Big Serge Thoughts

Big Serge Thoughts
26 Sep 2023 | 8:23 pm

1. Apex Predator: The American Army in Normandy

The assault on Normandy On June 6, 1944 is likely the single most dramatized moment in American military history. It has so far been depicted in three famous big budget productions - the amphibious landings in Saving Private Ryan, the airborne drop in Band of Brothers, and the entire package in the 1962 war epic, The Longest Day. With the addition of countless video game adaptations and the deeply entrenched trope of Greatest Generation lore that permeates American culture and politics, it is safe to say that Americans have a stronger impression of the D-Day landings than they do any other event in the American martial tradition.

This makes it rather difficult to discuss the battle for Normandy in an emotionally neutral light. Some people want to center the discussion on the beach because it is familiar, but this stems from a sort of childlike desire to hear our favorite stories told again. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it is not particular interesting from an intellectual or historical standpoint. Others, from outside the American perspective, like to hear Normandy debunked or retold - either because they are tired of the Anglo-Canadians being shoved aside or left out of the heroics, or because they are tired of American supremacy and want to diminish past American glories. Perhaps these are understandable impulses, but again they fail to be very interesting.

Normandy ought to instead be thought of as a major departure in the trajectory of the American armed forces. As we previously discussed, early American attempts to go toe to toe with the Wehrmacht went rather poorly, with US forces leaning heavily on superior firepower to salvage botched operational situations. The Kasserine Pass, in particular, was a harrowing experience for rookie American troops, and the famous biopic Patton begins with American forces in Africa languishing in a sorry state, with the titular General being rushed in to whip them into shape.

In Normandy, however, the US Army was transformed into an entirely different sort of animal. Rather than frantically calling in firepower to stabilize tenuous situations, the Americans developed operational techniques that simply crushed the Germans, running through them "like crap through a goose", as Patton put it. The Wehrmacht always prided itself on its superior prowess in maneuver and its dominance in fluid operations, but in Normandy they were surpassed, humiliated, and destroyed in a campaign which launched the United States into its era of military supremacy and unparalleled swagger.

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We can broadly think of America's operational conduct of the war against Germany as occurring in two distinct phases. The first phase, essentially comprising the campaign in North Africa and the early encounters in Italy, revolved around learning how to contend with the German panzer package - in these initial operations, American forces faced a steep learning curve in combat against a veteran and lethal Wehrmacht, and American commanders in places like the Kasserine Pass or the beaches at Salerno tended to lean heavily on America's awesome reservoirs of firepower as an answer to more agile and decisive German forces. This first phase could be thought of as a reactive stage, with the Germans doing most of the maneuvering and the Americans using superior firepower and air assets to counter them.

In the second phase, the US Army emerged as a first class combined arms force in its own right, capable of moving like lightening when it wanted to. Having first learned in the Mediterranean theater that they had the assets in the toolbox to paralyze the Wehrmacht and beat off its attacks, the American forces in France would demonstrate a potent capacity of their own to maneuver and to deploy a devastating assault package. In other words, 1942-43 was about learning to defeat the German armored force and suffocate German maneuver, and 1944-45 was about the US Army learning to maneuver in its own way. Armies are, after all, learning and evolving organisms, and the US Army that fought in France was in many ways unrecognizable from the inexperienced force that had washed ashore in Africa.

Before we can look at the specifics of the American operations in France, it may be fruitful to note two idiosyncrasies of the US Army as it relates to operational maneuver - namely, that it was both materially easy and frequently unnecessary.

On the first count, we ought to note that of all the combatants in World War Two, the United States had by far the easiest time with mechanization and motorization, speaking from a technical perspective. America is one of the great oil producing nations of the world - and this was especially true in the 1930's, when middle eastern production was not yet unleashed. At the outbreak of war, the USA was responsible for over half of the world's oil production. As a result, American was a highly motorized society, with mass adoption of the private car and commercial trucking, and a correspondingly titanic automobile industry.

The upshot of all this was that uniquely among all the belligerent parties, the United States found it almost trivially easy to motorize its ground forces - churning out trucks, halftracks, recovery vehicles, and jeeps by the tens of thousands. This made the order of battle against the Germans oddly asymmetrical; whereas the Wehrmacht had to carefully count and curate its precious mobile formations - the Panzer, Panzergrenadier, Light, and Motorized Infantry divisions - the US Army never needed these designations simply because the mass of its Infantry Divisions were motorized by default. The US Army, also most unlike the Germans, further benefitted from an enormous truck lift capacity - the idea of using livestock to haul crates of ammunition or drums of fuel up to frontline units was completely alien to Americans. As an organically motorized force, the US Army simply had no need to think deeply about how to allocate mechanized units.

American Made

What all of this meant, in a word, was that the US Army could move like lightning when it wanted to. Unlike the Wehrmacht, this was not a military that was conditioned to be constantly looking for seams and space to move; by nature, the American army was a firepower intensive organism that chewed through the enemy with fearsome material superiority and front-width offensives. However, when opportunities presented themselves and delicious gaps emerged in the German position, the Americans could move faster than anybody in the business, with fully motorized infantry, fuel to spare, and an overawing air force that could extend combat support deep into the battle space.

The Germans would learn that, despite their vast experience and competence fighting mobile operations, this would be a dangerous game to play with the late war American Army. This was truly a case of "give them an inch and they'll take a mile" - a small breach could quickly turn into a catastrophe given the latent American powers of mobility, especially when a hard driving commander like Patton was at the wheel.

Bradley Breaks Through: Operation Cobra

At this point, a quick editorial note and perhaps an apology is due. While the most well known and pivotal moment in the Anglo-American 1944 campaigns was the famous invasion of Normandy and especially the landings of June 6, it is not my intention to discuss them in great detail here. Our focus in this series has been on operational maneuver, and the D-Day landings do not fit this theme - they will feature in a subsequent series on naval and amphibious operations.

I think that it is probably not necessary to expend great energy on the landings at this point. While the scene on the beach is the most famous vignette of the war in the west - and in particular for Americans - it may come as a surprise that the landings were without question the easiest stage in the battle for Normandy. Only one of the five landing beaches (Omaha) was especially well defended (allied intelligence had failed to detect the presence of the German 352nd Infantry Division at Omaha), and the other beaches saw allied forces get ashore with relatively little difficulty. Contrary to the popular myth that the Germans failed to counterattack because Hitler was sleeping in, there was only a single panzer division (the 21st) anywhere in proximity to the landing beaches on June 6th, and its attempts to organize an adequate counterattack were utterly foiled by a mixture of allied air power and naval gunnery.

Thus, the events of D-Day itself were relatively drama free, from an operational perspective. In contrast to the usual impression of carnage (which was certainly real enough to the men who fought through it on Omaha Beach) the landings were achieved with only a fraction of the expected casualties, and a vastly superior allied force more or less swatted away the overmatched German resistance. In fact, apart from Omaha Beach, allied losses were shockingly light - over 150,000 men came ashore on the first day at a cost of perhaps 10,000 total casualties, of whom less than half were killed. Given the scale of this war, in which millions were dying annually, this was a small sum - and the shine of the victory was made even brighter in light of the fact that the Germans had been preparing their "Atlantic Wall" for nearly two years with pretensions of defending at the water's edge. Instead, the German defense was bashed open in a single day with low allied casualties. This was a great victory.

The mood among allied command on June 7th, therefore, was much closer to euphoria than to gloom. The sense was that losses had been light and the time had come to build momentum. Instead, the allies ran into trouble almost as soon as they began to push out from the beach.

The initial German response to the D-Day landings was initially a bit scattered, largely because German planners expected the Allies to land at Calais, where they could seize an operational port. Even with allied troops pouring ashore in huge numbers, there was still some question in German brains as to whether Normandy was only a diversion. Notwithstanding these doubts, the nervous system of the Wehrmacht was still capable of lighting fast reactions, and by the end of June 6 there were already German units beginning to scramble into the battlespace, fighting fiercely. Within the first week the Germans had established a more or less coherent defensive line, and at no point did the allies threaten to immediately break out directly from Normandy into the open.

German motorized forces rush to Normandy to stabilize the front

There were, of course, already signs that the brewing fight would not go well for the Germans. On paper, the Germans had an extremely powerful armored force in France - the Wehrmacht had, after all, chosen specifically to accumulate panzer assets in the west for the purpose of countering the allied landing. A comprehensive inventory revealed nine Panzer divisions and a single Panzergrenadier division, armed with some 1,400 armored vehicles. The tip of the spear was the 1st SS Panzer Corps, armed to the teeth with privileged access to new equipment and recruits.

On the tactical level, German Panzer forces - and especially the veteran heavy Panzer regiments with their Tigers and Panthers - were the best assets in the war, and therefore on paper the prospect of nine panzer divisions crashing into Normandy ought to have been terrifying to the allies.

Wars, however, are not fought on paper, and the Germans found it much harder to deploy to the front than the lines on the map would suggest. To begin with, the Panzer forces were scattered all over France, and rushing them all into Normandy would have been difficult even under ideal circumstances, which these certainly were not. The allies enjoyed total air supremacy from the outset, and this fact greatly complicated the movement of the German approach columns. Commanders were obliged to distribute their forces across a variety of different routes and do most of their marching at night. The mere sound of aircraft in the area was enough to make German columns bail off the road and take cover under trees, and everywhere there were wrecked bridges and shell-holed roads.

So while the Wehrmacht would have preferred - and indeed they tried - to rush their Panzers to Normandy and crush the Allied bridgehead, the arrival of German reinforcements was more like a trickle which could not get quickly organized for concentrated action, and most units arrived having already taken losses to allied aircraft along the way. To take but one example, the commander of Panzer Lehr Division, General Fritz Bayerlein, arrived in Normandy with his staff to discover that he was out of contact with both his Panzers (which were slowly dribbling into the area in dispersed columns) and his Corps commander, Sepp Dietrich, because Dietrich had also recently arrived and was still setting up his command post at some as yet unknown location. A General unable to either give or receive orders because he did not know where either his division or his corps commander were: emblematic of an army struggling to operate under a hostile sky.

Panzer Lehr Division arrives in Normandy

German reinforcements trickling into the theater in a steady stream; allied forces coming ashore in ever greater numbers - a potentially combustible mixture, but the outcome satisfied nobody. Both forces at this point had ambitions of some sort of decisive engagement. The allies had notions of breaking out of Normandy quickly, and the Germans wanted to get forces in place quickly to counterattack and "drive them into the sea", as the formulation went, but neither army could achieve what it wanted. Instead, German units arrived in theater too slowly to squash the beachhead (not that this would have been possible anyway, given allied naval artillery and aircraft) but quickly enough to wall the allies off in Normandy. Instead of breaking out to the south, the allies found themselves painstakingly carving out a position some 20 miles deep and 65 miles long.

The Normandy battlespace at the end of June had acquired a rather peculiar and quaint character, with a strange degree of symmetry. Two German armies had arrived on the line and now stood abreast across from two allied armies, locked in a positional struggle. On the west end of the line, German 7th Army faced the US 1st Army, and to the east 5th Panzer Army blocked the British 2nd Army.

It was at this juncture, as the front began to cohere, that the allied campaign was stymied by sheer rotten luck and oversight.

There had never been any particular reasoning that went into the allied deployment pattern, which had the Anglo-Canadian forces landing on the easternmost beaches and the Americans landing in the west. The assignment of the beaches had been simply an extension of the way that allied forces were arranged pre-invasion in England. British forces had been staged in southeastern England around areas like Dover and Brighton (indeed, many had been there since the end of 1940, in anticipation of a potential German cross-channel invasion) and the arriving Americans simply set up shop along the western part of the channel coast where there was room, nearer to ports like Dartmouth, Portland, and Poole. To avoid tangling up the invasion force, the assignment of beaches simply mirrored the staging in England, so that the Americans remained on the allied right (to the west) and the British remained on the left.

This seems all well and good - a simple practicality. However, the arrangement of the allied line proved to be of great consequence, because once they tried to push off the beach they discovered that there was nothing symmetrical about the terrain at all. On the allied left (the eastern, British zone), Normandy opens up onto an idyllic rolling plain, interspersed by small hamlets and the occasional orchard or tree line - in other words, the ideal terrain for mechanized operations.

Western Normandy, however, was the veritable opposite - a nightmarish patchwork of small farms and fields separated from each other by the legendary hedgerows. The latter are dense, intergrown hedges comprised of variegated trees, shrubs, bushes, and ivies, frequently planted on top of earthen embankments. While the term "hedge" may invoke the image of delightful topiary, in Normandy they were mighty tangles of plant matter some 10-12 feet high and several feet thick. In times of peace hedgerows have the dual effect of both fencing in the pastures and farmlands - conveniently marking the boundaries between properties and keeping livestock confined - and sheltering the fields from the wind. In 1944, however, the hedgerows served to compartmentalize the battlefield into thousands of tiny fortresses, ringed with dense shrubbery which could conceal firing positions, machine guns, antitank emplacements, and marksmen, and which were frequently so thick that even tanks could not easily pass through them.

The Hedgerows

Thus, while the British faced an open plain ideal for mechanized maneuver, the Americans on the allied right faced little more than an enormous siege and the prospect of endlessly trying to reduce German positions in small unit actions - a handful of squads, a machine gun and a mortar on each side, one field at a time.

The difference between the two sectors of front could hardly have been more stark. It can literally be seen on satellite imagery; western Normandy is a deep and verdant green, and close inspection reveals small pastures and fields latticed with hedges, while eastern Normandy is a tawny plain of rolling wheat fields. For all purposes, these were two entirely different battlespaces.

Satellite Imagery of Normandy Terrain. On the left, the hedgerows of the American front, and on the right the wheat fields around Caen on the British front.

The problem for the allies was that they were deployed in the opposite of the ideal arrangement. The American Army was, for obvious reasons, the far more vigorous, rich, and powerful force. America was far richer and more potentially powerful than Britain in baseline calculations, and in any case Britain had been fighting the war for five years by this point, had taken far more casualties, lost far more material, and was generally running low on replacements and maneuver assets. This tended to make the entire British army increasingly casualty-averse, cautious, and tired.

Thus, the lower-energy ally - less able to take advantage of favorable maneuver terrain - was the one lined up on the open plain, while the ally with far more combat power and fighting energy was trapped in the hedgerow country, facing an excruciating positional battle. In contrast, the Germans did deploy their assets in something approximating an optimal way. The Wehrmacht rushed its premiere assets - the panzer units - to plug the open terrain to the east, putting a tired and apprehensive British force face to face with a wall of Panzer divisions.

The result of the disastrous allied deployment was an almost immediate stalling out of the Normandy operation and mounting casualties, with both Americans and British running into severe difficulties of very different kinds.

For the Americans, the problem was the unimaginable difficulty of slogging through the hedgerows, which afforded tremendous advantages to the German defenders concealed beneath the foliage. In contrast to our general impression of the Normandy beaches as the scene of the great drama, it was only after the Americans got off the beach and into the bocage (as the hedgerow country is sometimes called) that casualties began to explode - and explode they did. In the six weeks following the landing, frontline American infantry divisions suffered 60 percent casualty rates among their enlisted men and 70 percent among the officers. The worst damage, by far, was suffered by the 90th Division, which lost a whopping 90 percent of its rifle platoon personnel and endured a mind-boggling 150 percent casualty rate among its company grades (lieutenants and captains) - a number which essentially implies full attrition plus 50 percent losses among replacements. In total, the US Army took some 40,000 casualties in the weeks following the landing - a price which bought them a grinding, exhausting, infuriating advance of some 20 miles.

American Infantry among the Hedgerows

To the left of the Americans, the British had an equally difficult time, but for a very different reason. The British faced terrain friendly to the attack, but they shared the space with no less than nine panzer divisions which, in a word, soundly defeated every British attempt to break out. In particular, the British found that trying their luck in close quarters against the German heavy panzer battalions was a horrific idea.

The mismatch found its ultimate expression on the morning of June 13, when an entire British armored brigade found itself mixing things up in the little town of Villers-Bocage with Waffen-SS Lieutenant Michael Wittman of the 501st SS Heavy Tank Battalion. Wittman managed to take the British by surprise as they advanced up the road in a column - a pair of shots from his Tiger destroyed the lead British tanks and trapped the remainder on the road; Wittman and the rest of his company then drove parallel to the paralyzed column, firing as they went. Eventually, Wittman drove into the column, shooting several tanks and simply running over smaller vehicles. The Tiger shooting spree must have seemed like an eternity to the British warriors trapped in its fury, but the entire thing took less than fifteen minutes, at the end of which some 24 tanks, nine halftracks, and a few dozen trucks, cars, and guns had been destroyed by Wittman and his company.

This was a microcosm of the basic problem - the British could not cope with the tactical superiority of the elite Panzer units (which remained the best mechanized forces in the war, man for man and tank for tank), while the Americans had been tragically deployed in a secondary section of front characterized by impossible terrain. As a result, by the beginning of July neither allied force had captured its first major objective in Normandy (Caen for the British, St. Lo for the Americans).

