very anxious to hold the Bakhmut line, as this is a vastly preferable position to hold, and accordingly they have been pouring units into the sector. The absurd levels of Ukrainian force commitment in this area have been well noted, but just as a quick refresher, publicly available Ukrainian sources locate at least 34 brigade or equivalent units that have been deployed in the Bakhmut area. Many of these were deployed months ago and are already shattered, but over the full span of the ongoing battle this represents an astonishing commitment.

Ukrainian units around Bakhmut (Map courtesy of MilitaryLand)

Russian forces, primarily Wagner PMC and LNR units, have been slowly but surely collapsing this Ukrainian stronghold by making liberal use of artillery. In November, now former Zelensky advisor Oleksiy Arestovych admitted that Russian artillery on the Bakhmut axis enjoyed roughly a 9 to 1 tube advantage, which is turning Bakhmut into a death pit.

The battle is being presented in the west as one where Russians - usually stereotyped as convict soldiers employed by Wagner - launch frontal assaults on Ukrainian defenses and take horrible casualties attempting to overwhelm the defense with pure numbers. The opposite is much closer to the truth. Russia is moving slowly because it irons out Ukrainian defenses with artillery, then pushes forward cautiously into these pulverized defenses.

Ukraine, meanwhile, continues to funnel units in to more or less refill the trenches with fresh defenders. A Wall Street Journal piece about the battle, while trying to present a story of Russian incompetence, accidentally included an admission from a Ukrainian commander on the ground who said: "So far, the exchange rate of trading our lives for theirs favors the Russians. If this goes on like this, we could run out."

The comparisons have been liberally made (and I cannot take credit for them) to one of the most infamous battles of World War One - the bloody catastrophe at Verdun. While it does not do to exaggerate the predictive value of military history (in the sense that a thorough knowledge of the first world war does not allow one to predict events in Ukraine), I am, however, a great fan of history as analogy, and the German scheme at Verdun is a useful analogy for what's happening in Bakhmut.

The Battle of Verdun was conceived by the German high command as a way to cripple the French army by drawing them into a preconfigured meatgrinder. The notion was to attack and seize crucial defensive high ground - ground so important that France would be forced to counterattack and attempt to recapture it. The Germans hoped that France would commit their strategic reserves to this counterattack so that they could be destroyed. While Verdun failed to completely sap French combat power, it did become one of the most bloody battles in world history. A German coin commemorating the battle depicted a skeleton pumping blood out of the earth - a chilling but apt visual metaphor.

"The World Blood Pump" - commemorating the meatgrinder at Verdun

Something similar has indeed occurred in Bakhmut, in the sense that Russia is pressing on one of the most sensitive points on the front line, drawing Ukrainian units in to be killed. A few months ago, on the heels of Russia's withdrawal from west bank Kherson, the Ukrainians talked ecstatically of continuing their offensive efforts with a strike southward in Zaparozhia to cut the land bridge to Crimea, along with continued efforts to break through into northern Lugansk. Instead, forces from both of these axes have been redirected to Bakhmut, to the point where this axis is actively draining Ukrainian combat strength in other areas. Ukrainian sources, previously full of optimism, now unequivocally agree that there will be no Ukrainian offensives in the near future. As we speak, Ukraine continues to funnel forces into the Bakhmut axis.

At the present moment, Ukraine's position around Bakhmut has badly deteriorated, with Russian forces (largely Wagner infantry supported by Russian army artillery) making substantial progress on both of the city's flanks. On the northern flank, the capture of Soledar pushed Russian lines to within spitting distance of the north-south highways, while the near simultaneous capture of Klishchiivka on the southern flank has propelled the frontlines to the dootstep of Chasiv Yar (firmly in Bakhmut's operational rear).

The contact line around Bakhmut, Jauary 20, 2023 (Map by me)

The Ukrainians are not presently encircled, but the continued creep of Russian positions ever closer to the remaining highways is easily discernable. Currently, Russian forces have positions within two miles of all the remaining highways. Even more importantly, Russia now controls the high ground to both the north and south of Bakhmut (the city itself sits in a depression surrounded by hills) giving Russia fire control over much of the battle space.

I am currently anticipating that Russia will clear the Bakhmut-Siversk defensive line by late March. Meanwhile, the denuding of Ukrainian forces on other axes raises the prospect of decisive Russian offensives elsewhere.

At the moment, the front roughly consists of four main axes (the plural of axis, not the bladed implement), with substantial agglomerations of Ukrainian troops. These consist, from south to north, of the Zaporozhia, Donetsk, Bakhmut, and Svatove Axes (see map below). The effort to reinforce the Bakhmut sector has noticeably diluted Ukranian strength on these other sectors. On the Zaporozhia front, for example, there are potentially as few as five Ukrainian brigades on the line at the moment.

At the moment, the majority of Russian combat power is uncommitted, and both western and Ukrainian sources are (belatedly) becoming increasingly alarmed about the prospect for a Russian offensive in the coming weeks. Currently, the entire Ukrainian position in the east is vulnerable because it is, in effect, an enormous salient, vulnerable to attack from three directions.

Two operational depth objectives in particular have the potential to shatter Ukrainian logistics and sustainment. These are, respectively, Izyum in the north and Pavlograd in the South. A Russian thrust down the west bank of the Oskil river towards Izyum would simultaneously threaten to cut off and destroy the Ukrainian grouping on the Svatove axis (S on the map) and sever the vital M03 highway from Kharkov. Reaching Pavlograd, on the other hand, would completely isolate the Ukrainian forces around Donetsk and sever much of Ukraine's transit across the Dneiper.

The Big Serge Plan (Map by me)

Both Izyum and Pavlograd are roughly 70 miles from the start lines of a prospective Russian offensive, and thus offer a very tempting combination - being both operationally significant and in relatively manageable reach. Beginning yesterday, we started to see Russian advances on the Zaporozhia axis. While these consist, at the moment, mainly of reconnaissance in force pushing into the "grey zone" (that ambiguous interstitial frontage), RUMoD did claim several settlements taken, which could presage a genuine offensive push in this direction. The key tell would be a Russian assault on Orikhiv, which is a large town with a genuine Ukrainian garrison in it. A Russian attack here would indicate that something more than a probing attack is underway.

It is difficult sometimes to parse out the difference between what we predict will happen and what we want to happen. This, certainly, is what I would choose if I was in charge of Russian planning - a drive south along the west bank of the Oskil river on the Kupyansk-Izyum axis, and a simultanious attack northward past Zaporozhia towards Pavlograd. In this case, I believe simply screening Zaporozhia in the short term is preferable to getting bogged down in an urban battle there.

Whether Russia will actually attempt this, we do not know. Russian operational security is much better than either Ukraine's or their proxy forces (Wagner and the LNR/DNR Milita), so we know significantly less about Russia's deployments than we do about Ukraine's. Regardless, we know that Russia enjoys a strong preponderance of combat power right know, and there are juicy operational targets within range.

Please Sir, I Want Some More

The bird's eye view of this conflict reveals a fascinating meta-structure to the war. In the above section, I argue for a view of the front structured around Russia progressively breaking through sequential Ukrainian defensive belts. I think that a similar sort of progressive narrative structure applies to the force generation aspect of this war, with Russia destroying a sequence of Ukrainian armies.

Let me be a bit more concrete. While the Ukrainian military exists at least partially as a continuous institution, its combat power has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times at this point through western assistance. Multiple phases - life cycles, if you will - can be identified:

  • In the opening months of the war, the extant Ukrainian army was mostly wiped out. The Russians destroyed much of Ukraine's indigenous supplies of heavy weaponry and shattered many cadres at the core of Ukraine's professional army.

  • In the wake of this initial shattering, Ukrainian combat strength was shored up by transferring virtually all of the Soviet vintage weaponry in the stockpiles of former Warsaw Pact countries. This transferred Soviet vehicles and ammunition, compatible with existing Ukrainian capabilities, from countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, and was mostly complete by the end of spring, 2022. In early June, for example, western sources were admitting that Soviet stockpiles were drained.