Normandy: General Situation, July 1, 1944

Now, perhaps all of this may give the impression that the Germans were winning. They were not. The front had coagulated into a grinding, attritional struggle that cost the allies high casualties and slowed their advance. That much is all true. The issue was that the attrition cut both ways, and of course the Germans could not afford that burden in the long run. Even in the area around Caen, where the SS Panzer Divisions fought viciously and brilliantly and repeatedly defeated British attempts to take the city, the math was simply bad news for the Wehrmacht. These Panzer forces were, after all, the single most valuable asset still in the German stable, and here they were being used for positional defense. Even a successful defense was hardly consolation for the fact that the Germans were using their precious panzer divisions not for some decisive counterattack, but simply to hold a positional defense against an enemy with far more time, men, material, and firepower than they. This was a classic scenario in which a series of tactical successes adds up to an operational disaster.

Both the allies and the Germans, therefore, had a strong desire to unlock the front. The Germans wanted to restore mobility to the theater so that they could seek some sort of decisive battle, and the allies wanted to break out so that there might at last be room to fully deploy their superior fighting power. By mid-July, there was already a backlog of 250,000 men and a whopping 58,000 vehicles loitering in Britain simply because there was not enough room in the Normandy beachhead to deploy them.

The task of solving this problem, on the allied side, fell upon General Omar Bradley, field commander of the US First Army. The solution that he landed on was rather fascinating, on a conceptual level, in that it combined the emerging motif of overwhelming American firepower with a concentrated and echeloned attack - in other words, an American version of Soviet Deep Battle.

Bradley resolved to select a narrow section of German front and crush it. The ensuing plan, named Operation Cobra, had two critical elements - namely, assembling a powerful, two-wave mechanized package, and planning an overwhelming aerial bombardment to pulverize the Germans in the sector selected for breaching. We can review the two elements in turn.

The professional and workmanlike Omar Bradley - less famous than the bombastic Patton, but the greatest architect of America's ground war

On the ground, Bradley organized an extremely powerful assault force, arranged in a way that would have been intimately familiar to Soviet planners. The first wave consisted of three infantry divisions, assembled on a very narrow front - 6,000 yards wide in total, or just 2,000 yards per division. Although labeled "infantry divisions", the US Army (as we have mentioned) was able to equip these formations with a level of mechanization and firepower that far surpassed its competitors. The second wave, slated to exploit the breach in the German lines once it was opened, consisted of two armored divisions and an additional infantry division. Altogether, this six division package was designated US 7th Corps under General Joseph Collins, but in terms of fighting power this was essentially a full field army rather than a corps.

The arrangement of 7th Corps for Cobra looked virtually identical to the way the Red Army liked to stage for offensive operations, with two groupings - which the Soviets would have called Echelons - including a firepower-intensive breaching force in the first wave and a heavily armored and fully motorized exploitation force in the second wave. Bradley had, simply as an improvised battlefield expedient, laid the groundwork for the American equivalent of deep battle - but he would make it even more deadly, thanks to America's uniquely unlimited ability to expend explosive ordnance.

The potent striking power of US 7th Corps was to be paired with one of the most awesome displays of airpower in the entire war, and indeed in history. Bradley had identified a 6,000 yard wide section of German front (a little under 3.5 miles). He now marked a rectangle around this sector on the map and asked the air force to absolutely plaster it with explosives.

Unfortunately, there was some controversy when it came to the bombing program.

The frontline essentially ran along the main east-west highway out of the town of Saint Lo, with the Germans and Americans glaring at each other from opposite sides of the road. This would be an extremely congested operating environment, not only on the ground, but in the air as well. The total strike package assigned for Operation Cobra included no less than 2,200 aircraft, including 1,500 heavy four-engine bombers. These planes would be asked to plaster a target area of only five square miles - affectionally dubbed "the carpet." The potential for mistakes would be huge with so many planes airborne at the same time, trying to hit a small target that was only a few hundred yards away from American ground forces.

Medium bombers approach the carpet

Bradley wanted to use the east-west road as a visual marker to reduce the potential for screwups. He viewed the road as a clear marker of the frontline that would be easily visible from the air, and he wanted the air force to fly parallel to the road, making their bombing runs on a west to east orientation. This would maximize their time over German positions and ensure that they did not overfly Bradley's own assault force in its staging areas. The air force, however, was less than enthusiastic about this proposition - maximizing their time over the Germans also meant maximizing their exposure to flak. Bradley's request for a parallel run was overridden, and the air force planned to approach the kill box perpendicularly - that is, flying over the top of Bradley's ground forces.

The start of the operation, slated for July 23rd, could not have been more ominous. As the enormous aerial strike force began to take to the skies, they spotted a storm blowing in and were recalled to base. One squadron of bombers somehow failed to receive the return to base order and began their bombing run, but they missed the kill box altogether and bombed positions of the US 30th Infantry Division. After waiting for the bad weather to clear out, Cobra was restarted on July 25th, and the first wave of American bombers once again released their payloads too soon and again bombed Bradley's ground forces. In one of the more gutting twists of the war, this friendly-fire bombing killed the Commander of US Army Ground Forces, General Lesley McNair, who had gone to the frontline to encourage and inspect his boys. Thus, the highest ranking American officer to be killed in the European theater was killed by the US Army Air Force.

However, the bombers which accidentally dropped on their own positions were a tiny minority of the enormous Cobra strike. The great remainder roared over the designated carpet and began to transform it into a killing zone. A cloud of heavy, four-engine bombers - 1,500 in all - formed a death storm over the kill box and dropped a grand total of 60,000 bombs in the space of an hour: 1,000 bombs per minute, mostly 100 pound fragmentation bombs, every minute, without ceasing. Once the enormous bombing program had ended, Bradley's ground force opened up with over 1,000 artillery pieces just to make sure the Germans were awake, and the tanks and infantry poured in. The enormous bombardment caught major elements of three German divisions - Panzer Lehr Division, 2nd Panzer, and 5th Fallschirmjager (airborne) - in an apocalyptic firestorm. Bradley had specifically requested the use of fragmentation bombs so that the roads would not be too cratered for his tanks and trucks to use, but the sheer mass of the bombing was sufficient to cause huge casualties and leave most of the German defenders completely stunned and incapable of resisting the ground assault.

Operation Cobra made liberal use of "Rhino" tanks equipped with plows for ramming through the hedges

The commander of Panzer Lehr Division, General Fritz Bayerlein, endured the American carpet bombing and gave one of the best accounts of what it is like to live through such an intense battering. There was no thought of resisting or taking any action other than hiding; he recalled looking to the sky and seeing the storm of bombers heading towards him, and then only a mad scramble as everyone ran for cover. The following hour was entirely disorienting, with zero visibility or communication possible amid the smoke, dust, and intense noise. By the time the bombing lifted, Beyerlein reported that his frontlines looked like the surface of the moon - "all craters and death" and he estimated that 70 percent of his personnel were either "dead, wounded, crazed, or dazed". Little wonder that Panzer Lehr caved in almost immediately as Operation Cobra's ground assault got underway.

Operation Cobra

After spending the first two days of the assault establishing and widening the breach in the German line, Bradley began to "insert the second echelon", as his Soviet allies would have put it. The insertion of the American armored divisions into the battle on July 27 is the signal event which tore the German front wide open and put the US Army on a wild drive into the German rear. The following day (July 28) they captured Coutances and overran Panzer Lehr's command post. On the 29th, they drove through Lehr's repair shop - deep in what should have been the division's rear area - and then out into open air. Normandy had been broken open.

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Big Serge Thoughts
29 Aug 2023 | 7:05 pm

2. Escaping Attrition: Ukraine Rolls the Dice

The Iconic Image of Ukraine's Summer Offensive

It has been a while since I published anything long-form commenting on the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, and I confess that writing this article gave me a modicum of trouble. Ukraine's much anticipated grand summer counteroffensive has now been underway for about eighty days with little to show for it. The summer has seen fierce fighting in a variety of sectors (to be enumerated below), but the contact line has shifted very little. I have been reluctant to publish a discussion of the Ukrainian campaign simply because they have continued to hold assets in reserve, and I did not want to post a premature commentary that went to press right before the Ukrainians showed some new trick or revealed a hidden ace up their sleeve. Sure enough, I wrote the bulk of this article last week, right before Ukraine launched yet another major attempt to force a breach in the Orikhiv sector.

At this point, however, the appearance of some of Ukraine's last remaining premier brigades, which had previously been held in reserve, confirms that the axes of Ukraine's attack are concretized. Only time will tell if these precious reserves manage to achieve a breach in the Russian lines, but enough time has passed that we can sketch out what exactly Ukraine has been trying to do, why, and why it has failed to this point.

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Part of the problem with narrating the war in Ukraine is the positional and attritional nature of the fighting. People continue to look for bold operational maneuver to break the deadlock, but the reality seems to be that for now some combination of capability and reticence has turned this war into a positional struggle with a plodding offensive pace, which far more resembles the first world war than the second.

Ukraine had aspirations of breaking open this grinding front and reopening mobile operations - escaping the attritional struggle and driving on operationally meaningful targets - but these efforts have so far come to naught. For all the lofty boasts of demonstrating the superior art of maneuver, Ukraine still finds itself trapped in a siege, painfully trying to break open a calcified Russian position without success.

Ukraine may not be interested in a war of attrition, but attrition is certainly interested in Ukraine.

Ukraine's Strategic Paradigm

For those that have been following the war closely, what follows will probably not be new information, but I think it is worth thinking holistically about Ukraine's war and the factors that drive their strategic decision making.

For Ukraine, the conduct of the war is shaped by a variety of disturbing strategic asymmetries.

Some of these are obvious, like Russia's much larger population and military industrial plant, or the fact that Russia's war economy is indigenous, while Ukraine is entirely reliant on western deliveries of equipment and munitions. Russia can autonomously ramp up armaments production and there are abundant signs from the battlefield that the Russian war economy is beginning to find its groove, with new systems like the Lancet present in increasing abundance, and western sources now admitting that Russia has successfully serialized a domestic version of the Iranian Shahed Drone. Furthermore, Russia has the asymmetrical capacity to strike Ukrainian rear areas to an extent that Ukraine cannot reciprocate, even if they are given the dreaded ATACMs (these will give Ukraine the range to strike operational depth targets in the theater, but they can't hit facilities in Moscow and Tula the way Russian missiles can strike anywhere in Ukraine).

Medvedev inspects a tank production run

With significant Russian asymmetries in population size, industrial capacity, strike capability, and - let us be blunt - sovereignty and decision-making freedom, an attritional-positional struggle is simply bad math for Ukraine, and yet that is precisely the sort of war in which it has become trapped.

What is important for us to understand, however, is that the strategic asymmetry goes beyond physical capacities like population base, industrial plant, and missile technology, and extends into the realm of strategic objectives and timelines.

Russia's war has been deliberately framed in a fairly open-ended way, with goals largely tied to the idea of "demilitarizing" Ukraine. In fact, Russia's territorial objectives remain rather nebulous beyond the 4 annexed oblasts (though it is safe to say that Moscow would like to acquire far more than just these). All that to say, Putin's government has deliberately framed the war as a military-technical enterprise focused on destroying the Ukrainian armed forces, and has shown itself to be perfectly free to give up territory in the name of operational prudentia.

In contrast, Ukraine has maximalist goals that are explicitly territorial in nature. The Zelensky government has been open about the fact that it aims - however fanciful this may be - to restore the entirety of its 1991 territories, including not just the four mainland oblasts but also Crimea.

The confluence of these two factors - Ukrainian territorial maximalism combined with asymmetrical Russian advantages in a positional-attritional struggle - forces Ukraine to seek a way to break open the front and restore a state of operational fluidity. Remaining locked in a positional struggle is unworkable for Kiev, partially because Russia's material advantages will inevitably shine through (in a fight between two big guys swinging big bats at each other, bet on the bigger guy with the bigger bat), and partially because a positional war (which amounts essentially to a massive siege) is simply not an efficient way to retake territory.

This leaves Ukraine with no choice but to unfreeze the front and try to restore mobile operations, with an eye towards creating some asymmetry of their own. The only feasible way to accomplish this is to launch an offensive aimed at severing critical lines of Russian communication and supply. Contrary to some suggestions that were popular this spring, a large Ukrainian offensive against Bakhmut or Donetsk simply did not fit the bill.

Frankly, there are only two suitable operational targets for Ukraine. One is Starobils'k - the beating heart at the center of Russia's Lugansk front. Capturing or screening Svatove and then Starobils'k would create a genuine operational catastrophe for Russia in the north, with cascading effects all the way down to Bakhmut. The second possible target was the land bridge to Crimea, which could be cut by a thrust across lower Zaporizhia towards the Azov coast.

It was probably inevitable that Ukraine would select the Azov option, for a few reasons. The land bridge to Crimea is a more self-contained battlespace - an offensive in Lugansk would occur under the shadow of the Belgorod and Voronezh regions of Russia, making it relatively more difficult to put significant Russian forces out of supply. Perhaps even more significant, however, is Kiev's complete obsession with Crimea and the Kerch Bridge - targets that hold hypnotic sway in a way that Starobils'k never could.

Again, this may sound like fairly intuitive review, but it's worth contemplating how and why Ukraine ended up launching an offensive that was widely telegraphed and expected. There was no strategic surprise whatsoever - a definitely real video of GUR chief Budanov smirking didn't fool anyone. The Russian armed forces certainly weren't fooled, as they spent months saturating the front with minefields, trenches, firing emplacements, and obstacles. Everyone knew that Ukraine was going to attack toward the Azov Coast, specifically with an eye towards Tokmak and Melitopol, and that's exactly what they did. A frontal attack against a prepared defense without the element of surprise is generally considered a poor choice, but here is Ukraine not only attempting such an attack but even launching it against a backdrop of global celebration and phantasmagorical expectations.

Ukraine's infantile plea for OPSEC

It's impossible to make sense of this without understanding the way that Ukraine is shackled by a particular interpretation of the war to this point. Ukraine and its supporters point to two successes in 2022 where Ukraine was able to retake a substantial swathe of territory, in Kharkov and Kherson oblasts. The problem is that neither of these situations is portable to Zaporizhia.

In the case of the Kharkov offensive, Ukraine identified a sector of the Russian front that had been hollowed out and was defended only by a thin screening force. They were able to stage a force and achieve a measure of strategic surprise, due to the thick forests and general paucity of Russian ISR in the area. This is not to mitigate the scale of Ukraine's success there; it was certainly the best uses of forces available to them and they did exploit a weak section of front. This success is hardly relevant to circumstances in the south today; mobilization has ameliorated Russia's force generation problems so that they now longer have to make hard choices about what to defend, and the heavily fortified Zaporizhia frontline is nothing like the thinly held front in Kharkov.

The second case study - the Kherson counteroffensive - is even less germane. In this case, Ukrainian leadership is rewriting history in record time. The AFU banged its head on Russian defenses in Kherson for months throughout the summer and autumn last year and took atrocious losses. An entire grouping of AFU brigades was mauled in Kherson without achieving a breakthrough, and this even with Russian forces in a uniquely difficult operational disposition where they had their backs to a river. Kherson was only abandoned months later due to concerns that the Kakhovka dam might fail or be sabotaged (for those keeping score, it did in fact end up failing), and due to Russia's need at the time to economize forces.

Again, this can easily be misconstrued as arguing that Russia's withdrawal from Kherson did not matter. Obviously, abandoning a hard-earned bridgehead is a major setback, and retaking west-bank Kherson was a boon for Kiev. But we need to be honest about why it happened, and it plainly did not happen because of Ukraine's summer counteroffensive - to underscore this, recall that Ukrainian officials openly wondered if the Russian withdrawal was a trick or a trap. The question is simply whether Ukraine's Kherson offensive is predictive of future offensive success. It is not.

So, we have one case where Ukraine identified a lightly defended section of front and ran through it, and another where Russian troops abandoned a bridgehead due to logistical and force allocation concerns. Neither is particularly relevant to the situation on the Azov coast, and in fact an honest reflection of the AFU's Kherson Counteroffensive might have given Ukraine second thoughts about a frontal assault on prepared Russian defenses.

Instead, Kharkov and Kherson have both been presented as proof positive that Ukraine can shatter Russian defenses in a straight up fight - in fact, we still have no examples from this war of the AFU defeating strongly held Russian positions, particularly post-mobilization when Russia finally began to resolve its manpower deficiencies. But Ukraine is caught in the grip of its own particular story about this war, which has imparted unearned confidence in its ability to conduct offensive operations. Tragically for mobilized Ukrainian Mykolas, this has dovetailed with a second swagger-producing mythology.

A major selling point for the Ukrainian counteroffensive has been the assessed superiority of the AFU's big-ticket donations from the west - the main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. Since the first deliveries were announced, there has been no shortage of boasting about the many superior qualities of western models like the Leopards and Challengers. The suggestion has essentially been that skilled Ukrainian tankers are only waiting to be unleashed once they get behind the wheel of superlative western builds. My personal favorite motif has been the practice of dismissing Russian tanks as "Soviet Era" - neglecting to note that the Abrams (designed 1975) and the Leopard 2 (1979) are also Cold War models.

A burned out Leopard in Syria

It must be stated, again, that there is nothing wrong with western tanks. The Abrams and the Leopard are fine vehicles, but confidence in their game-changing capabilities stems from a mistaken assumption about the role of armor. It must be appreciated that tanks always have been and always will be mass-consumption items. Tanks blow up. They are disabled. They break down and are captured. Tank forces attrit - much faster than people expect. Given that the brigades prepared for Ukraine's assault on the Zapo line were significantly understrength in vehicles, it was simply irrational to expect them to have an oversized impact. This is not to say that tanks aren't important - armor remains critical to modern combat - but in a peer conflict one should always expect to lose armor at a steady clip, especially when the enemy retains fires superiority.

One can see, then how a measure of hubris can easily creep in to Ukrainian thinking, fueled by a healthy dose of desperation and strategic need. Reasoning from a distorted understanding of its successes in Kharkov and Kherson, emboldened by their shiny new toys, and guided by an overriding strategic animus that requires them to unlock the front somehow, the idea of a frontal attack without strategic surprise against a prepared defense really could seem like a good idea. Add in the good old fashioned trope about Russian incompetence and disorder, and you have all the recipes for an imprudent roll of the dice by Ukraine.

The Misfire

So now we come to the operational minutia. For a variety of reasons, Ukraine has chosen to attempt a frontal assault on Russia's fortified Zaporizhia front, with the intention of breaching towards the sea of Azov. How can this be accomplished?

We had a few clues early on, accruing from a variety of geographic features and alleged intelligence leaks. In May, the Dreizin Report published what was purported to be a Russian synthesis of Ukraine's OPORD (Operational Order). An OPORD functions as a broad sketch of an operation's intended progression, and the document shared by Dreizin was billed as a summary of Russia's expectation for Ukraine's offensive (that is, it is not a leak of Ukraine's internal planning documents, but a leak of Russia's best guess at Ukraine's plans).

In any case, in a vacuum it was anybody's guess as to whether Dreizin's OPORD was authentic, but we've subsequently been able to cross-check it. This is because of the other, even more infamous leak from earlier this spring, which included the Pentagon's combat power build plan for Ukraine.

NATO was very generous and built Ukraine a mechanized strike package from scratch. However, because this mechanized force was cobbled together with a variety of different systems from all corners of the NATO Cinematic Universe, Ukraine formations are uniquely identifiable by their particular combination of vehicles and equipment. So, for example, the presence of Strykers, Marders, and Challengers indicates the presence of the 82nd Brigade in the field, and so forth.

Thus, despite Ukrainian pretensions of operational security, it's actually been trivially easy for observers to know which Ukrainian formations are in the field. There have been a few deviations from the script - for example, the 47th Brigade was supposed to field the Frankenstein Slovenian M55 tanks, but in the end the decision was made to send the underpowered M55's to the northern front and the 47th was deployed with a contingent of Leopard Tanks originally operated by the 33rd Brigade. But these are minor details, and on the whole we've had a good sense of when and where specific AFU formations get on the field.

Based on identifiable units, the Dreizin OPORD looks very close to what we actually saw at the onset of the Ukrainian offensive. The Dreizin OPORD called for an assault by the 47th and 65th Brigades on the Russian lines south or Orikhiv, in the sector bounded by Nesterianka and Novoprokopivka. Directly in the middle of this sector is the town of Robotyne, and sure enough that's where the first big AFU assault came overnight on June 7-8, spearheaded by the 47th Brigade.

Now, from this point it becomes difficult to evaluate the Dreizin OPORD simply because Ukraine's attack became instantaneously derailed, but one thing we can say is that Dreizin's source was correct about the order that Ukrainian units would be introduced into battle. Based on this, we can flesh out the OPORD and feel pretty safe wagering that this is what the Ukrainians were hoping to achieve:

Ukraine's Dream: The Drive to the Sea

The intention seems to have been to force a breach in the Russian line using a concentrated armored assault by the 47th and 65th Brigades, after which a follow on force of the 116th, 117th, and 118th would begin the exploitation phase, driving for the Azov Coast and the towns of Mikhailivka and Vesele to the west. The objective was clearly not to get bogged down in urban fighting attempting to capture places like Tokmak, Berdyansk, or Melitopol, but to bypass them and cut them off by taking up blocking positions on the main roads.

Simultaneously, a lesser - but no less critical - thrust would come out of the Gulyaipole area and drive along the Bilmak axis. This would have the effect of both screening the main advance to the west and wedging the Russian front open, splintering the integrity of the Russian forces caught in the middle. Overall, this is a fairly sensible, if ambitious and uncreative plan. In many ways, this was really the only option.

So what went wrong? Well, conceptually it's easy. There is no breach. The bulk of the maneuver scheme is dedicated to exploitation - reaching such and such a line, taking up this blocking position, masking that city, and so forth. But what happens when there's no breach at all? How can such a catastrophe occur, and how can the operation be salvaged when it comes untracked in the opening phase?

Indeed, this is precisely what has happened. Ukraine finds itself stuck on the edge of Russia's outermost screening line, spending substantial resources trying to capture the small village of Robotyne, and/or bypass it to the east by infiltrating the gap between it and the neighboring village of Verbove. So instead of that rapid breach and turning maneuver towards Melitopol, we get something like this:

Ukrainian Counteroffensive with Mapped Russian Defensive Lines

We could be generous and say that Robotyne is the last village before the Ukrainian attack reaches the main Russian defensive belt, but we'd be lying - they will also have to clear the larger town of Novoprokopivka, two kilometers to the south. Just for reference, here's a closer look at the mapped Russian defenses in the battlespace, based on the excellent work of Brady Africk.

Russian defenses in the Robotyne Sector

The discussion about these emplacements can get a little muddled, simply because it's not always clear what is meant by that popular phrase "first line of defense." Clearly there are some defensive works around and in Robotyne, and the Russians chose to fight for the village, so in some sense Robotyne is part of the "first line" - but it is more proper to speak of it as part of what we would call a "screening line". The first line of continuous fortifications across the front is several kilometers further south, and this is the belt that Ukraine has yet to even reach, let alone breach.

As of this moment, it appears that Russian troops have lost total control of Robotyne but continue to hold the southern half of the village, while Ukrainian troops in the northern half of the village remain subject to heavy Russian shelling. We should probably at this point consider the village to be continuously contested and a feature of the gray zone.

Robotyne, in all its glory

Now, a quick note about Robotyne itself and why both sides are so determined to fight for it. It seems rather odd on the surface, given that the Russian preference in 2022 was to make tactical withdrawals under their fires umbrella. This time though, they are fiercely counterattacking to contest Robotyne. The value of the village lies not only in its location on the T-0408 Highway, but also its excellent perch on top of a ridge. Both Robotyne and Novoprokopivka lie on a ridge of elevated ground which is as much as 70 meters higher than the low-lying plain to the east.

What this means is fairly simple; if the AFU presses forward in attempts to bypass the Robotyne-Novoprokopivka position by pushing into the gap between Robotyne and Verbove, it will be vulnerable to fire on the flanks (particularly by ATGMs) by Russian troops on the high ground. We already have seen footage of this, with Ukrainian vehicles being taken in the flank by fire from Robotyne. I am highly skeptical that Ukraine can even attempt an earnest assault on the first defensive belt until they have captured both Robotyne and Novoprokopivka.

This would all be a tough nut to crack under ideal circumstances, with a variety of engineering problems to mediate, obstacles designed to funnel the attacker into firing lanes, perpendicular trenches to allow enfilade fire on advancing Ukrainian columns, and robust defenses on all the major roadways. But these are not the best of circumstances. This is a tired force that has exhausted much of its indigenous combat power, which is attempting to organize the attack using a piecemeal and understrength assault package.

Several factors conspired against the Ukrainian offensive, and synergistically they have created a bona fide military catastrophe for Kiev. Let us enumerate them.

Problem 1: The Hidden Defensive Layer

At this point, we need to acknowledge something that everybody missed about Russia's defense. I previously expressed high confidence that Ukraine's forces would be unable to breach the Russian defenses, but I mistakenly believed that the Russian defense would function according to the classic Soviet defense-in-depth principles (elucidated in great detail by the writings of David Glantz, for example).

Idealized Defense in Depth by a Motor Rifle Brigade

Such a defense, put simply, is open to the idea that the enemy will breach the first or even second lines of defense. The purpose of the multilayered (or "echeloned" in the classic terminology) defense is to ensure that the enemy force gets stuck as it tries to break through. It may penetrate the first layer, but as it goes it is continually chewed up by the subsequent belts. The classic example is the Battle of Kursk, where powerful German panzers broke into the Soviet defensive belts but subsequently became stuck as they were ground down. You can think of this as being analogically similar to a Kevlar vest, which uses a web of fibers to stop projectiles: rather than bouncing off, the bullet is caught and its energy is absorbed by the layered fibers.

I was actually quite open to the idea that Ukraine would generate some penetration, but I anticipated them getting stuck in the subsequent belts and sputtering out.

What was missing from this picture - and this is a credit to Russian planning - was an unseen defensive belt forward of the proper trenches and fortifications. This forward belt consisted of extremely dense minefields and strongly held forward positions in the screening line, which the Russians evidently intended to fight for fiercely. Rather than breaking through the first belt and getting stuck in the interstitial areas, the Ukrainians have been repeatedly mauled in the security zone, and the Russians have consistently counterattacked to knock them back when they do manage to get footholds.

In other words, while we expected Russia to fight a defense in depth that absorbed the Ukrainian spearheads and shredded them in the heart of the defense, the Russians have actually shown a strong commitment to defending their forwardmost positions, of which Robotyne is the most famous.

On paper, Robotyne was expected to function as part of a so-called "crumple zone", or "security zone" - a sort of lightly held buffer that puts the enemy through pre-registered fires before they bump into the first belt of continuous and strongly held defenses. Indeed, a variety of aerial and satellite surveys of the area taken before Ukraine went on the attack showed Robotyne laying well forward of the first solid and continuous Russian fortification belt.

What was missed, it seemed, was the extent to which the Russian defenders had mined the areas on the approach to Robotyne and were committed to defending within the security zone. The scale of the mining certainly seems to have surprised the Ukrainians, and creates a strain on Ukraine's limited combat engineering capabilities. Even more importantly, the dense mines have created predictable avenues of approach for the Ukrainian forces, which force them to repeatedly run through the same gauntlet of fires and Russian standoff weaponry.

Problem 2: Insufficient Suppression

The signature image of the first great assaults on the Zapo Line has been columns of unsupported maneuver assets, being raked with Russian fires, both ground based (rocketry, ATGMs, and tube artillery) and from air platforms like the Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopter. One of the more startling aspects of these scenes was the way Ukrainian forces would come under heavy fire while still in their marching columns, taking losses before they ever deployed into firing lines to begin their assault proper.

There are myriad reasons for this. One is the now blasé issue of Ukrainian munition shortages. Consider the following items of interest. In the runup to Ukraine's counteroffensive, Russia waged a heavy counter-preparatory air campaign that knocked out large AFU ammunition dumps. Ukraine's initial assaults collapse in the face of heavy and unsuppressed Russian fires. The United States decides to transfer cluster munitions to Ukraine because, in the words of the president, "they're running out of ammunition." Add in the degradation of Ukrainian air defense, which allows Russian helicopters to operate with great effect along the contact line, and you have a recipe for disaster. Lacking the tubes to suppress Russian fires or the air defense to chase away Russian aircraft, the AFU opened their offensive by disastrously pushing forward unsupported maneuver elements into a hail of fire.

Problem 3: Russian Standoff Weapons

It's crucial to understand that the Russian toolbox is fundamentally different than it was during the battle for Kherson last year, due to the rapidly expanding production of a variety of Russian standoff weapons - most notably the Lancet and the UMPK glide modifications for gravity bombs.

The Lancet in particular has been a star performer - there are claims that the trusty little loitering munition is responsible for nearly half of Russia's artillery kills - and has filled a crucial capability gap that troubled the Russian army episodically throughout the first year of the war. Contrary to some western assessments that Russia simply could not manufacture drones in sufficient quantities, production of the Lancet has been successfully ramped up in a short period of time, and mass production of other systems like the Geran are coming online as well.

A Thing of Beauty: Zala Lancet

The proliferation of the Lancet and similar systems means, in a nutshell, that nothing within 30km of the contact line is safe, and this in turn disrupts the AFU's deployment of critical support assets like air defense and engineering, magnifying their vulnerability to Russian mines and fires. In fact, we've increasingly seen Ukrainian artillery use decline in the Robotyne area due to the threat of lancets (they seem to be transferring tubes to other fronts), and the AFU is favoring the use of HIMARS in the suppressive role.

Problem 4: Repetitive Lines of Approach

Because the AFU failed to breach the Robotyne sector on their first attempt, they've been forced to continually move up additional units and resources to hammer on the position. This has particular implications, both in the sense that AFU forces must continually traverse the same lines of approach to contact, and in the fact that they are using the same rear area to assemble and stage their assault forces.

This makes the burden on Russian ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) significantly easier, since the AFU has no effective way to disperse or hide the assets that they are bringing forward to the assault. Staged Ukrainian forces and material have been hid repeatedly in the villages immediately behind Orikhiv, like Tavriiske and Omeln'yk, and Russia is able to strike rear area infrastructure like ammunition depots because - to put it simply - there are only so many places these these assets can be staged when you are repeatedly assaulting the same 20km wide sector of front.

We recently had Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Defense Hanna Malair complaining that the 82nd Brigade - newly deployed to the Orikhiv sector - had been hit with a series of Russian airstrikes in its staging areas. According to her, this was because of poor OPSEC revealing the brigade's location to the Russians. But this really makes very little sense; the entire area of operations around Orikhiv is perhaps 25km deep (from Kopani to Tavriiske) and 20 km wide (from Kopani to Verbove). This is a small area that has seen a huge amount of military traffic along the same roads throughout the summer. The idea that Russia needs insider information to know that they ought to surveil and attack targets in this area is absurd.

Problem 5: Fragile Brigades

It actually takes significantly less damage to "destroy" an operational level unit than people think. A unit can become a combat scratch off at 30% losses (with some variance depending on how those are allocated). This is because when people hear the term "destruction", they think that means total losses. Sometimes that's how the word is used in colloquial conversation, but what matters for officers trying to manage an operation is whether or not a formation is combat capable of the tasks being asked of it - and those capabilities can vanish much more quickly than people realize.

This is particularly the case for the Ukrainian mech package, for a variety of reasons. For one, as we discussed in previous articles, these brigades started the fight well understrength (remember, for example, that the Ukrainian 82nd Brigade has only 90 Stryker AFVs, while an American Strkyer Brigade is supposed to have 300). Additionally, the cobbled together nature of these brigades - and the total lack of indigenous sustainment systems like repair and maintenance - means that the Ukrainians will naturally have to cannibalize these vehicles. They've already started designating "donor" vehicles that are written off completely to be stripped down for parts. The nexus of these two facts is that Ukraine's mechanized brigades are understrength on vehicles to begin with, and will have an abysmally poor recovery rate, with hidden attrition behind the scenes due to cannibalization.

What this means is that when we heard admissions by mid-July that Ukraine had already lost 20% of its maneuver assets, there is an associated catastrophic decline in combat capability. The lead brigades - which chewed through 50% or more of their maneuver vehicles - can no longer shoulder combat tasks appropriate for a brigade, and the Ukrainians are forced to feed in their second echelon units prematurely.

At this point, partial elements of at least ten different brigades have been deployed in the Robotyne sector, with the 82nd likely to join them soon. Given that the NATO combat power build plan only included 9 NATO trained brigades, plus a few reconstituted Ukrainian formations, it's safe to say that blooding all of them over a 71 day fight just to break into the screening line was not in the plan.

Staring at the Abyss

I've seen a variety of analysts and writers lately arguing that the insertion of additional Ukrainian units into the Robotyne sector signals the next phase of the operation.

This is nonsense. Ukraine is still mired in the first phase. What has happened is instead that the attrition of their first echelon brigades has forced them to commit their second (and third) wave to complete the tasks of the opening phase. The initial attack, led by the 47th Brigade, was intended to create a breach in the Russian screening line around Robotyne and advance to the main Russian belt further to the south. They failed, and the additional brigades earmarked for exploitation - the 116th, 117th, 118th, 82nd, 33rd, and more - are now being systematically fed in to keep the pressure on.

These brigades have not been destroyed, of course, simply because they are not being committed in their entirety, but rather as subunits. Nevertheless, at this point Ukrainian losses make up the better part of a whole brigade, distributed around the broader package, and over 300 maneuver elements (tanks, IFVs, APCs, etc) have been scratched off.

We need to say this very explicitly. Ukraine has not moved on to the next phase of their operation. They are stuck in the first phase, and have been forced to prematurely commit portions of the second echelon that was earmarked for later action. They are slowly but surely burning through the entire operational grouping, and so far they have not breached Russia's screening line. The great counteroffensive is turning into a military catastrophe.