  • With Warsaw Pact stockpiles exhausted, NATO began replacing destroyed Ukrainian capabilities with western equivalents in a process that began during the summer. Of particular note were howitzers like the American M777 and the French Caesar.

Russia has essentially fought multiple iterations of the Ukrainian Army - destroying the pre-war force in the opening months, then fighting units that were refilled from Warsaw Pact stockpiles, and is now degrading a force which is largely reliant on western systems.

This led to General Zaluzhny's now-famous interview with the economist in which he asked for many hundreds of Main Battle Tanks, Infantry Fighting Vehicles, and artillery pieces. In effect, he asked for yet another army, as the Russians seem to keep destroying the ones he has.

I want to note a few particular areas where Ukraine's capabilities are clearly degraded beyond acceptable levels, and observe how this relates to NATO's effort to sustain the Ukrainian war-making effort.

First, artillery.

Russia has been prioritizing counterbattery action for many weeks now, and seems to be having great success hunting and destroying Ukrainian artillery.

It seems that this partially coincides with the deployment of new "Penicillin" counterbattery detection systems. This is a rather neat new tool in the Russian arsenal. Counterbattery warfare generally consists of a dangerous tango of guns and radar systems. Counterbattery radar is tasked with detecting and locating the enemy's guns, so they can be destroyed by one's own tubes - the game is roughly analogous to enemy teams of snipers (the artillery) and spotters (the radar) attempting to hunt each other - and of course, it makes good sense to shoot the other side's radar systems as well, to blind them, as it were.

The Penicillin system offers potent new capabilities to Russia's counterbattery campaign because it detects enemy artillery batteries not with radar, but with acoustic locating. It sends up a listening boom which, in coordination with a few ground componants, is able to locate enemy guns through seismic and acoustic detection. The advantage of this system is that, unlike a counterbattery radar, which emits radio waves that give away its position, the Penicillin system is passive - it simply sits still and listens, which means it does not offer an easy way for the enemy to locate it. As a result, in the counterbattery war, Ukraine currently lacks a good way to blind (or rather, deafen) the Russians. Furthermore, Russian counterbattery abilities have been augmented by increased use of the Lancet drone against heavy weapons.

The Penicillin acoustic boom listens for the sound of enemy guns

All that to say, Russia has been destroying quite a bit of Ukrainian artillery lately. the Russian Ministry of Defense has made a point of highlighting counterbattery success. Now, I know at this point you're thinking, "why would you trust the Russian Ministry of Defense?" Fair enough - let's trust but verify.

On January 20, NATO convened a meeting at Ramstein Airbase in Germany, against a backdrop of a massive new aid package being put together for Ukraine. This aid package contains, lo and behold, a huge amount of artillery pieces. By my count, the aid announced this week includes nearly 200 artillery tubes. Multiple countries, including Denmark and Estonia, are sending Ukraine literally all of their howitzers. Call me crazy, but I seriously doubt that several countries would just spontaneously decide, at the exact same time, to send Ukraine their entire inventory of artillery pieces were Ukraine not facing crisis levels of artillery losses.

Furthermore, the United States has taken new, unprecedented steps to supply Ukraine with shells. Just in the past week, they have dipped into its stockpiles in Israel and South Korea, amid reports that American stocks are so depleted that they will take more than a decade to replenish.

Let's review the evidence here, and see if we can make a reasonable conclusion:

  1. Ukrainian officials admit that their artillery is outgunned by 9 to 1 in critical sectors of the front.

  2. Russia deploys a cutting edge counterbattery system and increased numbers of Lancet drones.

  3. The Russian MoD claims that they have been hunting and destroying Ukrainian artillery systems in large numbers.

  4. NATO has hurried to put together a massive package of artillery systems for Ukraine.

  5. The United States is raiding critical forward-deployed stockpiles to supply Ukraine with shells.

I personally think it is reasonable, given all of this, to assume that Ukraine's artillery arm has been largely shattered, and NATO is attempting to rebuild it yet again.

My kingdom for a tank

The main point of contention in recent weeks has been whether or not NATO will give Ukraine Main Battle Tanks. Zaluzhny hinted at a badly depleted Ukrainian tank park in his interview with the Economist, in which he pleaded for hundreds of MBTs. NATO has attempted to provide a stopgap solution by giving Ukraine various armored vehicles like the Bradley IFV and the Stryker, which do restore some mobility, but we must unequivocally say that these are in no way substitutes for MBTs, and they fall far short in both protection and firepower. Attempting to use Bradleys, for example, in the MBT role is not going to work.

Good Morning

Thus far, it appears that Ukraine is going to receive a small handful of Challenger tanks from Britain, but there is also talk of donating Leopards (German make), Abrams (American), and Leclercs (French). As usual, the battlefield impact of Ukraine receiving tanks is being both greatly overstated (by both Ukrainian shills and pessimistic Russians) and understated (by Russian triumphalists). I suggest a middle ground.

The number of tanks that can be reasonably given to Ukraine is relatively low, simply because of the training and sustainment burden. All of these tanks use different ammunition, special parts, and require specialized training. They are not the sort of systems that can simply be driven off the lot and directly into combat by untrained crew. The ideal solution for Ukraine would be to receive only Leopard A24s, as these might be available in decent numbers (perhaps a couple hundred), and at least they would be standardized.

A burned out Turkish Leopard in Syria

We should also note, of course, that these western tanks are not likely to be game changers on the battlefield. The Leopard already showed its limitations in Syria under Turkish operation. Note the following quote from this 2018 article:

"Given that the tanks are widely operated by NATO members - including Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, Greece and Norway - it is particularly embarrassing to see them so easily destroyed by Syrian terrorists when they are expected to match the Russian Army."

Ultimately, the Leopard is a fairly mundane MBT designed in the 1970's outclassed by the Russian T-90. It's not a terrible piece of equipment, but it's hardly a battlefield terror. They will take losses and be attrited just like Ukraine's prewar tank park was. However, that doesn't change the fact that a Ukrainian army with a few companies of leopards will be more potent than one without them.

I think it's fair to say that the following three statements are all true:

  1. Receiving a mixed bag of western tanks will create a difficult training, maintenance, and sustainment burden for Ukraine.

  2. Western tanks like the Leopard have limited combat value and will be destroyed like any other tank.

  3. Western tanks will raise the combat power of the Ukrainian army as long as they are in the field.

Now, with that being said, at this point it does not appear that NATO wants to give Ukraine main battle tanks. At first it was suggested that tanks from storage could be dusted off and given to Kiev, but the manufacturer has stated that these vehicles are not in working order and would not be ready for combat until 2024. That leaves only the possibility of dipping directly into NATO's own tank parks, which thus far they are reticent to do.

Why? My suggestion would simply be that NATO does not believe in Ukrainian victory. Ukraine cannot even dream of dislodging Russia from its position without an adequate tank force, and so the reticence to hand over tanks suggests that NATO thinks that this is only a dream anyway. Instead, they continue to prioritize weaponry that sustains Ukraine's ability to fight a static defense (hence, the hundreds of artillery pieces) without indulging in flights of fancy about a great Ukrainian armored thrust into Crimea.

However, given the intense war fever that has built up in the west, it's possible that political momentum imposes the choice upon us. It is possible that we have reached the point where the tail wags the dog, that NATO is trapped in its own rhetoric of unequivocal support until Ukraine wins a total victory, and we may yet see Leopard 2A4s burning on the steppe.

Summary: The Death of a State

Ukraine's military is extremely degraded, having taken exorbitant losses in both men and heavy weaponry. I believe Ukrainian KIA are approaching 150,000 at this point, and it is clear that their inventories of both artillery tubes, shells, and armored vehicles are largely exhausted.

I expect the Bakhmut-Siversk defensive line to be cleared before April, after which Russia will push towards the final (and weakest) defensive belt around Slavyansk. Meanwhile, Russia has significant combat power in reserve, which can be used to reopen the northern front on the west bank of the Oskil and restart offensive operations in Zaporozhia, placing Ukrainian logistics in critical danger.