Now, this does not mean that the operation has failed, simply because it is still ongoing. History teaches us that it is unwise to make definitive pronouncements. Luck and human factors (bravery and intelligence, cowardice and stupidity) always have something to say. However, the trajectory is undeniably towards abject failure at the current moment.

So far, the AFU has shown some adaptability. In particular, we've recently seen them shift away from pushing forward unsupported columns of mechanized assets - instead they've been leaning on small dismounted units, trying to slowly push forward into the space between Robotyne and Verbove. The move towards dispersal is intended to reduce loss rates, but it also reduces the probability of a dramatic breakthrough even further and marks the temporary abandonment of decisive breaching action in favor of - once again - creeping positional warfare.

We would be remiss if we failed to note that there have been meaningful Russian losses in all of this. We know that the Russian forces in the Robotyne sector have required rotation and reinforcement, including with elite VDV and Naval Infantry units. Russia has taken counterbattery losses, it has lost vehicles in counterattacking action, and men have been killed holding their trenches. The initial assault groups that the Ukrainians threw in had a lot of combat power, and the fighting was very bloody for both sides. It's not a one-sided shooting gallery, but a high intensity war.

But therein is the crux of the matter - Ukraine seems unable to escape the attritional and positional war that it finds itself in. It sounds all well and good to proclaim a return to "maneuver" warfare, but if there is an inability to breach enemy defenses, this is only an empty boast, and the nature of the struggle remains attritional. When the question becomes "will we breach before we run out of combat power", you are not maneuvering. You are attriting.

In my series of articles on military history, we've looked at a variety of cases where armies tried desperately to unlock the front and restore a state of operational maneuver, but when there is no technical capacity to do so, these intentions do not matter one bit. Nobody wants to be trapped on the wrong side of attritional mathematics, but sometimes what you want does not matter at all. Sometimes attrition is imposed on you.

In the absence of the capabilities required to successfully breach Russia's prodigious defenses - more ranged fires, more air defense, more ISR, more EW, more combat engineering, more more more - Ukraine is trapped in a rock fight. Two fighters are swinging bats at each other, and Russia is a bigger man with a bigger bat.

Two Bad Copes

Amid a clear misfire and growing strategic disappointment, two new suggestions have increasingly crept into the conversation - "copes", if you will, that are utilized as a narrative comfort to explain why the Ukrainian operation is actually going just fine (despite nearly universal acknowledgment in the west that the results have been lackluster at best). I would like to briefly address each of these in turn.

Cope 1: "The first stage is the hardest"

You frequently see it argued that all the AFU has to do is break open the Russian screening line, and the remainder of the defenses will fall like dominos. The general thrust of this argument is that the Russians lack reserves and that the subsequent defensive lines are not adequately manned - just break open the first line, and the rest will fall apart.

This is probably a comforting thing to tell oneself, but it's rather irrational. We could talk, for example, about Russia's doctrinal schema for defense in depth, which prescribes liberal allocation of reserves at all depths of the defensive system, but it's probably more fruitful to point at more immediate evidence.

Let us simply consider Russia's behavior over the last six months. They have spent a tremendous amount of effort constructing echeloned defenses - are we really to believe that they did all this only to waste all their combat power fighting in front of these defenses? Nor is there any evidence that Russia is having trouble supplying the front with manpower at the present moment. We've seen continued rotations and redeployments amid an overall process of military enlargement in Russia. Indeed, of the two belligerents, it is Ukraine that seems to be scraping the barrel for manpower.

Cope 2: "Get within firing range"

This is the more fantastical story, and it represents a radical ad-hoc shift of the goalposts. The argument is that Ukraine doesn't actually need to advance to the sea and physically cut the land bridge, all it has to do is get the Russian supply routes within firing range to cut off Russian troops. This theory has been advance liberally on Twitter X and by personalities like Peter Zeihan (a man who knows nothing about military affairs).

There are many problems with this line of thought, most of which stem from an inflated notion of "fire control." To put it simply, being "in range" of artillery fire does not imply effective area denial or severed supply lines. If that were the case, Ukraine would be unable to attack out of Orikhiv at all, since the entire axis of approach is within Russian firing range. In Bakhmut, the AFU continued to fight long after their main supply routes came under Russian shelling.

The simple fact is that most military tasks are conducted within range of at least some of the enemy's ranged fires, and the idea that Russia will collapse if the AFU manages to put a shell on the Azov coastal highway is fairly ridiculous. In fact, Russia's main rail line is already within range of Ukrainian HIMARS, and the Ukrainians have successfully launched strikes on coastal cities like Berdyansk. Meanwhile, Russia strikes at Ukrainian sustainment infrastructure with regularity - yet neither army has collapsed yet. This is because ranged fires are a tool to improve attritional calculus and further operational goals - they do not magically win wars just by tagging the enemy's supply roads.

Let's be charitable though, and indulge this line of thinking. Suppose the Ukrainians managed to advance - not all the way to the coast, but far enough to bring Russia's main supply routes within range of artillery. What would they do? Wheel up a battery of howitzers, park them at the very front line, and begin firing nonstop at the road? What do you think would happen to those howitzers? Counterbattery systems would surely set upon them. The idea that you can just haul up a big gun and start taking potshots at Russian supply trucks is really quite childish. Putting enemy forces out of supply has always required physically blocking transit, and that's what Ukraine will have to do if they want to cut Russia's land bridge.

The Distraction

I am cognizant of the fact that I would be raked over the coals if I failed to discuss a secondary area of Ukrainian effort, farther to the east in Donestk oblast. Here, the Ukrainians have worked their way a good distance up the highway out of the town of Velyka Novosilka capturing several settlements.

The problem with this "other" Ukrainian attack is that it is, in a word, inconsequential. This axis of advance is operationally sterile in a very fundamental way, as it involves pushing groups up a narrow corridor of road that doesn't lead anywhere important. As in the Robotyne sector, the AFU is still quite some distance from any of the serious Russian fortifications, and to make matters worse the road and settlements on this axis lay along a small river. Rivers, as we know, flow along the floor of the terrain, which means the roadway sits at the bottom of a wadis/embakement/glacis, choose your terminology. In fact, the road network as such consists of nothing except a single-lane roadway on either side of the river.

The Sideshow in the East

My reading of this axis is essentially that it was intended as a feint to create some semblance of operational confusion, but when the primary effort on the Orikhiv axis turned into a colossal misfire, the decision was made to continue to press here simply for narrative purposes. Ultimately, this is simply not an axis of advance that can exert a meaningful influence on the wider war. The forces deployed here are relatively miniscule in the grand scope of things, and they aren't going anywhere important. Certainly, a thin, needlelike penetration is not going to drive more than 80 kilometers down a single lane road to the sea and win the war.

Conclusion: Finger Pointing

One of the surest signs that Ukraine's counteroffensive has taken a cataclysmic turn is the way Kiev and Washington have already begun to blame each other, conducting a postmortem while the body is still warm. Zelensky has blamed the west for being too slow to deliver the requisite equipment and ammunition, arguing that unacceptable delays allowed the Russians to improve their defenses. This strikes me as rather obscene and ungrateful. NATO built Ukraine a new army from scratch in a process that already required greatly truncating the training times.

On the other hand, western experts have begun to blame Ukraine for supposedly being unable to adopt "combined arms warfare". This is really a very nonsensical attempt to use jargon (incorrectly) to explain away problems. Combined arms simply means the integration and simultaneous use of various arms like armor, infantry, artillery, and air assets. Claiming that Ukraine and Russia are somehow cognitively or institutionally incapable of this is extremely silly. The Red Army had a complex and extremely thorough doctrine of combined arms operation. One professor at the US Arms School of Advanced Military Studies said: "The single most coherent core of theoretical writings on operational art is still found among the Soviet writers." The idea that combined arms is some foreign and novel concept to Soviet officers (a caste that includes the Russian and Ukrainian high command) is ridiculous.

This issue is not some sort of Ukrainian doctrinal obstinacy, but a combination of structural factors rooted in the insufficiency of Ukrainian combat power and the changing face of warfare.

It's frankly a little silly to say that Ukraine needs to learn about "combined arms" when they are very simply lacking important capabilities that would make a successful maneuver campaign possible - namely, adequate ranged fires, a functioning air force (and no, F-16's will not fix this), engineering, and electronic warfare. The issue very fundamentally is not one of doctrinal flexibility, but of capability. By way of analogy, this is a bit like sending a boxer out to fight with a broken arm, and then critiquing his technique. The problem is not his technique - the problem is that he's injured and materially weaker than his opponent. So too, the problem for Ukraine is not that they are incapable of coordinating arms, the problem is that their arms are shattered.

Secondly - and this, I admit, is rather shocking to me - western observers do not seem open to the possibility that the accuracy of modern ranged fires (be it Lancet drones, guided artillery shells, or GMLRS rockets) combined with the density of ISR systems may simply make it impossible to conduct sweeping mobile operations, except in very specific circumstances. When the enemy has the capacity to surveil staging areas, strike rear area infrastructure with cruise missiles and drones, precisely saturate approach lines with artillery fire, and soak the earth in mines, how exactly can it be possible to maneuver?

Combined arms and maneuver are predicated on the ability to rapidly concentrate enormous fighting power and attack with great violence at narrow points. This is probably impossible given the density of Russian surveillance, firepower, and the many obstacles they have put up to deny Ukrainian freedom of movement and scleroticize their activity. The main examples of maneuver in recent western memory - the campaigns in Iraq - have only tenuous relevance to circumstances in Zaporizhia.

Ultimately, we have returned to a war of mass - particularly massed ISR assets and fires. The only way Ukraine can maneuver the way they want is to break open the front, and they can only do this with more of everything - more mine clearing equipment, more shells and tubes, more rocketry, more armor. Only mass can crack open a suitable breach in the Russian lines. Otherwise, they are stuck in a positional creep through the dense Russian defenses, and criticizing them for being unable to grasp some sort of magical western notion of "combined arms" is the strangest sort of finger pointing.

So, whence goes the war from here? Well, the obvious question to ask is whether we believe Ukraine will ever have a more potent assault package than the one they started the summer with. The answer clearly seems to be no. It was like pulling teeth to scrape together these understrength brigades - the idea that, following on a defeat in the Battle of Zaporizhia, NATO will somehow put together a more powerful package seems like a stretch. More to the point, we have American officials saying fairly explicitly that this was the best mechanized package Ukraine was going to get.

It does not seem controversial to say that this was Ukraine's best shot at some sort of genuine operational victory, which at this point seems to be slowly trickling away into modest but materially costly tactical advances. The ultimate implication of this is that Ukraine is unable to escape a war of industrial attrition, which is precisely the sort of war that it cannot win, due to all the asymmetries that we mentioned earlier.

In particular, however, Ukraine cannot win a positional-attritional war because of its own maximalist definition of "winning." Since Kiev has insisted that it will not give up until it returns its 1991 borders, an inability to dislodge Russian forces poses a particularly nasty problem - Kiev will either need to admit defeat and acknowledge Russian control over the annexed areas, or it will continue to fight obstinately until it is a failed state with nothing left in the tank.

Trapped in a bat fight, with attempts to unlock the front with maneuver coming to naught, what Ukraine needs most is a much bigger bat. The alternative is a totalizing strategic disaster.


Big Serge Thoughts
16 Aug 2023 | 11:04 pm

3. Götterdämmerung in the East

Caught in the End of All Things

Adolf Hitler worked very hard to create the illusion that he had no personal life. It was his great conviction that a leader ought to be seen as having forgone private life to sacrifice everything for the people, and accordingly the details of his leisure, friendships, and intimacies were hidden from public view to create the illusion of a workaholic and ascetic Fuhrer.

Behind the scenes, however, Hitler was a full color and peculiar personality, with a circle of familiars (even if he was somewhat introverted and unwilling to confide fully in others), and a variety of personal idiosyncrasies. He was extremely hygienic, greatly fond of pastries (he abstained from alcohol and instead indulged in ample quantities of eclairs and strudel), and he was tremendously engrossed by the music of Richard Wagner, in particular Wagner's seminal work Der Ring des Nibelungen, or the ring cycle. This is a monumentally long operatic-dramatic production, played over the course of four sequential nights, which depicts a stylized tale of Germanic mythology in which the high god Havi (Oden) and his mortal grandson Siegfried attempt to recover from hostile giants a magical ring with the power to rule the world. For Hitler, Wagner's work invoked thematic elements of German greatness and the power of will, and during the early years of his leadership he made a point to make Nazi party functionaries join him at the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth. Not all of them were opera fans, and much to Hitler's chagrin a great many of them routinely fell asleep during the performances.

If they had stayed awake, they might have seen what was coming for them.

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The fourth and final sequence of Wagner's ring cycle is called the Götterdämmerung. This is a German transliteration of the Ragnarök of Norse mythology, and it depicts the entire world being destroyed in fire and flood after a climactic war between the gods and their variegated cosmic enemies. Hitler's favorite opera, like his Germany, ends with a scene of apocalypse, and a Götterdämmerung is exactly what the Wehrmacht found in the east from 1944 onward.

Valhalla in Flames: Max Brückner's depiction of the Götterdämmerung

One of the many idiosyncrasies of World War Two historiography is the relative disinterest shown in the closing phase of the war in the east. The most famous battles and events in the east - in particular Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk - are frontloaded in the timeline. It's generally recognized that by the time of the defeat at Stalingrad, the Germans had "lost" the war, and so the battles and campaigns that occurred in the closing phase of the war (in particular 1944 and 1945) do not enjoy significant name recognition. In general, the perception is that the Soviets more or less marched inexorably to the west.

The inevitability of German defeat was certainly a reality, but the war was anything but over. In fact, 1944 and 1945 formed the bloodiest and most cataclysmic years of the war by far. The Wehrmacht was losing the war, to be sure, but it still maintained millions of men in the field, and it increasingly propped itself up by mobilizing volunteers from around Europe. In its dying death rage, as it vainly protested its own Götterdämmerung, the Wehrmacht would both kill and die in astonishing numbers.

By November 1943, after over 1500 days of war, total Wehrmacht permanent casualties (dead, disabled, or missing) amounted to roughly 3 million men. This makes for a loss rate of just under 2,000 men per day for over four years - a time period which includes the campaigns in Poland, France, the Balkans, North Africa, and the colossal eastern battles of Operation Barbarossa, Rzhev, Kharkov, Stalingrad, Kursk, and the Caucasus.

From November 1943 through the end of the war in May 1945 - a span of 527 days - Wehrmacht losses would be some 5 million men. Thus, over the final eighteen months of the war, German losses were an astonishing 9,400 per day, and although this closing phase made up only a quarter of the war in chronological terms, it accounted for nearly two-thirds of Germany's total combat losses. And while the Wehrmacht was unequivocally being caved in all over Europe, it remained a colossal and tactically competent force capable of making its enemies pay dearly as it died. The Red Army would suffer 1.4 million killed and missing in 1944 (a year in which it won tremendous victories) and another 630,000 in just a few months of fighting in 1945.

In a sense then, the popular narrative structure of the war is in direct opposition to the reality on the ground. The narrative tends to climax at Stalingrad in the East and Normandy in the West, and then grind downwards to Hitler's bunker, but in fact 1944 saw the most ferocious and bloody fighting in the east, with sweeping Soviet offensives. Stalingrad may be the popular turning point, but in 1944 the Red Army would inflict defeats on the Wehrmacht that made Stalingrad look meek. Stalingrad swallowed up a German field army; 1944 would slaughter entire army groups in record time.

Perhaps some of the drama is taken out of the story by the knowledge that German defeat is inevitable, but for the men who actually had to fight the war to its conclusion, there was still everything to fight for. The outcome of the war in a strategic sense was now certain, but there was not a single soldier on the continent who could be certain that he would personally survive, and in that sense the world still hung in the balance for every man, as the Wehrmacht and their powerful enemies grappled amid the flames of Germany's Götterdämmerung.

Manstein's Last Victory

It is fairly common to describe the Nazi-Soviet War as a three-phase affair, with the phases largely determined by the degree of strategic initiative. In the first phase (call it June 1941 to November 1942) Germany had dominant strategic initiative and launched major offensive operations in Barbarossa and Case Blue. In this period, virtually all of the Red Army's attempts to go on the strategic offensive collapsed with heavy casualties, as at Kharkov and Rzhev. In the second phase (let us say December 1942 to November 1943) the Red Army was able to attack with great success, but the Germans still retained the ability to organize operations of their own (most notably Kursk). In the third and final phase (December 1943 to the end of the war), the Red Army held full-spectrum dominance and the Wehrmacht could do little more than desperately try and fail to hold its positions. Now at last we come to discuss this final and astonishingly bloody phase.

We can say that the closing months of 1943 marked a new phase in the war, but the men in the Wehrmacht eastern army can be forgiven for not noticing. There was no operational pause, no obvious phase change, only a continuous and rolling wave of Red Army offensives - sequential operations in action. The Soviet autumn offensives put the Red Army on the attack everywhere, with Field Marshal Erich von Manstein's Army Group South falling back in a desperate state to get behind the Dnieper River.

The river, however, brought little solace, and would not offer a defensive buffer, simply because the Soviets were already across it in many places, and Zhukov threw the kitchen sink at it to ensure that he had solid bridgeheads from the start. And so, despite another year of hard fighting weighing heavy upon them, Manstein and Army Group South had to turn and try to fight west of the Dnieper.

German personnel on the move in Soviet Ukraine

There were three problems facing Army Group South, and all of them were fairly easy to understand and nearly impossible to solve.

The first basic issue was an astonishing level of overmatch in the Order of Battle. Army Group South by now contained four field armies (the 6th and 8th, along with 1st and 4th Panzer Armies), which were lined up across from four Soviet fronts, each equivalent to an army group in and of itself. As if to underscore the disparity, these Soviet fronts were named 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Ukrainian fronts, as if to mock the Germans - "we can put four army groups in Ukraine to your one".

The second problem was that, though the disparity on paper was bad enough, all of Manstein's field armies were in a state of complete mauling after the hard fighting of the previous three years. This was after all a force that had just been defeated spectacularly east of the Dnieper and now had to fight again to the west of the river. By the end of 1943, Manstein's Army Group had at most 330,000 men upright in the field along with perhaps 100,000 non-German volunteers and allies, and despite nominally having fourteen Panzer Divisions in the inventory, the entire batch could scrape together barely 200 reliably operable tanks. In contrast, the Soviet fronts were at nearly full strength (the Red Army could provide as many as 600,000 replacements more per month than the Wehrmacht). On average, each of the four Soviet fronts had some 550,000 men and thus outnumbered Army Group South individually.

The third problem was an operational one, and indeed this was the only problem that Manstein was able to do anything about. The retreat over the Dnieper was bad math for the Germans. Because the Dnieper forms an enormous "S" as it bends back and forth across Ukraine, the line of the river is significantly longer than a line directly north to south from the same points. Attempting to defend a line along the course of the river from just north of Kiev to the Black Sea committed Army Group South to some 560 miles of front, though the actual north-south dimensions of the space were less than 300 miles - and that was already more than enough for this overstretched force.

Manstein tries to save his army group

The geography of the battlespace thus already dictated that gaps could easily form in Army Group South's line, and the Soviets were quick to exploit this. A renewed Soviet offensive began on December 24rd (in a sense, the Werhmacht's 1944 from hell began a week early), with General Nikolai Vatutin slamming his powerful 1st Ukrainian Front into the army at the northernmost end of Manstein's line - 4th Panzer Army. 4th Panzer was in a desperate state already (it had been one of the spearheads at the Battle of Kursk and had thus been steadily ground up for nearly six months) and immediately began to fall back under Vatutin's powerful attack. The steady melting back of 4th Panzer Army stretched Manstein's parlous line to the breaking point, and before long Vatutin's offensive had opened up a 60 mile gap between 4th Panzer Army and its neighbor to the southeast, 8th Army.

Vatutin had created a textbook operational catastrophe for Army Group South. Facing a thinly stretched opponent, he pushed hard at a vulnerable spot and tore open a huge gash in the line. With such a huge gap now wide open, the way was clear for the Red Army to drive through the gap into Manstein's rear, overrun his rear area infrastructure, put the remainder of the army group out of supply, and swallow up the whole thing. It is not an exaggeration to say that on New Years Day, 1944, Army Group South faced annihilation.

Army Group South on the Ropes - Simplified Movements

Manstein still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Huddling over an absolutely abysmal situation map, he decided to rerun his maneuver of the previous year - a castling move and a timely counterattack. Soviet forces were barreling through the enormous gap in his line, and he needed something to hit them with and plug the gap. The only unit that fit the bill was 1st Panzer Army - it still had some bite left, and was led General Hans Hube - one of the toughest and most gifted commanders on the roster.

The problem was that 1st Panzer was all the way on the southeastern end of Manstein's line. For Manstein and his staff, the answer was an obvious and elegant operational solution: 1st Panzer would pull out of the line and rail back to the west to redeploy and counterattack into the gap, while 6th Army slid eastward to take its place. With a subtle rearrangement of the army group, Manstein could get panzer forces in place to counterattack, plug the gap between 4th Panzer and 8th Army, and he would not even have to give up any ground. The latter element was crucial to getting the approval of Hitler, who was by now habitually making histrionic demands that no withdrawals or retreats be countenanced.

By frantically railing First Panzer Division to the scene of the action - and cajoling Hitler into transferring a few extra divisions in from other fronts - Manstein managed to assemble a decent strike package in west-central Ukraine in the second week of January, on the plains near Uman. On paper, he had put Hube in position with three Panzer corps, arrayed in a semicircular arc to await the onrushing Soviets. On January 15, he pulled the trigger and began yet another well-timed counterattack against outstretched Soviet tendrils.

The German counterattack, even considering the enormous Soviet overmatch across the theater, was well positioned to achieve some successes. Several major factors were at play. First and foremost, the three Soviet armies (1st Tank Army plus 38th and 40th Rifle Armies) advancing into Manstein's rear area had been fighting and driving almost continuously for three weeks, and were thus classically vulnerable to culmination due to dwindling supplies of fuel and other necessities. Secondly, Manstein had arranged what amounted to an ambush, with two of Hube's corps taking the Soviets on the flanks. Finally, even until the very end the German panzer package remained the premier tactical asset in the war, owing to both their experience and the technical superiority of their late-war vehicles. When the Germans could manage to scrape together enough Panzers, they were always able to do damage - the simple matter was that they usually could not get a reasonable strike group put together. But in Soviet Ukraine, in January 1944, Manstein had just enough to stave off a catastrophe.

Manstein's Last Victory: Desperation on the Dnieper Plain

The ferocious and concentrated counterattack caught those three overstretched Soviet armies from all sides, and a week of hard fighting saw the Germans wipe all three from the battlefield. To be sure, the tactical performance of the Panzer force seemed as deadly as ever. The crown jewel in the force was a novel formation dubbed the Heavy Panzer Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel and licensed dentist Franz Bäke. The regiment was equipped with a whopping 46 Panzer V Panthers and 24 Tigers, along with cutting edge self propelled howitzers and mechanized infantry. Even at this stage in the war, a Panzer force like this was powerful enough to terrorize any Soviet formation it tangled with, and Bäke the death dentist led his regiment to nearly 300 tank kills in the January action, at the cost of only 4 of his own vehicles.

The counterattack was tactically successful, and for the moment Manstein had avoided the total annihilation of his army group. Maybe, in the most generous construction, he had restored the structural integrity of his line and won what might be called a victory. But a closer examination reveals a less than stellar situation, to put it mildly.

On paper, 1st Panzer Army had wiped out three entire Soviet field armies, consisting of 14 infantry divisions and five mechanized corps, and to be fair they had genuinely ceased to exist as fighting units. The destroyed equipment was prodigious - all in all, Hube's Panzers destroyed 700 Soviet tanks. But Manstein's trap was not an encirclement battle of the sort that the Germans had fought in the past. The Panzers were in the field, but there were not nearly enough infantry divisions to form a proper encirclement. As a result, total Soviet casualties in the counterattack amounted to less than 30,000. This may seem like some large number (and to each of the unfortunate dead it was one too many), but truthfully, given the scale of the forces involved in this war, this was a miniscule tally which reflected the fact that most of the Soviet personnel had simply melted back toward their start lines amid the ferocious German counterattack. In other words, we might say that Manstein's attack had eliminated those three armies by scattering them and smashing their equipment, rather than destroying them.

Panzer Group Bake was a deadly, but ultimately insufficient fighting force

Furthermore, what Manstein had accomplished was simply to turn back an exploiting spearhead. The broader Soviet offensive had succeeded in battering 4th Panzer Army and capturing an enormous swathe of territory west of the Dnieper, and the Germans could not even earnestly pray to reverse this. Virtually all of the Soviet gains, consolidated by the second week of January, were permanent.

On the tactical level, a unit like Dr. Bäke's heavy panzer regiment could congratulate itself on racking up Soviet armor kills, but they were only one elite - and small - unit on an enormous front that was coming apart at the seams. While these elite German units would remain the most potent tactical elements in the war, right up until the very end, the remainder of the Wehrmacht was increasingly made up of a de-motorized mass of hastily scrounged up replacements who were overmatched at every level by the Red Army, which by now fought with extreme degrees of both confidence and competence. Concentrating the available mechanized forces near Vinnitsa had allowed Manstein to delay a catastrophe, but at the expense of the rest of his front - for example, 8th Army, which now occupied a dangerous salient near Cherkassy.

For Whom the Bell Tolls: The Cherkassy Salient, January 1944

We might call Manstein's castling maneuver and timely counterattack his last victory - if we can stretch the word victory to include an action that only delays catastrophic defeat by a few weeks. Perhaps, in a moment of extreme self-congratulation and delusion, Manstein could convince himself that his operational acumen, superior German willpower and aggression, and the tactical superiority of the elite panzer units really could make it possible to hold the line in the east as Hitler had ordered. Or perhaps we would be more wise to listen to one of Manstein's subordinates, like Lieutenant General Nikolaus von Vormann, who said it succinctly:

"Defending in Russia means losing."

Black Earth

Hube's counterattack marked the last flickering moment of optimism for Army Group South. Thereafter, the Red Army would repeatedly kick them into the dirt and drive them from Soviet Ukraine. In fact, the beatings continued so relentlessly that the next great blow was already forming before the dust had settled from the desperate counterblow. The Red Army's opening act of 1944 (Vitutin's great attack on 4th Panzer Army) had pushed the front out in a great arc from the upper Dnieper, from the Pripet Marshes in the north down to the plains around Vinnitsa and Uman. Simultaneous, but less intense attacks against Sixth Army on the southernmost end of Manstein's line had similarly advanced the Red Army well west of the river south of Cherkassy.

This produced a situation map with one of the most obvious and glaring structural vulnerabilities of the war. The Red Army was far over the Dnieper in both the northern and southern sections of Army Group Center's front - in some places, they had advanced 100 miles past it. Yet German 8th Army, in the center of the front, was still attempting to hold a defensive line on the river itself. It was by now the only of Manstein's armies to still be at the Dnieper line, occupying at most a 25-mile stretch of riverbank to the west of Cherkassy.

The problems with this position were myriad. In the first place, it is fairly obvious that the Dnieper did not actually constitute a defensive barrier for 8th Army, simply because the Soviets were already across the river everywhere else. There were allusions made to holding some of the Dnieper crossings for "future offensive action", but that was only a fantasy. Furthermore, the odd insistence on holding a position on the Dnieper put 8th Army into a shockingly severe salient. It was not even "in the line" at all, but far outside of it, with its connections to neighboring armies laying well to behind it. In short, this was an entirely unproductive position which further stretched 8th Army's already insufficient forces and put six divisions in a position ripe to be encircled. Abandoning the salient at maximum speed was an obvious need. General Kurt von Tippelskirch pleaded that the "last moment" had come for the forces in the salient to be "saved from inevitable disaster by swift withdrawal to the south-west", but Hitler's by now dogmatic insistence on "standing fast" made this a nonstarter.

The position was obviously vulnerable, and the Red Army wasted no time exploiting it. By January 24, they had already moved two tank armies (the 5th and 6th) into position at the base of the salient. Given both their substantial capability overmatch and the tremendous violence of the Soviet assault, they broke through at will almost everywhere. One German commander likened the assault of the Soviet tank armies to a natural disaster: "An astonishing scene, shattering in its drama! No other epithet will do. The dam burst, and the great unending flood poured across the flat terrain."

The leading Soviet tank spearheads took only four days to drive across the nearly 90 mile base of the salient, linking up on January 28. By the 31st, the Red Army had filled out the encirclement with infantry forces, forming an iron ring around what had once been a salient but was now a fully encircled pocket. Zhukov - who was coordinating the operation, which involved forces of both the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts - took no chances with this pocket. He established a double ring of forces around the encircled Germans, and resolved to liquidate the pocket systematically before moving on.

This was probably an excessive level of due diligence, which reflects a Soviet intelligence failure related to the German forces in the pocket. Ivan Konev (commander of 2nd Ukrainian Front) reported that the pocket contained a whopping 130,000 German troops, who were estimated to have with them some 1,600 artillery pieces and nearly 250 tanks. Thinking they had a substantial German force encircled, Zhukov rationally opted for a methodical and robust liquidation. In fact, the German forces in the pocket consisted of 6 divisions (including an SS division), with at most 58,000 personnel. These divisions had already been largely decimated in the fighting of the previous year and were stripped of much of their equipment, and had a mere 242 artillery pieces and 40 operable armored vehicles. Given the disparity between the Soviet estimates and the actual strength in the pocket, the Red Army's caution in dealing with the encirclement amounted to overkill.

The Battle of the Korsun Pocket: January 24 - February 17, 1944

Still, they had caught a nice bag full of German divisions in a fire sack. Facing annihilation, the first order of business for the Germans was to try and organize their forces in the pocket. The six German divisions were withdrawn into a consolidated position in the center of the pocket, anchored on the town of Korsun (for which the pocket is conventionally named in the historiography). There, the encircled Germans bunkered down to wait…. but for what? Starvation? Annihilation? Rescue? The presence of 5th SS Division inside the pocket was a comfort to many of the rank and file infantry - perhaps Hitler didn't care about them so much, but surely he wouldn't let his cherished SS be captured? A rescue or breakout attempt must surely be underway?

In fact, Hitler initially reacted nonchalantly to the encirclement, and declared that the units in the pocket must defend it as a "fortress on the Dnieper". He approved a plan to prepare a relief effort, but in his mind the point was not to break the encircled units out of the pocket, but to break in from the outside and begin some sort of offensive. At some staff meetings, he even alluded to driving back to Kiev. Needless to say, this was pure fantasy. Army Group South faced a catastrophe, and it would be a herculean task just to rescue some of the forces in the Korsun pocket, but here was the supreme commander talking about going back on the strategic offensive. Major-General Otto Wagener, a one-time confidant of Hitler's, was more sober and lachrymose:

"A new Stalingrad on a smaller scale had arisen, with the Volga replaced by the Dnieper and the same orders from Hitler to the encircled troops: "hold out, supplies from the air, relief offensive, no breakout."

In the end, Manstein did manage to pull together 3rd Panzer Corps (or at least, what was left of it) for a drive into the pocket, though he had to pay lip service to Hitler and tell him that the intention was not to evacuate the forces inside but only to reestablish a ground connection to them. On paper, 3rd Panzer Corps did have some strong horses still in the stable, in particular the heavy panzer regiment under the Death Dentist, Colonel Bäke. In a straight up fight, this concentration of late model panzers had the punching power to breach Soviet lines, but the penetration would be small - and in any case, this presumed that the Germans could actually maneuver.

Elements of 3rd Panzer Corps move out to break open the Korsun Pocket

The German attempt to break open the Korsun Pocket (code-named Operation Wanda) misfired almost immediately due to the unlucky sudden onset of bad weather. In this case, the serendipitous climatic intervention was not cold, but the thaw. The winter of 1943-44 turned out to be unusually short and warm, to the effect that the first days of February turned into a rapid thaw which soon turned Soviet Ukraine into one colossal mud pit. This was particularly bad news for the German relief effort, which was counting on the combat power of heavy panzer models that sank into the mud and become virtually immobile.

This led to one of the most phantasmagorical - and borderline incomprehensible - vignettes of the war.

To move the enormous Panther and Tiger tanks through thick mud proved to be unbelievably fuel-expensive; with the tanks sinking practically down to their track covers, the drivers essentially had to gun the engines full-bore just to keep the tank inching forward. As a result, during Third Panzer Corps assault on the Soviet encirclement, the Panther tanks required a full tank of fuel (about 190 gallons or 730 liters) to move 2.5 miles. How is it possible to wage a mobile operation when fuel expenditure balloons to 76 gallons per mile? To keep the panzers moving, the Germans had to drop barrels of fuel out of low-flying airplanes, then roll or drag the barrels over to the tanks by hand. The infantry hardly fared better than the tanks - the mud began to swallow up their boots, so the majority took them off and quite literally advanced to battle barefoot. Even for an army which had gone through the thaw season several times now, this was possibly the worst mud of the war. This was a shocking and humiliating scene for an army that had only recently brought Europe to its feet.

The breakout attempt had been due to start on February 3, but within a few days it had bogged down completely and Manstein actually had to pull 3rd Panzer Corps back to redeploy and try again at a different spot on the Soviet line. By February 15, they had made some progress into the Soviet pocket (once they got into the fight, the Panthers and Tigers remained deadly to the outgunned Soviet T-34s), but Manstein had to admit that the attack had maxed out, largely due to the loss of tanks to mechanical failure amid all the wretched mud.