This war will be fought to its conclusion on the battlefield and end in a favorable decision for Russia.

Coda: A Note about Coups

Feel free to ignore this segment, as it's a little more nebulous and not concretely related to events in Ukraine or Russia.

We've seen lots of fun rumors about coups in both countries - Putin has foot cancer and his government will collapse, Zelensky is going to be replaced with Zaluzhny, on and on it goes. Patriots in control and all that good stuff.

In any case, I thought I would just generally write about why coups and revolutions never seem to lead to nice and cuddly democratic regimes, but instead almost always lead to political control passing to the military and security services.

The answer, you might think, is simply that these men have the guns and the power to access the important rooms where decisions are made, but it is not only that. It also relates to a concept in game theory called Schelling points.

A Schelling point (named after the gentleman that introduced the concept, an economist named Thomas Schelling) refers to the solution that parties choose given a state of uncertainty and no ability to communicate. One of the classic examples to illustrate the concept is a coordination game. Suppose that you and another person are each shown four squares - three are blue and one is red. You are each asked to choose a square. If you both select the same square, you receive a monetary prize - but you are unable to talk to one another about your choices. How do you choose? Well, most people rationally choose the red square, simply because it is conspicuous - it stands out, and you therefore presume that your partner will also choose this square. The red square isn't better, per se, it's just obvious.

In a state of political turmoil, or even anarchy, the system works itself towards Schelling points - obvious figures and institutions that radiate authority, and are therefore the conspicuous choice to assume power and issue commands.

The Bolsheviks, for example, understood this very well. Immediately after declaring their new government in 1917, they dispatched commissars to the various office buildings in Saint Petersburg where the Tsarist bureaucracies were headquartered. Trotsky famously turned up at the foreign affairs ministry building one morning and simply announced that he was the new Foreign Minister. The employees laughed at him - who was he? how did he presume to be in charge? - but for Trotsky the point was to insinuate himself on a Schelling point. In the state of anarchy that began to spread in Russia, people naturally look for some obvious focal point of authority, and the Bolsheviks had cleverly positioned themselves as such by claiming control over the bureaucratic offices and titles. On the other side of the civil conflict, political opposition to the Bolsheviks clustered around Tsarist army officers, because they too were Schelling points, in that they already had titles and position within an existing hierarchy.

All of this is to say that in the event of a coup or state collapse, new governments are virtually never formed sui generis - they always arise from preexisting institutions and hierarchies. Why, when the Soviet Union fell, did political authority devolve to the Republics? Because these Republics were Schelling points - branches that one can grab for safety in a chaotic river.

I simply say this because I am tired of phantasmagorical stories about liquidation of the regime in Russia and even territorial dissolution. The fall of Putin's government will not and cannot lead to an acquiescent, western-adjacent regime, because there are no institutions of real power in Russia that are thus disposed. Power would fall to the security services, because they are Schelling points, and that's where power goes.


Big Serge Thoughts
18 Jan 2023 | 12:27 am

9. The Failure of Maneuver: The Great War

Author's Note: I apologize for the delay between articles. This particular piece took longer to publish than I had hoped due to illness and the sheer length of the piece, which is at this point nearly 8,000 words. As you will see, however, the fact that this article grew into an oversized and slow-moving creature is fitting for the subject matter.

The First World War was an unparalleled civilizational catastrophe for the peoples and powers of Europe. In the span of just over four years, nearly twenty million people would be killed, and a great deal more wounded or displaced. Over thirty million soldiers would become casualties. The war directly precipitated state collapse in four of Europe's great powers, destroying the Ottoman, Hapsburg, German, and Russian Empires. Only two of the six European powers - Britain and France - would survive the war politically intact, but even so the conflict left them scarred with millions of dead and disabled men and crushing debt. For many, it felt as if the world was ending, and the continent was left embittered, disoriented, shocked, and angry.

From a military perspective, however, the course of the Great War was anything but an aberration. It was, in fact, the culmination and logical endpoint of a system of warfighting that had been flashing warning signs for decades. The use of stereotyped infantry formations animated by attacking elan had become progressively more costly and less decisive throughout the post-Napoleonic century. Examples were numerous, from the American Civil War, to the midcentury Crimean War (which devolved into little more than a long siege), to the carnage at Gravelotte, where the French and Prussians threw long lines of corps against each other in an artless scrum.

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Soldiers in 1914 were trapped in a terrible interplay between technology, tactical orthodoxy, and operationally minded leadership. These factors conspired to make battle fundamentally indecisive and bloody - which is to say, attritional. The warrior was trapped in the belly of a horrible machine - and the machine was bleeding to death.

Failure in the West: Schlieffen and Moltke Jr

Few figures in military history have been scrutinized as closely as Count Alfred von Schlieffen - a peculiar fact, considering Schlieffen's tenure as Chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1906 did not include a single actual war. To many of his contemporaries and subordinates, Schlieffen was a bona fide genius - a singular intellect whose thought gave Germany a chance at victory in the Great War. To his critics, Schlieffen was the architect of the operational scheme that doomed Germany by bringing Britain out of neutrality and into the war on the side of Germany's enemies. Still others criticize Schlieffen as simply an old-school Prussian general who was blind to the effects that industrialized war would have on the traditional attacking style.

Count Schlieffen - the man with the plan (allegedly)

Much of this debate centered around a thing that did not actually exist - the so-called "Schlieffen Plan." Supposedly, this was Germany's secret operational scheme to win a two front war against both France and Russia. The concept, as such, was for a rapid, all out attack on France to knock her out of the war in the opening weeks - aiming to take advantage of Russia's slower mobilization timetables by resolving the western front before Russia's armies could arrive in the east. The crux of the alleged Schlieffen Plan was a massive sweep through Belgium, bringing the mass of the German Army down on the top of France and scooping up the French armies in a huge encirclement.

Therein lay the crux of the argument. Schlieffen's disciples argued that the plan was operationally sound, and the failure of the 1914 campaign against France was ultimately the fault of German commanders failing to follow Schlieffen's instructions correctly. In particular, they blame the Chief of Staff in 1914 - the great Helmut von Moltke's nephew, Helmut von Moltke the Younger - for supposedly watering down Schlieffen's scheme. An apocryphal story about Schlieffen muttering advice with his dying breath only helped to dramatize this version of events. For others, however, the plan was fundamentally flawed in that it required an invasion of Belgium - a neutral country under the protection of the British. By invading Belgium, critics argue, the Schlieffen Plan forced Britain into the war against Germany and created a strategic problem which simply could not be solved.

In fact, there is another version of events - the true one. The truth is that there was no Schlieffen plan at all. Schlieffen wrote a variety of memoranda concerning a war with France, many of them entirely hypothetical thought experiments. Combing through German documents would reveal no secret master plan handed down by the old general. The best one could do is find a mobilization and deployment scheme - what the Germans called an Aufmarch - a design for how to get the armies deployed on the border. The idea that Schlieffen, who retired in 1906, had somehow bequeathed a foolproof plan eight years in advance stretches credulity, and mainly originates with embittered German officers who wanted to blame Moltke Jr. for the failure of the campaign. The intense drive to blame Moltke inevitably led many to gripe that things would have been different if Schlieffen had been in charge.

Helmuth von Moltke the Younger's generalship left much to be desired, but he was not entirely to blame for German defeat

So what actually happened in France in 1914? It was not the botched implementation of some secret plan for victory. Rather, it was the cumbersome, bloody, and indecisive result of two armies attempting to control the largest collision of massed infantry in history. The scale of the forces involved had ballooned to colossal proportions.

Contrary to popular perceptions, the French Army had made significant improvements in the period since the Franco-Prussian war, in particular in the department of mobilization. The French had made it a point to develop a deep pool of reservists with an intensive conscription program, to the point where in 1914 they were able to put some 2 million men in the field (though only half were engaged in the opening weeks). Germany, which had to man two fronts, was able to deploy 1.7 million to the French theater. The French had also worked hard to streamline their mobilization scheme and railway timetables, allowing them to actually complete their mobilization two days before Germany.