Still, Hitler refused to let the forces inside the Korsun Pocket break out. He had appointed General Wilhelm Stemmermann "Commander in the Pocket" and demanded that they hold the "fortress" no matter the circumstances. Manstein and his staff, however, were increasingly frustrated with what they saw as an incomprehensible and borderline suicidal order. Eventually, Manstein's chief of staff confided that Army Group South would have to "give the order for the breakout on its own responsibility. There can be no question of leaving the two corps sitting in the pocket." This was a belated and unusual moment of willing defiance against Hitler's orders - the sort of moment that was far too rare.

Trouble in paradise. Despite everything apparently going quite well for the Red Army, Stalin remained impatient for the liquidation of the Korsun Pocket. As he saw it, Zhukov was dragging his feet, while Stalin anxiously desired to announce another Stalingrad to the world. Unfortunately, the opportunistic commander of 2nd Ukrainian Front, Ivan Konev, took advantage of this moment - he suggested to Stalin that the problem was that the pocket was the dual responsibility of both his own front and Vatutin's 1st Ukrainian, and Zhukov was not up to the challenge of coordinating between them. He promised Stalin that if custody of the sector was transferred solely to his own command, he could liquidate it in short order. This was an underhanded move which humiliated and angered Zhukov (poisoning his relationship with Konev for the rest of their lives), but Stalin agreed with Konev's suggestion and sent out the order on February 12:

"Command of all troops engaged in action against the Korsun grouping is transferred to the commander-in-chief of 2nd Ukrainian Front, with the task of destroying the Korsun grouping without delay."

It was at this point that events confluence. Konev immediately set about preparing to reshuffle and rearrange the encircling forces to launch an attack on the pocket and destroy the Germans inside, but the act of reordering his forces temporarily created openings for the Germans to exploit. All of this occurred just as Manstein's relief attack was breaking down, breathing new life into the German position. Knowing what the answer would be, Manstein opted not to consult with Hitler and gave the order himself.

"Watchword freedom, objective Lisyanka. Set out at 23.00 on the 16th… 'Stemmermann Group must carry out decisive breakthrough to Zhurzhintsy—Hill 239, two kilometres to the south, with its own forces. Link up there with III Armd. Corps."

Hill 239.

A seemingly innocuous little name, but one that would signify an inglorious and morbid scene.

The news that a breakout attempt was to be conducted did much to energize the Germans in the pocket. There were many complications, of course, in particular a lack of motor transportation which led General Stemmermann to make the brutal decision to leave behind the wounded (some of his men ignored these orders and carried their comrades out, but several hundred were left to die). Nevertheless, the codeword "Freedom" seemed to signal a lightening of the mood, and Stemmermann organized his weary force to attack southward and break out. It was a longshot, to be sure, but the encircled Germans were ready to fight with all the desperation of men facing certain death.

German forces struggle out of Korsun

The men inside the pocket knew very little of what was going on outside. They knew vaguely that 3rd Panzer Corps had been fighting to reach them, and they were told that Hill 239 was the "receiving point" where they would be welcomed by the rescue force. Therefore, when the initial German breakout attack miraculously managed to penetrate the Soviet line - thanks to a combination of Konev's ill-timed reshuffling and the fact that they attacked in the middle of a foggy night while the Soviet troops were mostly asleep - the German grouping devolved into a disorderly mass of men desperately trying to run down the road to Hill 239. What was once an organized, if decimated, military force was now essentially a mob motivated by a collective frenzy to reach the safety of the hill.

One can imagine their chagrin at discovering, via a hail of gunfire, that Hill 239 was still occupied by the Red Army. Manstein's staff had expected Third Panzer Corps to capture Hill 239 by the time the breakout attempt began, but the attack had stalled and the hill remained in Soviet hands. They had been unable to relay this fact to General Stemmermann, first because the radio link to the pocket had been broken, and secondly because Stemmermann was killed almost immediately after the breakout attempt started when his staff car took a direct hit from a Soviet shell. Remarkably, his death was not even noticed for several hours in the general confusion. General Theo-Helmut Lieb, who took defacto command after Stemmermann's demise, described the scene as follows:

There was no longer any effective control; there were no regiments, no battalions. Now and then small units appeared alongside us… Behind and alongside me, thousands of men were struggling south-west… The entire area was littered with dead horses, and with vehicles and guns that had either been knocked out by the enemy or simply abandoned by their crews.

All the recipes now existed for a proper massacre. The Germans were already disorganized and frantically rushing for Hill 239, only to find it occupied by the Soviets. Adjusting or reorganizing themselves to fight turned out to be impossible due to the breakdown of communications and the fact that their general had been exploded. And so the breakout became a shooting gallery for the Soviet tankers and gunners, who began to pump fire into the mass of Germans who now became little more than a mob making a break for it, trying to run through the Soviet ring to safety.

A remarkable number made it, simply because they were in an enormous mass and the Soviets simply couldn't fire fast enough to kill them all. It was not a fight so much as an animalistic attempt by the Germans to run the gauntlet of fire and escape into the night air. The result was the sort of outcome which dissatisfies both parties. For the Germans, this was an unqualified military disaster which saw six divisions abandon their gear and make a mad dash for freedom through a Soviet killing field. For the Red Army, however, the disappointment was that nearly 36,000 of the 58,000 Germans in the pocket managed to escape, albeit without their equipment and in such a physically and psychologically traumatized state that they were unfit for combat.

Konev - having promised Stalin that he would liquidate the Germans only to let a good number slip through - immediately churned up a laundered version of the story. He claimed to have annihilated 130,000 Germans and described the battle as follows:

"We took all the necessary measures so that not a single hitlerite could escape from encirclement. To break through four defensive zones—two on the inner and two on the outer encirclement front— and besides this, to pass the tank-proof areas and antitank artillery in the center of the corridor was impossible… Tens of thousands of German officers and men paid with their lives for the senseless and criminal stubbornness of the Nazi Command which rejected our ultimatum for surrender."

Korsun had been a victory for the Red Army, to be sure, and a substantial one, but it fell far short of Konev's described extermination battle. Stalin, however, accepted and advanced Konev's story, simply because he was the one who had overridden Zhukov and given Konev command of the operation in the first place, and he did not feel like conceding that this had been a mistake. Instead, he had Konev promoted to Marshal. Zhukov, feeling both aggrieved and vindicated, recalled the incident the following way, pointedly refusing to mention Konev by name:

"I consider this an unforgivable error on the part of the Supreme Commander. The Red Army had lost a great opportunity. The prey escaped. There was no "Cannae at Korsun.""

The Soviet story about the Battle of the Korsun Pocket was a lie, but that was nothing compared to the German spin. The extrication - barely - of the remnants of a massacred forced was trumpeted as a great victory. Knowing, as we do, that the escape entailed running frantically through a gauntlet of fire which mowed down 40% of the force, the official German statement on Korsun reads like pure fantasy:

"The troops cut off there since 28 January… fought off the assault by far superior enemy forces in heroic battle and then broke through the enemy's enclosing ring in bitter fighting. The commanders and their troops have thus written another glorious page in the history of German soldiery, a further shining example of heroic endurance, daring fighting spirit, and selfless comradeship."

Nevertheless, medals were handed out and congratulations were in order, and some of the battered escapees of the Korsun Pocket were even brought to Berlin to receive commendations from Hitler himself. One of their commanders made the laconic observation that:

"The troops who took part were astonished and unbelieving when they were told they had won a great victory at Cherkassy in the Ukraine in 1944."

So far in 1944, the Red Army had mauled 4th Panzer Army and encircled the better part of two corps at Korsun, and it was only February. It had been all Manstein could do to stave off disaster with a risky castling maneuver and then extricate a skeletal force from the pocket. Army Group South survived - barely - but its combat power was exhausted. And yet, these operations amounted to little more than a prologue for the Soviets. With the entire German line battered, disjointed, and exhausted, Zhukov brought the hammer down on the entire army group in a burst of attacking power so broad and violent that the Germans could do nothing to stop it. The offensive wave, which opened up on March 3, was so comprehensive that it is overwhelming for us to even map it. But if we can hardly stand to look at it on a map, imagine how the Germans felt trying to withstand its fury.

Annihilation in Soviet Ukraine: March 4 - April 12, 1944

Amid this general collapse of the front, three incidents in particular stand out.

One was the exemplary performance of 1st Panzer Army under the unshakable General Hube. Encircled on the plains around Vinnitsa, Hube kept his cool and organized his army into a consolidated armored hedgehog, which he proceeded to move westward to escape. 1st Panzer was by this point the most battle-worthy formation in the army group, and Hube kept the cohesion of his force strong and moved in a methodical stop-start manner towards freedom, with panzers in the lead to push through the Soviet forces and antitank guns guarding the rear. Starting on March 24, First Panzer formed a "moving pocket" which slowly slogged its way out of the encirclement, linking up with the 2nd SS Panzer Corps on April 6 and finally slithering out of the trap. Hube's moving pocket demonstrated the vital role that group cohesion, discipline, and competent command could play - in this case, the difference between life and death for an entire field army.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Hube were two forces condemned to die in place. On March 8, Hitler crossed a new Rubicon of operational incompetence when he issued the first order for a "Feste Plätze" or stronghold. This was an entirely new degree of military lunacy, which called for forces in various towns and cities to allow themselves to be encircled and then defend to the last man as a way of delaying and tying down Soviet manpower. The first forces to attempt this insane experiment were the German garrison in the city of Ternopol. Some 4,600 German personnel were encircled by the Red Army on March 23, and by April 1 half of them were already dead. Under intense artillery fire from all sides, only 55 men of the original 4,600 would escape the death trap - slithering out in small groups on April 12.

In the context of this war, which killed tens of millions, the action at Ternopol may not look substantial. However, those 4,545 Germans who were killed served as a sort of canary in the coal mine - a stark warning of the Werhmacht's trajectory. Despite the utter insanity and abject failure of the "Ternopol Fortified Place", which offered up six battalions to die for no obvious reason, there would be a great many more "strongholds" declared by Hitler, and each of them would become colossal death pits.

On the Move

A similar fate awaited the German 17th Army - a lonely force which had been left behind months ago in Crimea. Even as late as 1944, Hitler had ambitions of holding Crimea - both as a launchpad for fictional future offenses, and to prevent the Soviets from using it to launch air raids on Romania. The latter was something of a quaint notion, as the Red Army had arrived on Romania's overland doorstep anyway, but nevertheless there lay the 17th Army, holding down the fort as they say.

During the early months of 1944, the Red Army had bigger fish to fry than a useless German army rotting in Crimea, but in April they finally decided to liquidate them. Two armies (2nd Guards and the 51st) were to come overland via the Perekop isthmus, while a specialized littoral force - the "Coastal Army" was to make an amphibious leap over the Kerch Strait. As the 17th Army had been given nothing useful to do over the past several months, they'd been hard at work preparing a sequence of defensive belts to block the eventual Soviet attack. This was a veteran field army, fighting from behind prepared defenses in natural chokepoints, could they not reasonably hope to delay the Soviets or at least make them pay for their efforts?

Hardly. The Red Army rolled through the German lines like a hot knife through butter, cutting apart a new belt on a daily basis. The assault began on April 8, and already by the 13th the remnants of 17th Army were bottled up in the final fortress around Sevastopol, where they desperately held out until the survivors were mercifully evacuated by sea in the second week of May. Crimea - that natural fortress which had taken Manstein so much effort to capture in 1942, had been completely cleansed in only a month. As was becoming more and more common at this stage in the war, the Germans were no longer on the right end of the loss ratios. Some 60,000 German soldiers died trying to hold Crimea, against a mere 12,000 Soviet casualties.

Liquidation in Crimea: April 1944

It had been a bad year for Manstein. Despite every operational contrivance he could come up with, his front had been systematically caved in by the Red Army's overpowering Ukrainian fronts, and the Wehrmacht was ejected from Soviet Ukraine for good. His four field armies (or what was left of them) managed to extricate themselves, barely, with 6th and 8th retreating over the Prut River towards Romania and the Balkans, and 1st and 4th Panzer Armies feebly dragging themselves over the line towards occupied Poland.

Manstein was defeated.

We can say, of course, that he had fared better than virtually anybody else would have in his situation; his castling maneuver and timely counterattack had staved off disaster for a time, and he and his subordinate General Hube had quite literally saved 1st Panzer Army by skillfully managing the mobile pocket and extricating it from its Ukrainian tomb. But it was not enough to save his position in Ukraine, or his post at the head of Army Group South. Hitler had finally had enough of Manstein's constant demands to "operate" - to withdraw, maneuver, and give ground. He needed a commander who would obstinately stand in place, and most certainly not authorize withdrawals without permission. Manstein was relieved of his post and would never receive another field command, and one of history's great military talents exited the stage with his front in freefall amid an orgiastic explosion of attacking power from the Red Army, with Zhukov standing victorious over its corpse, like Ali roaring at the prone carapace of Liston. Manstein was a genius, but the tragedy of his genius was that it had all been a waste and a mistake.

Hube, for his performance in extracting his army from a potentially fatal encirclement, was summoned to Berlin to receive the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds - the highest honor that the Wehrmacht could bestow. No sooner had he received his medal than he hopped on a plane to return to the front, which crashed en-route, killing the distinguished general, who had been reverentially called "The Man" by his troops. Thus Army Group South lost its two most talented and vital personnel right as it was in free fall.

In a strange sense, both Manstein and Hube were lucky. Neither would have to participate in the disaster to come. By the standards of this war, and this year in particular, the great Soviet victory in Ukraine was only an appetizer. The main course of this Götterdämmerung were still to come.

On a Knife's Edge

It would probably be a substantial understatement to say that German faced a strategic crisis in the spring of 1944. With the Werhamcht's position in the east unraveling by the day, manpower, material, and fuel shortages increasingly crippling the army's ability to operate, and the prospect of an Anglo-American landing looming, it is probably better to simply say that Germany was confronting a comprehensive and apparently inevitable ruin.

Despite the unequivocally pessimistic outlook, the German war state continued to function. It continued to produce large quantities of munitions and equipment and experiment with ever more advanced forms of weaponry. German soldiers at the front continued to fight, and the logistical apparatus continued to provide them with food, ammunition, and fuel, though never quite enough. German officers continued to manage operations and obey orders. And above all, the high command continued to make strategic decisions. These decisions were frequently foolish and self-destructive, but the fact remains that even amid an unfolding geostatic catastrophe the German state continued to manage the war in an intentional way, and their strategic choices mattered a great deal in determining the shape of postwar Europe. It is worth our time, then, to contemplate these choices.

Fight On

In 1940, Germany had seemingly solved its classic strategic problem of a two-front war when it defeated and occupied France in a single campaigning season. This put the combined resources of the European core at Germany's disposal and freed up significant military resources for further campaigning. Because Britain remained in the war, garrisoning and occupying Berlin's vast empire required a manpower commitment which was not inconsequential, and intervention in Italy's African misadventure did divert some German strength - nevertheless, in 1941 and 1942 Germany was able to concentrate the bulk of its fighting power in the Soviet Union. By 1943, however, American troops were increasingly entering the fight in Africa and then in Italy, and it was universally understood that a major invasion of France or the Low Countries was immanent. If Germany could be said to have escaped a two front war, the reprieve was frightfully short, and the Wehrmacht had to prepare accordingly.

The broad implication of this was that Germany now faced a two-fold force allocation problem due to an extraordinary level of overmatch. In the first place, it had to make a theater allocation choice - that is, choosing how to distribute its available forces among the various fronts like Italy, the Soviet Union, and the soon to be reopened French front. Then it faced a more specific dilemma as to how to allocate forces on the Eastern Front, where the Red Army enjoyed an enormous combat power advantage. The specific ways that Germany tried to solve these allocation problems would do much to shape the final phase of the war.

Stalin would repeatedly complain throughout 1943 and early 1944 that the Anglo-American allies were taking far too long to open up a second front against Germany, but this was really quite unfair of him. Already by the time of the Tehran Conference in late November, 1943 (the first face to face meeting of the "Big Three"), precisely as Stalin was accusing his allies of dragging their feet, the Anglo-American coalition had already invaded Italy and tied up some 20 German divisions. Of course, this was not a colossal amount in the context of the Eastern Front, but it amounted to the better part of half an army group, and Germany's Italian deployment directly denuded its frontline eastern formations of strength. More to the point, the growing threat of an Anglo-American invasion forced the Wehrmacht to maintain sprawling deployments around the western periphery. By October 1, 1943, only some 62.5% of the German field army was still deployed on the eastern front, and that ratio would decline over time.

Premier units like the SS Panzer forces were redeployed to France

By November, 1943, Hitler had firmly decided that the main point of effort ought to shift from the east to the west, and commanders in the east watched in dismay as newly raised or refurbished units, along with shiny new equipment, was slowly but surely stockpiled in France. This raised a rather ironic juxtaposition - while Stalin vociferously complained that the allies needed to open a second front, the German Army Operations Staff (OKH, responsible for the eastern front) sent a memorandum to Wehrmacht high command demanding an explanation for why (by that point) only 53 percent of the army's available forces were committed to the east.

It is a valid question. Knowing, as we do, that the Red Army was building up an unstoppable steamroller, we can certainly ask why Germany de-prioritized the eastern front right as it was falling apart at the seams in favor of a French front that had not yet even been properly activated. Why prioritize a theoretical future doom when a very real one was already at hand?

In part, this reflected a belief that Germany had less strategic depth in the west - for example, a Wehrmacht staff study argued that the Anglo-Americans could quickly threaten the vital Ruhr industrial region, which would destroy the German war economy in an instant. Hitler put the argument this way:

'The danger in the east remains, but a greater danger now appears in the west: an Anglo-American landing! In the east, the vast extent of the territory makes it possible for us to lose ground, even on a large scale, without a fatal blow being dealt to the nervous system of Germany. It is very different in the west!"

But his thinking was much more expansive - and much more fantastically optimistic - than this. By the beginning of 1944, Hitler's envisioned path to victory hinged on the idea that the enemy coalition would collapse due to its ideological contradictions. He described the alliance between the Anglo-Americans and the USSR as a cooperation of:

"the greatest extremes imaginable in this world: ultra-capitalist states on one side and ultra-Marxist states on the other."

Therefore, German strategy was largely conducted with an eye as to how to pull the enemy coalition apart. In Hitler's view, the only way this was possible was to get the Anglo-Americans to drop out of the war, and this in turn could be achieved by decisively defeating their inevitable invasion of France. In this extremely optimistic construction, Germany's path to victory would entail building up a strong force in France that could smash the allied landing in its opening stage. Hitler said:

"I look forward to this battle with full confidence. A defensive victory will change the military and political situation from top to bottom, because a landing operation of that kind, for which detailed preparations have been years in the making, cannot simply be repeated—not to mention the political repercussions in Britain and America."

In this alternate reality, the Wehrmacht inflicts a shocking defeat on the Anglo-American forces before they can ever really get a foothold in Normandy. With the landing thrown back into the sea and the American public shocked at suffering high casualties without even getting a foothold on the continent, the Anglo-Americans come to their senses and make peace with Germany, freeing the forces in France and Italy to rush eastward to reinforce the front against the Soviets.

This was, in a sense, not very different from the German strategy in the first world war, which had hinged on winning a rapid victory in France so that the whole army could quickly rail to the east to fight Russia. The basic formulation was the same - attack and win quickly in the west while defending in the east. Hitler even went so far as to say he "welcomed the landing", because it would allow the Wehrmacht to give the Anglo-Americans a hard blow that would knock them out of the war, after which "30 to 35 divisions will be free for operations in the east."

Clearly this all seems ridiculously optimistic and phantasmagorical, and of course the Wehrmacht could neither successfully win in the west nor defend in the east. However, Hitler and those closest to him really did think this way, and so Germany entered the spring of 1944 with a basic strategic formula of "attack in the west, defend in the east." This goes a long way to explain the decision to rely on "fortified places" like the ill-fated holdfast of Ternopol. The German operational approach in the east would increasingly be predicated on tenacious defense and willpower, rather than any sort of operational sophistication or maneuver.

If there was one possible silver lining in all of this for the armies in the east, it was simply that they would not be asked to do much in the near term. All they really had to do was hold their lines and survive. As Hitler put it, "The time for grand-style operations in the east… was now past. All that counted now was to cling stubbornly to what we held." But in the path of a mighty storm, even this would be too much to ask.

The Big One: Operation Bagration

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Big Serge Thoughts
2 Aug 2023 | 6:22 pm

4. The Eagle Has Landed: America Meets the Wehrmacht

The American Experience in World War Two is a rather delicate subject to touch, for a variety of fairly obvious reasons. The American war effort is regarded with absolute moral certainty, and victory was achieved with what seems - at a distance of 80 years - to be almost trivial ease. The American homeland was completely unmarred by the war, with American society, finances, and industry emerging from the war not only intact but in many ways significantly stronger. Unlike Britain, which was victorious but increasingly shaken and aware that it had been eclipsed, or the Soviet Union which bore catastrophic scarring and the haunting memory of tens of millions of dead, America's war experience imparted unmatched confidence and a sense of reassured power. The story here was fairly simple, at least for the American social imaginary - with the world on the brink of domination by a pair of despotic and totalitarian powers, personified in the fight by the Wehrmacht and the Imperial Japanese Navy, America rose from her idle slumber and put things right, sweeping both of them from the board in a few years with relative ease.

For Americans then, world historic importance hinges on Normandy. The D-Day Landings of June 1944 tend to be the most widely held impression of America's war - a climactic moment in a military historiography that is extremely linear. This linearity is rather interesting. Britain and the USSR, for example, experienced years of defeat as they endured the early German onslaught, and they reached their respective moments of low ebb - Britain in 1940 as it frantically evacuated the continent, and the USSR in 1941 with the panzers barreling towards Moscow. For America, there was no widely recognized low point to speak of - only forward churn. Americans never felt that it was possible for them to lose the war. There were no steps back, only forward, and no real anticipation of losing ground. The suggestion that other parties had borne the brunt of the fighting - for example, that 80% of German losses occurred at the hands of the Red Army - were casually dismissed with a hand wavy reference to Lend Lease. No wonder, then, that American postwar confidence was so high.

In the grand strategic sense, this is no doubt true. America emerged from the war as the absolutely preeminent naval, aerial, industrial, and technological power in the world, and would in time build up this lead to become the single most powerful nation that the world has ever seen. At no point was American strategic defeat a real possibility. On the operational and tactical levels, however, America's war was not so easy. In fact, the American military entered the war in a state of doctrinal uncertainty and had to learn on the fly how to fight a continental scaled ground war of the sort the Germans, French, and Russians had been fighting for generations.

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That is what we will discuss today. It is one thing to say that the enormous power of America made its eventual strategic victory inevitable. But for the individual GI on the ground, what was the comfort there? For a young man from Missouri, dropped into the desert to face a veteran Panzer force which had been practicing its craft for years, how much consolation was it to think about factors like GDP or the output potential of the Detroit automotive complexes? He was far more concerned with practical matters, like how to hold his position against a Panzer attack, or how to assault a strongly held German gun nest. Converting America's astonishing latent power into fighting potential required bureaucratic and industrial organization, but it also required the men on the ground - from the grunts and NCOs, to the field grade officers, all the way up to Ike - to perfect the synergistic application of all that wonderful equipment. And this, as we shall see, was easier said than done.

A Brief History of the American Tank Force

In the current era, when American military spending dwarfs all its competitors and American defense contractors are household names, it can be hard to remember that for most of the country's history it accrued tremendous benefits from not having to maintain a standing army or think seriously about war. This was true even on the brink of World War Two. While the European powers were engaged in heated internal discussions about the correct application of tanks and mechanized forces, America largely sat out the debate, owing to a variety of institutional factors.

The most obvious obstacle to the development of a proper armored force and doctrine was the basic fact that the American Army did not really exist in the interwar period. After being briefly expanded to participate in the closing phase of the First World War, the Army was promptly downsized to token levels (280,000 men and 17,000 officers) with a minuscule budget that permitted neither equipment acquisition, experimental maneuvers, or robust staff work. Whatever experience the US Army gained in World War One was quickly forgotten, the tank corps was disbanded, and American officers even returned to their prewar ranks - Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton both reverted to their prewar ranks as Captains.

A young Eisenhower with a WW1-vintage tank

As a result, while the great European militaries spent the interwar period vigorously debating, theorizing, experimenting, and building out their particular visions for an armored force, the United States simply was not thinking about fighting a high intensity war on faraway continents. While Guderian, Fuller, and Tukhachevsky were planning the future of warfighting, the United States Army had only a handful of motorized units and no doctrine of armored warfare whatsoever - a series of field regulations issued in 1919, 1923, and 1939 all emphasized the infantry as the decisive arm and allocated armor to an assisting role.

In a sense, this was natural given the history of the American military. Aside from the brief intervention in World War One, the United States had fought only one high intensity continental war in its entire history, that being its own Civil War. Apart from this, all of America's wars had taken the form of either frontier conflicts with Native American tribes or expeditionary wars like the campaigns in Cuba (1898) or Mexico (1847 or 1916). In either case, the emphasis was on tough, resourceful, and self reliant soldiers who could travel light and fight without a complicated system of logistical support or heavy weapons.

Of course, it was undeniable that mechanization would have some sort of role to play in future wars, but for American planners everything proceeded from the assumption that infantry would play the decisive role. The primary role envisioned for armor was that of a horse cavalry replacement, particularly exploitation. American tank designs from the start therefore prioritized reliability, maneuverability, and cruising range over survivability and fighting power.

American tanks, as a rule, were significantly lighter and more weakly armed and armored than German vehicles of the same generation. Both the US Army and the Wehrmacht introduced a new medium tank in 1939: the Panzer IV weighed 25 tons and sported a low-velocity 75mm gun, while the American M2 weighed just 19 tons and had only a 37mm gun - a peashooter. Three years later, America rolled out the world famous Sherman, which matched the weight and armament of the Panzer IV, but by this time the Germans were already putting the finishing touches on the new Panthers and Tigers. America would not deploy a proper heavy tank until the final months of the war, with only a handful of the 42 ton Pershings seeing combat. Speaking very roughly, the American Army constantly seemed to be fielding tanks that were a generation behind the panzer force in terms of weight and combat power.

The M2, rolled out concurrently with the Panzer IV, was obsolete from the start and was never deployed in combat

The upshot of all this was that American tanks, essentially until the end of the war, were overmatched by German panzers in straight up fights. Curiously, this was not initially considered to be a problem, owing to another idiosyncrasy of the infant American armored doctrine. According to General Lesley McNair - the chief of the US Army Ground Forces - tanks were not supposed to fight other tanks at all. That was to be the role of an entirely different class of vehicle - the tank destroyer. Many second world war armies would deploy tank destroyers - largely as a cheap way to put a big gun on an armored chassis - but McNair, rather uniquely, saw the concept not as a battlefield expedient but a fundamental element of armored combat. His conception was essentially to mount an anti-tank gun on top of a lightly armored and lightning fast chassis. The tank destroyer differed from the tank in that it had almost no armor at all and was armed exclusively to knock out enemy tanks. The tradeoff from armor to speed, it was envisioned, would enable the tank destroyer to pursue hit and run tactics, hunting heavier and slower enemy armor. For obvious reasons, this tank destroyer concept has been analogized to the "pocket battleship", or battlecruiser, which was an envisioned hybrid warship which had the firepower of a battleship, but with lighter armor to allow it to run away from danger if needed.

One can see, then, how the prewar American armored doctrine was riddled with assumptions so optimistic that they might even be called naïve. McNair did not want American tanks to engage enemy armor in combat - how could this be achieved? Of course it was inevitable that Shermans would have to fight heavier and more powerful panzers - they could not simply avoid them for years on end. The tank destroyer was meant to be used solely to hunt enemy tanks, but of course it was inevitable that troops in combat would try to use it in the support role of a tank - it was after all an armored vehicle with a big gun on it. McNair's assumption that these vehicles could be confined to such specific roles seems, in hindsight, to be folly, but early American tank designs were in the end strongly influenced by this belief that the tank and tank destroyer could fulfill compartmentalized battlefield roles. Ultimately, this was in the interwar period a small military which had neither enthusiastic armor theorists or a culture of experimentation. There were voices - like those of General George Patton - calling for the tanks, but Patton was a cavalry officer in no position to either influence tank design or conduct maneuvers to experiment with armored operations.

George Patton - "Old Blood and Guts"

Then 1940 happened. In June, the Wehrmacht won perhaps the most spectacular military victory of all time over the Anglo-French armies, with the panzer divisions playing the lead role. In this precarious geopolitical environment, the United States began to militarize almost immediately. In July, the US Armored Force was inaugurated under General Adna Chaffee - initially two divisions, one of which was assigned in November to the newly promoted Brigadier General Patton. Meanwhile, Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act into law, and by the summer of 1941 (as Germany was invading the Soviet Union) the Army had already expanded to 1.4 million men. Contrary to the popular line of thought that America was totally unprepared for war and in a completely passive stance when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States had begun a preparatory mobilization process at least 18 months before that date which lives in infamy. The question of whether the Roosevelt Administration intentionally provoked a Japanese attack is one we will leave for another time.

The long awaited birth of a genuine armored force also allowed the United States to attempt its first large scale field exercises. A series of maneuvers in the autumn of 1941 would allow American commanders to get their first realistic experience moving large mechanized forces in the field - and not a moment too soon. The maneuvers also served as a sort of vetting process for the general staff, with nearly three quarters of the operational level commanders (divisions, corps, and armies) being removed in the aftermath in favor of younger officers. The star of the maneuvers, though, was none other than Patton. During a September exercise in Louisiana, he took his division out of bounds - driving 400 miles in a sweeping loop outside of the designated exercise grounds, crossing the Sabine River into Texas, refueling his tanks at local gas stations, and then re-crossing the border back into Louisiana. When he arrived, unexpected and undetected, in the rear of the "enemy team", the maneuver referees complained that he had broken the rules. Patton's reply - that he was "unaware of the existence of any rules in war" - was perfectly on brand and confirmed his status as a rising star.

Cheater: Patton's End Run

And so the United States moved towards its historical inflection point. In 1939, a country which in our own time is known for virtually limitless military spending and a permanent globe-spanning military deployment had an army smaller than Romania's. The tank force was brand new, the equipment was subpar, the officers were green, and the doctrine was somewhere between nonexistent and wonky. Yet clearly the latent power of this country was absolutely enormous, and its industrial-logistic power had no peers. The question of the day was very simple - how could the gap be bridged between America's world-leading power potential and the total inexperience of its armed forces? It was time to find out. When the Japanese carrier force attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, it was go time. The United States was tentatively ready to try its hand at a European style war of mass armies. The question was where and when.

The Amazing Race: North Africa

One of the paradoxes of American strategy in the 2nd World War is the inverted relationship between security and operational convenience. The United States was strategically inviolable - in 1941, neither Japan nor German could actually threaten the American homeland in any meaningful way. Germany could harass American shipping with submarines and Japan could raid outlying naval bases, but American children in Pittsburgh and Boston and Chicago and Dallas and Denver had nothing to fear from either the Wehrmacht or the Japanese Navy. Yet this same strategic invulnerability also bred a measure of paralysis once America became formally involved in the war. America needed to rapidly build up its armed forces and devise a way to actually project armed force again the enemy - but how could this be best accomplished when the critical theaters were thousands of miles away, across the ocean moats?

To make matters even more complicated, there was natural intra and inter service competition for resources and operational priority, and variegated logistical concerns. As a result, America's grand strategy in the war was somewhat more scattered than is commonly thought. For one thing, the upper echelons of command favored a "Germany First" strategy (and every history book will tell you that this is what happened). Yet in the summer of 1942 - long before any American troops got into action against Germany - the US had already won an enormous victory over the Japanese at Midway and gone on the offensive with the invasion of Guadalcanal. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, was quick to point this out - why adopt a "Germany first" strategy when they already had Japan on the run? But perhaps we should not be surprised that the commander in chief of the US Navy was more enthusiastic about a naval war with Japan than a land war in Europe.

In any case, there were many valid questions to be asked. How, where, and when should America get into the fight against the Wehrmacht? General Marshall (Chief of the General Staff) favored what he saw as the simplest and most straightforward path to victory - assemble overwhelming forces in Britain, invade France, and then steamroll into Germany. He had no interest in peripheral theaters, and thought that the essence of strategy was to build the biggest possible hammer and swing it at the enemy's forehead. Unfortunately, it was clear from the first staff studies that this would be easier said than done. An amphibious operation promised enormous complexity with a huge amount of preparatory staff work, special training, and new equipment - it is frequently noted than in 1942 the iconic American landing ship had not yet even been designed. Marshall and his staff concluded that a mass invasion across the English Channel would likely not be possible until 1944 - so how could a "Germany First" strategy be pursued if they could not even fight the Germans for two years?

In the end, it was the British who came forward with a suggestion. Their solution was an operation that they were calling Gymnast - later renamed Operation Torch. This called for an amphibious landing in the French colonies of Morocco and Algeria, which were under the control of the German puppet regime in Vichy France. The Morocco option had obvious appeal to the British. At the time, they were stuck in a hard fight with Erwin Rommel's army in Libya and Egypt. Gymnast/Torch would put a large force in Rommel's rear, potentially collapsing the German position in Africa altogether. Furthermore, the Mediterranean was an area of intense strategic interest to Britain, and getting American troops into Africa was a good way to get the Americans interested in it too. Finally, Torch would allow the Americans to get experience with amphibious operations against unmotivated French collaborationist forces. The British knew very well (as did the Soviets) just how hard it was to fight the Wehrmacht, and letting the Americans slowly get their feet wet seemed like good sense.