When war began in the first week of August, the two armies set in motion titanic operational schemes that would hurl these millions of men against each other in an unparalleled scene of violence. The schemes cohered together in a way that represented a giant revolving door. German planning called for a massed right wing to sweep down from the north through Belgium, while the French scheme - "Plan XVII" - dictated a direct thrust eastward into German Alsace-Lorraine.

The French were determine to redeem themselves of the Franco-Prussian War, where they had frittered away the campaign with inactivity. They were therefore maniacally focused on maintaining an attacking élan - mobilizing quickly and moving decisively to attack. Unfortunately, their conception of a direct eastward strike into Germany played directly into German hands. The motion of the German sweep through Belgium was to come down on the northwestern flank of the French army, creating what would be, on paper, the largest encirclement in history. By striking eastward, the French were inadvertently attacking deeper into this potential encirclement.

Idealized August 1914 Maneuver Schemes

The French deserve credit for the improvements they made to their mobilization system. They managed to deploy five colossal field armies in the space of only a few weeks. Unfortunately - and rather bafflingly - France had done nothing to rectify the predominant tactical determinant of the past war: German artillery superiority. While the French artillery park consisted almost completely of the 75mm field gun, German units enjoyed organic batteries of 105mm, 150mm, and 210mm howitzers. This firepower disparity would prove devastating in the opening clashes of the war.

The French dutifully implemented Plan XVII, and on August 14 they sent two of their colossal field armies hurtling eastward into Germany. These attacks quickly failed with heavy losses, mostly courtesy of the powerful German artillery in Germany's 6th and 7th Armies, which anchored the southern end of the German line. While this "battle of the frontier" did not destroy the two French armies, they did maul them sufficiently to make the French offensive collapse and force a withdrawal back into France.

Krupp Steel

Meanwhile, the great German hammer was beginning to swing down from the north. On August 16th, the German 1st and 2nd Armies - on the far right wing of the German line - invaded northeastern Belgium and began their sweep over the top. Meanwhile, German 3rd, 4th, and 5th Armies - the center of the German line - began a tighter sweep around the corner, moving through Luxemburg and southern Belgium through the forested region known as the Ardennes.

The situation for the French supreme commander, Joseph Joffre, was not exactly encouraging. His offensive into Lorraine had made it barely ten miles into Germany before it collapsed, leaving two of his field armies bloodied. Now, it was apparent that there was some sort of great German mass climbing over the top of his head. The fog of war was heavy, but even without knowing the details of the German disposition, it was clear that there was serious danger coming in from the north. Joffre still had three untouched field armies in his order of battle, and he sent two of them - the 3rd and 4th - into the Ardennes to meet the incoming Germans.

These two French field armies collided (almost literally) on August 22 with two German armies (the 4th and 5th) in the heart of the Ardennes. The French again learned a painful lesson about the power of the German howitzers, and on the 23rd they too withdrew back into France.

What to make of all this? The initial French deployment had put five field armies in the field. Four of these were now bloodied - the 1st and 2nd in Lorraine, and the 3rd and 4th in the Ardennes. These battles had gone well for the Germans - their advantage in heavy artillery left them definitively on the right side of the loss ratios, with French casualties outnumbering German losses by 2 to 1. But these were not decisive battles. All four French armies were able to break contact and withdraw intact back into France. There was no encirclement, no big war winning victories. There was no Metz or Sedan.

There was, however, one remaining intact French army - the 5th, currently probing its way into central Belgium. Here was Germany's chance to win a big victory: to not only maul, but destroy wholesale an entire field army. The 5th Army, under General Charles Lanrezac, moved into Central Belgium and took up a position near the Belgian fortress of Namur, at the bend where the Sambre and Meuse rivers confluence. This seemed like a cozy position, with defensible lines on the rivers, and directly to the east of the British Expeditionary Force, which had now arrived in theater. Inadvertently, however, Lanrezac had wedged himself in directly between the German 2nd and 3rd Armies.

Germany now had a chance to destroy the French 5th Army - potentially taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and creating an opportunity to destroy the BEF in the follow up. To achieve this, the 2nd Army (facing the French across the Sambre) needed to engage and attempt to hold the French in place while the 3rd army crossed the Meuse further to the south and cut off the avenue of retreat back to France.

This opportunity slipped through German fingers. The culprit was not Moltke the Younger, nor Schlieffen, nor any single decision or commander on the German side. The blame lay at the feet of the mass army - that bloated, sluggish, clumsy monster, as capable of dishing out horrible violence as it was incapable of moving elegantly. This sector of the front was under the direction of General Karl von Bülow - in direct command of 2nd Army, but with operational control over 1st Army (on his right) and 3rd Army (on his left). This put Bülow in command of no fewer than 19 Corps, or a whopping 39 Divisions, strung out across some 70 miles of front. Controlling this colossus with any degree of precision was impossible given the communications technology of the day.

On the map, a glorious opportunity beckoned. This enormous army was simply not nimble enough to grasp it. It took nearly a full day for the Germans to get a handle on just how exposed the French were, as the battle began largely because screening units ran into each other and started firing. Moltke sent frantic orders demanding that 3rd Army get troops - any troops - across the Meuse to the south to cut off the retreat, but by this point much of 3rd Army had already begun attacking directly across the river. 3rd Army's commander, General Hausen, had to scrape together a zombie division (comprised of various available sub-components) and send it off to the south to look for a crossing. However, on August 23rd Lanzerac realized the pickle he was in and began a withdrawal. By the time 3rd Army got units of any reasonable size across the Meuse, the French were long gone, and only an empty pocket remained.

The Namur bend was Germany's best chance to win a decisive battle in the opening weeks of the war. It was, in fact, a very good chance - but the difficulties of controlling the mass army made waste of it, and so the French 5th Army, like the other four, was able to withdraw bloodied but intact. France suffered some 260,000 casualties in the battles of August (including 76,000 dead), but her armies were not destroyed, and managed to conduct the so-called "Great Retreat" to take up a new position on the Marne.

Germany's failure to destroy at least one of the French field armies during the opening weeks set up the infamous Battle of the Marne - a supposedly miraculous Allied victory which saved Paris and set up the ensuing stalemate of trench warfare by denying the Germans a decisive victory.

The iconic image of industrial warfare

But what was the Battle of the Marne, from an operational perspective? The preview had been clearly seen 44 years prior, at Gravelotte - parallel lines had simply hammered each other all day until one army had had enough. The Marne was Gravelotte on a continental scale. Where Gravelotte had lined up exactly five Prussian corps against five French corps, the Marne pitted parallel lines of seven field armies each. Germany alone brought some 44 corps to the Marne. Whereas Gravelotte had been fought on a front that was at most 15 miles wide, the Marne campaign stretched the contact practically from the Swiss border to Paris - a frontage of more than 200 miles.

There exists a traditional narrative as to why Germany lost at the Marne. Generally, analysis points to General von Kluck (in command of First Army, on the far right of the German line) turning right as he approached Paris. The goal of the campaign was to crush the French Army, not to capture Paris (the French government having evacuated anyway), and so "Kluck's Wheel" was designed to bring him into contact with French forces. By turning, however, he exposed his own right flank to attack from freshly mobilized French forces. This, in combination with stiff French resistance and counterattacking elsewhere along the line, was enough to make Moltke nervous, and he ordered a withdrawal to form a new defensive line farther north.

The general notion here is that Germany still had a decent chance to win at the Marne, but the French did just enough to spook Moltke into pulling back. Generally, therefore, the outcome of the battle is chalked up to a combination of French resilience and Moltke's apparent caution and lack of fortitude.

I argue that it was once again the nature of the armies that was to blame. German 1st and 2nd Armies - those crucial and powerful formations on the right wing - spent the battle mostly out of contact with each other. Their commanders, Kluck and Bulow, did not communicate either with each other or with Moltke, who had established his headquarters a whopping 150 miles away in Luxemburg. During the crucial days of the battle (from September 5 to 9) Supreme Headquarters neither issued a single order nor received a report from 1st and 2nd Armies. In the end, Moltke had to send a subordinate officer to visit the various field commanders, with instructions as to what orders he should give based on what he learned at the front. Needless to say, this was simply an inadequate method for successfully controlling such an enormous force. Meanwhile, most German artillery units were beginning to run short of ammunition, and commanders continued to fight in a vacuum without a clear sense of what was happening in their neighbor units.

German infantry at the Marne

Ultimately, this was a footsore army fighting hundreds of miles from home on an enormous front, which had left its railheads and telegraph stations behind weeks ago. It was simply beyond the capabilities of the time to effectively supply and control such an enormous force at such enormous distances. The body of the army had outgrown the nervous system.

Perhaps Schlieffen had been clairvoyant after all. In 1901, the old general had written the following:

According to current theory, modern means of communication have made the command of million-man armies as easy and sure as an earlier corps of 15,000 to 20,000 men. While this may be true in one's own land, the telegraph will not suffice in enemy territory; it has already proven itself unreliable in maneuvers. Wet weather and difficult roads stop the cyclist; automobiles are subject to endless difficulties... It is to be hoped that improvements in these areas will make the distribution of orders easier and simpler. At present, however, the armies consist of masses that are ever more difficult to control and ever less maneuverable.

It seems that this, and not some secret operational plan, was the true wisdom that he had left behind, and in 1914 Moltke found it every bit as difficult to manage his enormous armies as Schlieffen had predicted. Germany had brought a steamroller to the battlefield. Steamrollers are very good at crushing things and very bad at turning.

This, moreso than any miraculous French stand at the Marne or deficient generalship by Moltke bears most of the blame for Germany's failure to achieve a rapid victory in 1914. To be sure, Moltke the Younger left much to be desired and did not live up to the name of his famous uncle, but the larger issue was that he simply lacked the mechanisms to control the army effectively, even if he had been a more capable general. Both at the Namur bend and at the Marne, the Germans simply could not get their operations level units (divisions and corps) to move as quickly as they wanted.

By the time the Germans withdrew from the Marne on September 12, both sides had taken some 250,000 casualties just since the beginning of the month. German withdrawal precipitated the transition to the trench warfare that became the stereotype of the war, as both sides began an intensive effort to dig in and consolidate a defensive line.

It must be emphasized, however, that trench warfare did not cause the failure of maneuver. Rather, the causality was reversed: the failure of maneuver led to trenches. Having failed to win a rapid victory in 1914, trenches were dug to consolidate positions and preserve manpower. Despite multiple attempts to restart proactive offensive warfare, no viable solution would be found in the west until 1918.

Meanwhile, in the east, the German army was fighting a very different sort of war.

Mobile War in the East

The two German fronts in 1914 could hardly have been more different from each other. Indeed, in many ways they were almost complete opposites. In the west, Moltke struggled to coordinate and maneuver a colossal force of seven field armies, operating on enemy terrain without adequate supply, communications, or intelligence. In the east, in contrast, a single field army was tasked with defending the backdoor into Germany against a potential invasion from a vastly superior Russian force - albeit with the benefit of the German rail lines and communications infrastructure. Thus, while the enormous western armies lumbered about, in the east the Germans were able - and indeed, forced - to fight a mobile war.

From the outset, the Eastern Front promised to be a lively place. German prewar assumptions were frustrated from the outset, when the Russians managed to significantly overperform expectations on their mobilization timeframe (while Germany's ally, Austria-Hungary, performed poorly). German planning had optimistically assumed that Russia, with its vast internal distances and low population density, would require multiple weeks before it could put armies in the field. It was hoped, therefore, that Germany might be blessed with a short time of quiet in the east while it finished off France.

Russia, however, defied such expectations by putting two armies into the field in East Prussia by August 17, roughly simultaneous with the first week of clashes on the western front. These two Russian armies - the 1st, under General Paul von Rennenkampf and the 2nd under General Alexander Samsonov, hardly represented the full scope of Russia's mobilization powers (at least four other armies being committed against Austria-Hungary), but they had 27 full divisions between them, and given the fact that only a single German army with 11 divisions was in the theater to stop them, they had the potential to affect a decisive blow at the opening whistle of the war.

Their objective was a pincer movement into East Prussia. One of the idiosyncrasies of the eastern front in 1914 was the fact that, due to the peculiarities of the winding borders, all the combatants began with the war with a major salient - that is, a position vulnerable to invasion from at least two directions. At the center of this was Russia's Polish holdings, which jutted out in between Germany and Austria Hungary. The Polish Salient was both a glaring vulnerability (in that the Central Powers could invade it from three directions), but it also offered an advance position deep in the German belly.

The Russian operational notion was straightforward and conceptually sound. 1st Army would advance directly westward into East Prussia on an axis from Vilnius, while 2nd Army would move to the northwest out of Poland. The German 8th Army (numbers 1 through 7 being in France) would be caught in between two enormous slabs of iron, inexorably pressing it towards the sea.

There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the Russian plan. This was a fairly straightforward, even textbook pincer movement, maneuvering two armies towards each other to catch the enemy in the middle. Several factors, however, conspired in Germany's favor. The two Russian armies would be separated by the Masurian lakes - a morass of more than 2,000 small lakes, impassable to the modern mass army. This meant that the two Russian bodies would be unable to support each other until they had bypassed the lakes, leaving them operationally isolated for the first sixty miles of advance. Secondly, the Russians suffered from inadequate communications and reconnaissance - making no real use of surveillance aircraft (despite having them in the inventory) and little use of cavalry screens. Meanwhile, Samsonov and Rennenkampf communicated with unencrypted radio transmissions which the Germans were able to intercept and decipher.

Russian soldiers march to war

Perhaps the most important factor, however, was the decision by German high command to remove the commander of 8th Army, General Maximilian von Prittwitz. Prittwitz was an unimaginative officer who saw that he was sitting in the crosshairs of two giant Russian pincers, and promptly wired Moltke at headquarters for permission to retreat from East Prussia altogether. Giving up German home territory without a fight in the first month of the war was, for understandable reasons, unappealing to Moltke, and on August 22 Prittwitz was removed from command and replaced by General Paul von Hindenburg, who arrived in East Prussia the following day with his chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff.

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Big Serge Thoughts
31 Dec 2022 | 6:57 pm

10. The Moltke Mirage

Prussian Infantry on the Attack

No country dominated both the practice and theory of warfare in the 19th Century like Prussia. The century between the fall of Napoleon and the beginning of the Great War was, in many ways, a sort of classical era or golden age for the Prussian military establishment. This was the era in which Prussia fought a series of tremendously successful wars, decisively defeating the two powerful neighbors - Austria and France - who had traditionally been the check on her power. In doing so, the Prussian minister Otto von Bismarck at last solved the "German Question" and achieved the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership. This created the embryo of the German superpower that would torment Europe in the 20th Century - a state whose formidable powers were based on marrying the industrial potential of a united Germany with the military prowess of the Prussian army.

This golden age of the Prussian military was dominated, above all, by Helmuth von Moltke. Amid a tradition which produced many of the most famed commanders in history - Frederick the Great, Blucher, Ludendorff, Manstein, Guderian, Rommel - Moltke in many ways stands apart and above the rest. He was certainly the most successful - decisively winning all of his wars and reestablishing Prussia's reputation as the preeminent military in Europe.

Moltke's thirty years as Chief of the Prussian General Staff correspond to the greatest heights of Prussian military success and the ascent of Prussia to the apex of the geopolitical food chain. While great credit is given (and rightfully so) to Prussia's master statesman, the "Iron Chancellor" - Bismarck himself was not shy about the fact that Prussia's fortunes were ultimately tied to the success of the army in battle - what he called "the iron dice". In one of his most famous and endlessly quotable speeches, he said:

"The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power… Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favorable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna, our frontiers have been ill-designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood."

Iron and blood were Moltke's domain, and for thirty years he embodied Prussian military acumen and destroyed every army that opposed him. It was indeed the apogee of the Prussian Army.

And yet.

In an unbroken sequence of glorious Prussian victories, the discerning eye could see the horrors of the Great War looming. Despite Moltke's artful handling of his armies and the stunning results on the strategic level, there were unsettling developments on the ground. Casualty rates among attacking infantry units were disturbingly high. Command and control frequently became something of a snarl. The army was consistently forced to lean on massed artillery to break open enemy positions.

Moltke was without a doubt an eminently skilled commander, and his battlefield successes had titanic ramifications. His admirers could certainly have persuaded themselves that the great Moltke had proven that Prussia could successfully prosecute its classically fluid and aggressive brand of maneuver warfare, with bold and sweeping offensive operations designed to crush the enemy army. Molkte, it could be said, had brought Frederick the Great's aggressive operational elan into the modern era - combining Prussia's ancestral attacking spirit with railroads, the telegraph, and explosive shells.

It was, sadly, a mirage. Moltke's sublime skills notwithstanding, the technological changes of the age were moving warfare indelibly towards the horrific conclusion of the Western Front. The trenches, barbed wire, endless artillery barrages, and mass casualties were not an aberration, but the most logical (some might even say inevitable) outcome of industrialized war, given the particular set of technologies that emerged in the 19th century. Indeed, the grinding attrition of Verdun and the Somme could be clearly seen in Moltke's wars, looming on the horizon. It was the brilliance of this man that he could transcend this gory attrition, if only for a little while.

Soul Searching

Moltke dominated the Prussian military establishment at a time when armies were still groping their way forward into the age of industrial war. Armies were becoming ever larger and wielding ever more powerful weaponry. The size of these armies increasingly made it impossible for campaigns to be improvised the way Napoleon did. Successfully making war required filing cabinets full of railway timetables, maps, and statistical analyses - a level of detail and micromanagement which offended many traditionalists, who still viewed war as an "art" that should be conducted according to the instincts of field commanders.

For Prussia, in particular, this new era of increasingly bureaucratized war seemed problematic, because Prussian commanders were conditioned to fight with a preternatural level of aggression and attacking energy. Blucher, the hero of the Napoleonic Wars, was the platonic ideal of the Prussian commander. Nicknamed Marschall Vorwärts - "Marshal Forward" - by his men due to his battlefield aggression, Blucher was not a particularly sophisticated operational practitioner. His "operational art", as such, consisted of finding the enemy army and attacking it as quickly as possible.

For Molkte, the challenge was merging and creating some level of synergy among these two diametrically opposed notions of command - calculation and rational planning, and the instinctual aggression of field commanders who wanted simply to march to the enemy at top speed and attack him. Institutionally, this tension was represented by the difference between the staff officers - command and control functionaries who provided the planning, analysis, intelligence, and communications expertise which allows modern armies to function - and the commander - a man who instantiates action and aggression.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

In a more metaphysical sense, the same tension was presented by Clausewitz in his model of warfare as a tension between opposing forces. These forces, according to Clausewitz, were rational planning, violent emotion, and random luck. War, according to Clausewitz, was always subject to each of these forces to some extent. While luck cannot be controlled, a well run army would seek to balance between rational strategy (the staff officers) and emotive aggression (the field commander).

Moltke, perhaps as well as any commander in history, successfully mediated these forces because he perfectly well understood that both had their role in a successful campaign. He understood perfectly well that war had become far too complex to wage spontaneously, on the basis of instinct and improvisation, and dutifully nurtured a suitably robust planning apparatus and an army nervous system packed with highly trained staff officers. Nevertheless, even as Chief of the General Staff, Moltke was never overly wedded to obsessive planning. He famously quipped that "no plan survives contact with the enemy's main body", and was adamant that overly detailed and rigid planning could be fatal. He accordingly tried to keep his own plans and orders acceptably vague and generalized:

"One does well to order no more than is absolutely necessary and to avoid planning beyond the situations one can foresee. These change very rapidly in war. Seldom will orders that anticipate far in advance and in detail succeed completely to execution."

Moltke viewed his role as that of a mediator between planning, luck, and aggression. His task was not exactly to control armies in the field, only to steer them - bending them, sometimes with great difficulty - to follow a general maneuver scheme and react in a timely manner to the enemy's movements. His campaign in the Austro-Prussian War was a classic example of this. Moltke's operational plan was rather vague. Moltke very generally planned to disperse his armies and draw them together around the Austrian army, but he had no strict notions about where the Austrian army might be or where it would be brought to battle. The "plan", as such, was more of a sketch or an outline, which was only given full substance once the campaign began.

One campaign above all highlights all of these issues - the tension between planning and aggressive instinct, Moltke's own preternatural gifts, and the growing bloodiness of offensive warfare. This campaign was Moltke's last, and his greatest: the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. A war of great mistakes and great violence, which Moltke bent to his will to forge a great victory.

The Prussian Army Always Attacks

Prussia's war with France began with a few classic Moltke motifs. Moltke was a great proponent of the railroad as a tool for rapidly mobilizing and concentrating armies for action, and sure enough the run up to war saw Prussia concentrating three massive field armies on the French border - quickly assembling them using the prodigious internal German railway system. The war was, if we are being technical, more of a Franco-German War, as Prussia enjoyed the support of several of the smaller German states, especially Bavaria. However, the war is known as the Franco-Prussian War, and the Prussians - in particular Moltke - ran the show.

The second classic Moltke motif was the suitably ambiguous nature of Moltke's initial operational scheme. As in the case of the Austrian war, he put out a mere sketch or framework for the operation. Three armies (from northwest to southeast, so that 1st Army was the furthest to the northwest and 3rd Army was on the bottom) would advance into France on a sort of southeasterly axis, winding their way towards the French field army. Moltke's idea was probably something similar to the Austrian campaign - whichever army found the French first should attack and pin them in place while the other armies converged to smash them.

If this was Moltke's plan, the ensuing debacle highlights the complexity of war, and would surely have Clausewitz nodding his head sympathetically. The entire Prussian scheme very nearly came apart, due to two complicating factors - the instinctive aggression of Moltke's field commanders, and the fact that the French also had a say in the progression of the war.

The French suffered from a variety of deficiencies in this particular war. Their commanders were, by and large, incompetents, and they were hamstrung by the on and off meddling of the Emperor, Napoleon III (named after his more famous and competent uncle). This lesser Napoleon never really felt politically secure, and decided that he would stiffen French opinion of his fighting quality by ordering an attack. Thus the war strangely began with the main French field army, the Army of the Rhine, attacking eastward into Germany without a clear objective. Their goal, as such, was simply to attack so that Napoleon could tell Parisians that he had attacked.

The French initially moved towards the town of Saarbrücken, thinking that they could get the jump on Prussian mobilization and strike a blow before the Prussians were ready. To their surprise, they discovered that three Prussian field armies were already mobilized and in the theater. The speed of Prussian deployment was surprising, because France's own mobilization system was archaic and lethargic. Lacking a coordinated railway mobilization plan, French troops had to compete with civilians for train tickets, or else walk to their bases. Prussia's hyper-efficient deployment therefore took the French aback, and forced them to scuttle their opening offensive and withdraw back into French Lorraine.

The French attack was brief, but sufficient to create irritating complications. In the first action of the war, a French platoon bumped into and routed an entire Prussian company. This was Prussia's first introduction to France's Chassepot rifle. Unlike in the Austrian war, where the Prussian needle gun had been the superior infantry weapon, the French wielded the bolt-action Chassepot which outclassed the needle gun in every way - accuracy, firepower, and especially range. In that first little discovery skirmish, a platoon of less than 50 French riflemen managed to shred and rout a 200-strong Prussian company.

A French soldier with his Chassepot

The superiority of the Chassepot would become Prussia's main tactical problem in this war. There was, however, a bigger problem. An operational problem.

The French made a bumbling, groping move into Germany, fighting with variegated Prussian and Bavarian units around Saarbrucken, then inexplicably withdrew back into France. The French offensive had never really been thought out, and Napoleon III evidently felt he'd done enough to satisfy domestic audiences (newspapers in Paris spoke of a great victory), so it was time to pull back. Prussian commanders watched this with a mixture of confusion and bemusement.

Moltke now ran into one of his most obstinate problems: the aggression of his field commanders. His plan was for the three armies to concentrically converge on French Army of the Rhine, hopefully trapping and destroying it. The 1st Army, at the north of the line, was intended to move on a southwestwardly basis to come down on the northern flank of the French force. However, the commander of the 1st Army, General Karl von Steinmetz, thought that this was silly. He was a classically Prussian commander who only wanted to attack as quickly as possible. He therefore decided to instead move his army directly to the south, on the direct route to the French main force.

General Steinmetz

Steinmetz's logic was fairly straightforward - the French, as he saw it, were trying to slip away, and so somebody needed to act decisively to grab hold of them and keep contact. Therefore, he moved as fast as he could to do so himself. The problem with Steinmetz moving south was that it carried him directly into the marching path of Prussia's 2nd Army. Remarkably, Steinmetz's 1st Army actually marched directly onto the roads reserved for the 2nd Army and severed the 2nd from its forward units. This not only obstructed the 2nd (the largest of the three Prussian field armies, and the schwerpunkt of the operation) but also threatened to create a colossal traffic jam as the two armies' massive supply trains (miles upon miles of horse drawn carts) turned into a snarl.

Let us allow historian Geoffery Wawro to succinctly describe this bizarre and potentially catastrophic incident:

Thus began a ludicrus episode in the Franco-Prussian war: the smallest of the three armies, never intended to play more than a supporting role, blocked the principal army's way forward and ventured off to do battle with 60,000, potentially 120,000 French troops. To Moltke's amazement, Steinmetz was risking a large fraction of the Prussian army and ruining the attempted Kesselschlacht [encirclement] on the Saar.

A Major in Moltke's staff made a measured remark in his diary that "Headquarters is beginning to regret Steinmetz's appointment." One can only imagine the swearing from Moltke and his team - surely there was a great deal of scheisse in the air. As for Prince Friedrich Karl - the commander of the 2nd Army, who now had to wait in agony for Steinmetz to get out his way - he was apoplectic, and allegedly wept that "Steinmetz has ruined my beautiful plans."

With the chance at a clean, cohesive maneuver wrecked by Steinmetz's imprudent move directly into 2nd Army's line of advance, the first week of the war collapsed into a series of disjointed, but nearly identical discovery battles on the frontier. These battles elucidated the emerging pattern of this war.

Prussian units would veritably bump into the French, and their commanders would eagerly launch an attack without having a good sense of the French disposition or strength. Prussian commanders would hurl their entire unit into the attack without knowing whether they were facing a French brigade, division, or even a whole corps. As a result, the Prussians usually started the day badly outnumbered and ended it with the situation reversed, as more and more Prussian units spilled onto the field.

At Worth, for example, General Hugo von Kirchbach threw his 10th Division in against the entire French 1st Corps (containing no less than 5 divisions). Casualties were enormous on the Prussian side thanks to the exorbitant range of the French Chassepot rifles; Prussian infantry were shredded from what they considered to be impossible distances. However, the battle slowly turned against the French as that single Prussian division turned into a whole corps, and eventually four corps, which poured artillery fire on the French and forced a withdrawal. This had a quintessentially Napoleonic quality to it - the first unit on the scene attacks, and every other unit in the vicinity marches at high speed to join the fight, creating a battle that swells in size throughout the day.

The frontier battles fought in the first week of the war were something of a mixed bag. Moltke was deprived of a single decisive battle, as he had wished, but he did succeed in mauling several French corps - in the wake of their withdrawal, the door into France was open. Tactically, these frontier engagements had revealed that the Chassepot gave the French a disturbing firepower advantage. French rifle fire was effective at 1000 yards, while the Prussian needle guns could scarcely achieve half that. This problem could only be counteracted by massing Prussia's superior artillery - steel, breach loading Krupp guns that hilariously outclassed France's aging bronze artillery arsenal. This odd technological disjoint created a unique tactical incongruity, which resulted in the vast majority of Prussian casualties (upwards of 70%) being inflicted by rifle fire, while artillery did most of the damage against the French. After-battle casualty reports from the French noted that nearly two thirds of those wounded or killed by artillery were hit in the back - implying that they were laying face down, trying to shelter from the barrage when they were struck.

Prussian infantry attack - painted by Ernst Zimmer

With the first week providing inconclusive results, the war entered a brief lull as the French withdrew to lick their wounds, and the Prussians sorted themselves back out into marching columns to resume the plunge into France. It was at this point that Prussia's true advantage became manifest - decisiveness.

The French had two main field bodies at this point. The main mass of the Army of the Rhine under Marshal François Achille Bazaine had consolidated and anchored itself on the fortress at Metz, while the 1st Corps under Marshal Patrice MacMahon, which was chewed up after its action on the frontier, had withdrawn deper into the French interior. French command wasted an entire week in indecision. Eventually, MacMahon's corps retired west to Chalons, where it was designated to be reinforced and become the foundation of a new "Army of Chalons", while the Army of the Rhine was inexplicably allowed to sit idly at Metz, doing absolutely nothing.

This was a curious moment. The correct thing for the French to do at this point was to more or less write off Metz and the entire eastern rimland, pull the Army of the Rhine back to the west and anchor it either on Chalons, Riems, or Paris, where it could receive reinforcements, sensibly defend from behind a river, and stabilize its supply lines. Moltke could hardly believe that the French would let 160,000 men simply sit in such an exposed position, but it was good luck that they had. All the intelligence suggested that Bazaine and his enormous force were, in fact, simply parked at Metz. Moltke quickly ordered the entire army to turn as fast as they could and converge on Metz - but as they rushed to the scene, on August 15, Bazaine finally, at long last, began to stir his army to withdraw from Metz and retreat towards the west. The Prussians were too late.

But not entirely. One Prussian Corps - the III Corps, of 2nd Army - was within range. Operating on typically vague intelligence, the commander of III Corps, General Constantine von Alvensleben, observed French columns moving away from Metz towards the west. Presuming that this was merely the French rearguard (he rationally assumed that the French could not possibly have only just begun their retreat), he ordered an attack at once. In fact, III Corps had not bumped into the French rearguard, but the main body of the enormous Army of the Rhine.

The Battle of Mars-la-Tour, by Emil Hünten

Thus began one of the strangest battles of the war, and indeed of the modern era. A single Prussian corps, with no solid sense of the enemy's strength and location, animated only by the instinctive attacking spirit of its commander, launched an attack on an entire French field army. Alvensleben had naught but two infantry divisions in his command, and here he was beginning a battle against a French army that had no fewer than sixteen divisions in the immediate vicinity. As if to underscore the disparity, Alvensleben began the battle by flinging his 5th Infantry Division directly at the enemy, inadvertently attacking the three division strong French II Corps. One division against three; a single corps against five. This was the Battle of Mars-la-Tour.

Bazaine had a real chance to completely crush a Prussian corps and then resume his withdraw to the west. Instead, he exhibited the same passivity and inactivity that had led him to sit idly at Metz for an entire week. Alvensleben's two infantry divisions - being generous, a combined 30,000 men - both attacked, each one ramming into an entire French corps. Bazaine had at least 120,000 men at his disposal - two of his corps (III and IV) were not even engaged. It would have been trivially easy for the French to launch a counterattack and annihilate the lonely Prussian corps. Instead, the French were content to simply sit in their positions and shoot back at the attacking Prussians. Their rifle fire, as ever, was murderously effective, but they squandered an ideal opportunity. The spectacle of an entire army sitting in a defensive stance against a single corps would come to haunt the French soon.

Alvensleben and his stoic divisions managed to hold on for most of the day, until the timely arrival of X Corps - the closest Prussian unit when the day began - managed to provide some modicum of stability. But even so, the passivity of the French was inexcusable, and they wasted a golden opportunity.

Mars-la-Tour was an extremely bloody battle. Both sides took something like 15,000 casualties - again, French rifles and Prussian artillery doing the most damage. It was, however, an unmitigated disaster for France. At the end of the day, Bazaine withdrew back to the fortress at Metz. Alvensleben had acted in the purest sort of Prussian tradition, impetuously attacking a force at least four times larger than his own, but in doing so (with the help of Bazaine's complacency and lethargy) he had disrupted the French retreat to the west and created the time needed for the remainder of the army to arrive.

After fighting the bloody battle of Mars-la-Tour on August 16 and withdrawing to Metz, the French now had to fight what was more or less a rematch two days later - only this time, instead of facing only the Prussian III Corps, Bazaine would have to face the combined mass of Prussia's 1st and 2nd Armies, which arrived in full during the intervening period.

Needless to say, Bazaine's decision to retire back into Metz has been roundly criticized. The absolute priority had to be extracting his army to the west - to save it from being trapped, but the Marshal, for reasons that remain unclear even to this day, remained lethargic, uncertain, and - dare we even say - afraid. Some of his subordinates would later even accuse him of treason. He certainly had ample opportunities to leave Metz. He had an entire week (roughly from August 8-15) in which he could have withdrawn without a fight, then after Mars-la-Tour on the 16th he could have withdrawn westward toward Verdun, rather than going back into the Metz fortress. Even as late as the 17th, with the Prussians closing in, the road to Sedan to the northwest was wide open. Instead, he simply sat, uselessly, pathetically, hiding under the protection of the Metz fortress, until 180,000 Prussians had arrived on his doorstep.

The situation was seemingly clear to everyone except the Bazaine, who has marveled both contemporaries and historians with his utter inadequacy for command. Moltke, for his part, could not believe that the French were languishing at Metz for so long. The Austrian military attaché in Paris reported to his superiors in Vienna that "France can win only if Bazaine avoids decisive battle in Lorraine [Metz] and retreats to Paris." The British attaché in France agreed, and wrote that "The importance of the French being able to concentrate at Chalons is enormous… if Bazaine is cut off, it would be a regular disaster, for there would be no force left to rally round, and nothing could then stop the march of the Prussians on Paris."

Everyone understood except Bazaine. So, he found himself on August 18 fighting another battle on virtually the exact same ground where Mars-la-Tour had been fought two days earlier, this time against the mass of the Prussian 1st and 2nd Armies. This rematch is called the Battle of Gravelotte, after a village a mere 6 miles east of Mars la Tour.

Gravelotte was horrific. It pitted parallel, symmetrical lines against each other. Five Prussian corps against five French corps; 200,000 Prussians supported by 730 artillery pieces against 160,000 French with their 520 cannon. Moltke began with a notion of some sort of pinning and flanking maneuver, but the battle quickly devolved into brutal frontal assaults. The impetuous aggression of Prussia's field commanders once again resulted in costly attacks in the face of deadly Chassepot fire, but once again Prussia's superior artillery helped to even the odds. Some 270 Prussian guns were hauled up into a massive battery, which fired over 20,000 shells at the center of the French line. All the familiar motifs were there, and even some familiar characters. In fact, Moltke's plan for a flanking maneuver broke down almost instantly because none other than General Steinmetz (who else?) ignored Moltke's instructions and launched a frontal attack almost immediately, like an attack dog with a broken leash.

Gravelotte was artless, brutal, and ugly. I shall not even bother to map it, as a diagram would simply insult the intelligence of my readers. Simply picture two giant rectangles colliding. The Prussians came out rather the worse for wear, suffering 20,000 casualties against perhaps 13,000 French losses, but in the end concentrated artillery fire and persistent attacks managed to crack a hole in the French line, which forced Bazaine to retreat - yet again - into Metz. One French officer ruefully described the battle thusly:

We were the superior infantry, but that made no difference, for throughout we were just cannon meat for the Prussian batteries.


The Cemetery of St. Privat by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville

Murderously effective Chassepot fire had certainly done its part, and the Prussians paid dearly for the battle. Among their casualties were nearly 50% of the elite Guards Corps. In fact, upon learning of the damage done to his beloved Guards (where many of his cousins had become casualties serving as officers), King Wilhelm lamented what he believed to be a defeat and initially refused to believe it when Moltke told him that the battle had been a success. In fact, they had won the war.

Bazaine's army was bloodied but intact. The larger problem, however, was that they had nowhere to go. Having retreated yet again into the fortress of Metz, they were now trapped. Those 20,000 Prussian casualties had been the price to block the French line of retreat and bottle up the Army of the Rhine for good. Bazaine and his army would spend the rest of their war besieged within Metz - a fortress with barely enough supplies to last a month. In fact, Metz was decidedly understocked on both food, rifle ammunition, and artillery shells. This fact made Bazaine's conduct of the campaign all the more confusing - given the parlous state of the Metz supply depots, the fortress obviously threatened to be a trap rather than an indominable stronghold.

Tasked with the command of France's primary field army, Bazaine had accomplished exactly nothing - he sat idly during the crucial weeks of the war as the Prussians moved in on him, then made a lethargic, half-hearted attempt to withdraw to the west, allowing himself to be blocked by a single Prussian corps. Then at Gravelotte, he traded blood with the Prussians and retreated yet again into his fortress to fester. On October 27, after exactly 39 days under siege, Bazaine would surrender along with his remaining 150,000 men.

For Moltke, the opening campaign had been an adventure, equal parts exhilarating, frustrating, and fortuitous. His comments about the impossibility of accurately planning out an entire operation were strongly prescient, as the unlikely and unpredictable decisions of both his own field commanders and the enemy threw the entire campaign into chaos. First came the questionable French decision to launch a half-hearted attack at the opening bell for propaganda purposes - this offered up much of the French field army in a vulnerable position. An attempt to capitalize then came off the rails due to Steinmetz's unfortunate choice to march his forces directly into the path of 2nd Army, jamming up the Prussian advance. Stymied by Steinmetz, Moltke was then given a second chance to bag the Army of the Rhine when Bazaine decided to lay at Metz like a weak willed slug, marinating in his own indecision.

Marshal Bazaine - a cowardly, indecisive, utterly inadequate man

All the complicating elements were at play here. Moltke had to contend with confounding decisions by both the enemy and his own subordinates, all layered in the uncertainty and confusion of command and control in the 19th century. Yet he managed, just barely, to bend the battlefield to his will. Desperately wheeling the army as quickly as he could towards Metz, he succeeded - with the help of Bazaine's spineless wavering - in trapping the French in the fortress and bottling up France's main field army after only a few weeks of campaigning.

Above all, this opening campaign illustrated the deep tension undergirding this increasingly modern way of war. Moltke vs Steinmetz; rational planning vs violent emotion; the best laid plans of the general staff vs the instinctive aggression of field commanders who wanted to attack anything in their path. Even more disturbingly, however, the Chassepot had begun to raise questions about the efficacy of attacking at all. Entire battalions were shredded by French rifle fire, and it was only the might of those wonderful Krupp howitzers that was able to equalize things. For a Prussian army that lived and died by the attack, this was troubling indeed.

For the time being, however, Moltke - with generous help from Bazaine and Krupp - was still able to make the whole thing hum. His field commanders remained committed to the preternatural aggression of their forebears - keeping in mind that simple adage of Frederick the Great: "The Prussian army always attacks." That remained as true as ever, with commanders at the division, corps, and army level all eagerly throwing themselves at French units far above their weight class. Moltke was never able to constrain this impulse - but he could steer it on the operational level and exert just enough control over it to win decisive victories, proving that Prussia's hyper-aggressive style was still in business.

Unfortunately for France, Napoleon III was determined to prove that the French Army was still in business too.


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