Much of the American military leadership thought that Torch was a senseless distraction, but the President decided to agree to it. His reasoning was essentially sound. He wanted to put US ground troops into action against the Germans as soon as possible, and since Marshall's envisioned invasion of France was materially impossible, he would order Operation Torch just to get into the fight. When Marshall and King complained that Torch was a meaningless distraction, Roosevelt asked them to submit in writing their alternative plans for an operation in 1942. They had none, and so Torch became the American operational agenda for the year simply because it was the only option.

In any case, the complexities of Operation Torch were more than enough to keep Marshall and his staff occupied. This was, after all, a major amphibious landing which would be conducted over 3,000 miles from the United States. It may or may not have been a "distraction", but it was certainly complex enough in its own right. The ultimate objective was the critical port of Tunis - the main hub of supply and operations for the Axis forces in North Africa. Tunis was an existential position - its capture would certainly doom Rommel's forces, and it was therefore sure to be contested fiercely, and it was a near certainty that the Germans would rush additional forces to Africa to try and save it. From the beginning, then, there was an element of a race at play - could the allies get ashore and get to Tunis before the Germans could reinforce it? It would thus have made sense to land as close to Tunis as possible, but coming too close would put the allied fleet in range of German aircraft in the Mediterranean.

The allies ended up choosing what was, all things considered, a very conservative plan, with three landing zones selected in French Algeria and Morocco. An American force under General Patton would land on the Atlantic coast near Casablanca, a British force would land near Oran, and a third fleet of mixed British and American units would land near Algiers under the command of American Major General Charles Ryder. These landing zones were relatively remote from Tunis, but they had the advantage of being free of Germans. The only defending forces would be Vichy French colonial troops - lightly armed by the standards of this war, with relatively little artillery and only a few groupings of old tanks - a token force, but certainly capable of killing. It was not even clear whether they would fight, with rumors abounding of strong sympathy for the allies.

In the end, more than enough went wrong in Operation Torch to validate the view that the United States needed to ease into the war. There were all sorts of problems. Most people can form a mental image of the famous Normandy landings, complete with the famous landing craft dropping their ramps on the beach. Torch was nothing like that - it was an affair conducted with a mismatched and motley assortment of random small craft and boats, performed by a completely inexperienced American force. Confusion and chaos were the order of the day.

The landings themselves tended to be disorganized, with navigational breakdowns and units ubiquitously coming ashore in the wrong place. One American unit that was supposed to land along a four mile stretch of beach ended up strung out over 42 miles of coastline. Many men landed without their commanding officers, and some of these lost units simply sat around on their beaches - and even took naps. In general, there was little instinct among the senior officers on site to take charge. Supply crates were not well marked - a seemingly minor issue, but one which led troops to have to rummage through boxes looking for what they needed, or simply to see what was in them.

American troops come ashore in Operation Torch

Where the green American troops did run into enemy fire, they reacted poorly, as almost all inexperienced soldiers do. Their instinct was to drop to the ground on contact, leading a variety of American units to simply become immobilized and pinned under French fire. At one landing, an American unit even broke and fled after being counterattacked by a handful of old French tanks. Where there were real firefights, the Americans had poor coordination of arms and frequently lost contact with their officers.

Thankfully, there were two major factors in favor of the Anglo-Americans. The first was the simple fact that the defenders were not Germans, but French collaborators. Some French units did fight back to the best of their abilities, but many defected or surrendered. The choice was really up to the unit commander, and the Americans had no way of knowing which would occur until they started shooting. This made the situation highly complicated and precarious, but the upside was that there really was no centrally coordinated defense by the French - only a discombobulated and decentralized resistance. The second thing the Americans had going for them was firepower - artillery, naval support, and airpower. Patton - whose landings had gone the worst of all - ended up leaning on this as the overarching solution. Rather than try to assault the well-defended city of Casablanca, he simply sent a message to the French commander informing him that he intended to destroy the city via naval and air bombardment. The French surrendered.

All in all, Torch was a rather bizarre little operation. Derided by many American commanders as a distraction and a British scheme, it ended up teaching a valuable lesson about the complexity of amphibious landings and the learning curve faced by America's rookie troops. Patton's assessment was honest: "As a whole the men were poor, the officers worse. No drive. It is very sad." Later on, he would concede that "Had the landings been opposed by Germans, we would never have gotten ashore." But that was the entire point - perhaps, in hindsight, Patton ought to have been grateful for the chance to practice an amphibious operation in a place that was not defended by Germans. As it was, Torch left the American Army with over 500 dead, a similar number wounded, and a great deal to think about.

Patton with Free French officers in Morocco

Of course, Torch had not been conducted simply to capture French North Africa. The point was to use this as a launching point to drive eastward towards Tunisia, into the rear of Rommel's army. But the timing was rather serendipitous. Torch began on November 8, and it took the better part of a week to get the landing forces sorted out. Simultaneously, 2000 miles to the east in Egypt, Rommel's Panzerarmee suffered a decisive defeat at El Alamein at the hands of General Bernard Montgomery's British 8th Army. By November 4th, Rommel had already begun a retreat back towards Tunisia. If the allies could reach Tunis before Rommel, they could potentially trap and destroy his entire force. American newspapers were quick to proclaim that the "race for Tunis" was on.

Truth be told, the race for Tunis was rather anticlimactic, simply because the Germans were already there before the allies set out. Operation Torch came at a problematic time for the Germans - in November 1942 they were already coping with the failure of two critical offensives (Rommel's attack on Egypt and Operation Edelweiss's drive on the Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus) as well as the looming loss of 6th Army at Stalingrad. The news that an Anglo-American force had landed in French North Africa was therefore most unwelcome, but the Germans responded with characteristic speed and decisiveness. On November 9 - the day after the Torch landings began - Hitler announced the formation of a "Tunisian Bridgehead", to be the cornerstone of Germany's position in the Mediterranean. Field Marshall Albert Kesselring was put in charge, and that very day the first Luftwaffe units began to arrive in Tunis to reinforce the German position in Africa.

In a sense, then, three different forces were converging on Tunisia. One was the surge of German reinforcements under Kesselring - an odd assortment of partial units, reflecting the fact that Germany had neither substantial reserves to spare nor sufficient transport capacity to get them all to Africa. In the end, a hard working airlift managed to add some 25,000 German personnel to the African position, where they were put under the field command of the veteran General Walther Nehring.

General Walther Nehring was rushed in to Tunis to protect the Axis hold in Africa

The second force heading to Tunisia was Rommel's retreating "German-Italian Panzer Army." On paper this was a powerful four-corps formation with a slew of armored divisions (even if some of them were Italian), but it was heavily beat up after its long campaign towards Egypt and its defeat by the British at El Alamein. Worse yet, it had the longest road by far to get back to Tunisia. El Alamein is over 1,100 miles from Tunis as the crow flies - but the panzer could not drive as the crow flies, and retreating along the coastal road stretched the journey to some 1,500 miles, hounded all the way by Montgomery's pursing forces. The tired, but still determined remainder of Rommel's force would not arrive back in the Tunisian theater until early February, which meant Nehring's little force was on its own for the time being.

That left the third force in this race - the allies. In theory, there would be little or no resistance between them and Tunisia, but they found it much harder than anticipated to immediately launch into a high speed race across the desert. There were a variety of reasons for this. One was quite simply the distance - the easternmost allied landing zone, around Algiers, was still nearly 400 miles from Tunis, and Patton's landing around Casablanca was another 650 miles farther to the west. With the allied forces strung out along the North African coast, it was not easy to put together a large force for a drive on Tunisia. In the end, only a single British Division with a few small trailing American units could be organized to form the tip of the spear.

The other problem that the allies were about to learn about (a problem that Rommel or Montgomery would have been intimately familiar with) was the horribly difficult task of supplying an offensive in the desert. The popular image of desert warfare is one fully conducive to maneuver - endless plains of flat, hard soil that are completely open to movement. In reality, the desert immobilized armies by yoking them to their supply lines. Every drop of gasoline, every mouthful of water, every bullet, every calorie worth of rations had to be laboriously hauled forward hundreds of miles to forward units, and this process required the advancing armies to leave troops strung out along the supply line to both protect supply dumps (often from theft by the locals) and feed them forward. Multiply this problem along a thousand miles of road, and the problem becomes obvious. As Robert Citino has observed, even though there were 180,000 American troops in North Africa, at most 12,000 of them (7%) were actually at the front - the rest were strung along the enormous coastal line.

On the dusty road to Tunis

Finally, far too much allied command attention was soaked up trying to deal with the administrative and political tasks of occupying French North Africa - negotiating with French officials and local tribal leaders, maintaining order in occupied cities, and attempting to de-nazify the Vichy French regime. In particular, Eisenhower struggled to thread the needle of cooperating with the French authorities (a necessity to keep order) while dealing with criticism by the American press that he was cooperating with Nazi sympathizers.

There was a synthesis of confusion and ineffectuality - hostile terrain, tremendous supply difficulties, enormous distances, distracted commanders, and miniscule force generation. The upshot, in the end, was a major learning moment for the American military. The operation was certainly drafted with an ambitious sheen - a surprise landing in Rommel's operational rear, followed by a rapid thrust into Tunisia to collapse the German position in Africa. Instead, the Americans fumbled the landing operation and found that they simply lacked the capability to either assemble a large maneuver element or get it moving quickly towards Tunis. Instead of a race for Tunis, they got an assortment of small and partial units cautiously creeping into Tunisia long after the Germans had arrived there.

The upshot of all this was a sobering moment for the American army when it engaged the Wehrmacht in battle for the first time. We may say "battle", but this is being fairly generous. Skirmish is probably a better word. The allied spearhead - optimistically named "First Army" but having only a division's strength at best - probed into Tunisia and began to run into Nehring's forces, which were in the process of trying to establish a perimeter in the Tunisian mountains. A variety of meeting engagements were fought, with the Germans mostly getting the better of the allies, for two reasons. First, the Germans were by far the more experienced warriors in the fight, and secondly they were fighting relatively close to their airfields and supply bases, while the Anglo-Americans had long since left their bases behind.

The Americans did have a few good moments in their opening action against the Germans. On November 25, 1st Battalion of the American 1st Armored Regiment managed to sneak right through a gap in the German perimeter and came upon an undefended German airfield near the little town of Jedeida. When the lead elements came over a hill and saw the German airfield sitting in front of them, Major Rudolf Barlow radioed battalion command for instructions. "What should I do?" He asked. "For God's sake, attack them. Go at them", came the reply. A moment of silence, and Barlow answered: "Okay, fine." Wielding light M3 Tanks - the trusty "Stuart" - Barlow's tank company rushed the airfield and overran the stunned German ground crews, destroying over 20 aircraft and sizeable stocks of fuel and ammunition. The Jedeida airfield raid was the first signature achievement of the American tank force, and the high mark of America's campaign in 1942.

The raid on the Jedeida Airfield was the crowning achievement of the tiny M3 Stuart Tank

Unfortunately, another painful lesson was in the offing. With the little allied force probing its way towards Tunis, the Germans were ready to teach them about battlefield aggression and decisive movement.

The forces at play were truly miniscule, especially in light of the colossal armies slugging it out on the eastern front. The allies had less than 12,000 men, while the German commander, General Nehring, had only partial elements of a single Panzer Division and some Luftwaffe airborne troops: in all, perhaps 9,000 men and 64 tanks, of which 4 were Tigers. Nevertheless, the signature elements of German operational art were to be demonstrated in miniature. Nehring divided his force into several compact battlegroups and pounced on the lead allied brigade at the town of Tebourba, slamming them from multiple angles - a tiny but effective application of concentric attack, which overwhelmed the allied forces and created a headlong flight. An American armored brigade which was rushed in to stabilize the situation ended up launching a series of headlong attacks across open ground, and was almost completely destroyed by the small German panzer force.

The haphazard and miniaturized campaign in Tunisia confirmed what should have been obviously by the middle of November - the allied plan to seize Tunis in a coup de main had turned into a complete bust. In the context of this enormous war (and certainly compared to the scope of the Nazi-Soviet War), the forces that Germany had airlifted into Tunisia in response to Torch were essentially miniscule, but given how small allied force generation was at this point, Nehring's little force was more than enough to protect Tunis in the short run. Facing up to the failure of the initial drive on Tunis, Eisenhower chose to spend the winter consolidating a line along the mountains of Central Tunisia (called the "Dorsal") and prepare for a full scale campaign in 1943 to drive the Germans out of Africa.

America's entry into the war on Germany was off to an inauspicious start. Contrary to the popular and patriotic perception of Americans, the American Army was no better prepared to cope with the Germans on the tactical and operational level than any of the Wehrmacht's other opponents had been. When Nehring's little force smashed them at the micro-battle of Tebourba, it demonstrated simply that modern warfare was an immensely complicated enterprise which the Germans had been thinking about and practicing at a high level for years. Whether Polish, French, British, Soviet, or American - nobody had a good time in their opening rounds with the Wehrmacht. What matters, of course, is that this was not a one-round war.

In contrast, the American Army suffered from some of the same sorts of problems which plagued the early-war Red Army (a bitter pill for patriotic Americans to swallow, but true nonetheless). American command tended to break down at the operational level, devolving action to small units like battalions and even companies. In general, there was an inability to coordinate both large units and combined arms. The instinct among infantry was to go to ground and dig in, while the armor took the opposite approach, preferring spirited head on charges which were ill advised given the qualitative superiority of the German equipment. Needless to say, apprehensive infantry and reckless armor do not synergize well, and dysfunctional command and control did nothing to reconcile them.

America Meets the Panzer Package

The failed drive on Tunis had produced a rather unusual situation map - but then again, war in North Africa conspired to produce strange dispositions.

After receiving a mauling at Tebourba, the allies consolidated a line along the dorsal in central Tunisia - all in all, an aggressive position which confined the Germans to a slim bridgehead along the eastern coast. What made this so peculiar was the fact that the position was relatively long (nearly 150 miles), despite the paucity of forces on both sides. To solidify the position, Eisenhower had to deploy French colonial troops (lightly equipped and no match for the Wehrmacht) in the center, while feeding the newly deployed American 2nd Corps, under General Lloyd Fredenhall, on the right. All of this took time - after all, the initial allied Spearhead (British 1st Army) had come into Tunisia with scarcely a division worth of discombobulated small units. Thus, while the maps may show a nice solid line running through the middle of Tunisia, for most of December this line was thinly patrolled.

Meanwhile, on the German side, Nehring's force continued to receive reinforcements - not a tremendously great number, of course, but enough to eventually receive a designation upgrade to "Fifth Panzer Army". It also received a new commander - Nehring was removed for "panicking" after the successful American raid on his rear airbase, and replaced by General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim. Arnim was a typically tough, quick moving, and attack-oriented German commander - indeed, the existence of many hundreds of men just like him was a foundational element of German military prowess. Arnim would spend the holidays chipping away at Eisenhower's line with lively skirmishing, but a to pursue a real operational victory he would have to await the arrival of Rommel's Panzer Army Afrika, which was still painstakingly retreating from Egypt.

Tunisia - General Situation, February 1943

Rommel's arrival in the Tunisian theater in February produced a genuinely unique operational calculus that would not be repeated again. Rommel's army was tired, chewed up, and in a general state of some disrepair, but it was still a powerful force. With Arnim's 5th Panzer Army included in the calculation, the Germans actually had superior combat power in the theater - at least until Bernard Montgomery (pursuing Rommel from Egypt) arrived in the rear. For at least a couple of weeks, then, Rommel actually had a small but meaningful numerical advantage over the Anglo-Americans - something no other German field commander would ever really be able to say. The Germans also, for the time being, could still draw on Luftwaffe support powerful enough to intervene and exert an influence on the battle. Thus, Rommel had what was, all things considered, a truly unique opportunity to achieve an operational victory. This would be the first, and really only time that the Americans would fight something like the full Wehrmacht package, complete with a competitive air force and functioning panzer divisions. Thereafter, the Luftwaffe was inexorably chased from the skies by the ascendance of the US Army Air Force.

The Axis had a powerful package in Tunisia - 100,000 men, four fully operable armored divisions (one of which was Italian) boasting hundreds of tanks, and a pair of hard driving and aggressive commanders in Rommel and Arnim. This latter element was important, because what the Axis did not have was time. Montgomery's army was slowly but surely creeping along the coast in pursuit, and when it arrived the Axis would not only lose their edge in combat power but also face an attack in their operational rear. This created a microscopic variant of the classic German military conundrum - facing enemies on all sides, there was an imperative to move quickly to attack and defeat them in sequence.

The solution that Rommel and Arnim came up with was a classic German operational formulation. The main target would be the American 2nd Corps on the southern end of the allied line. Two advantages would accrue - first, the Americans were viewed as a fundamentally green force that the Germans could reasonably hope to shatter; secondly, by attacking the southern end of the line the Germans would be able to roll up towards the north, creating a pocket against the coastline. Arnim would start things off with Operation Spring Breeze - a direct panzer assault against the American forward position at Sidi Bou Zid. This would create a major threat to the American line and hopefully draw in American reserves, at which point Rommel would launch Operation Morning Air, which would cut like a sickle across the base of the American line, driving up through Gafsa towards the Kasserine Pass. At this point, the Axis would have a large panzer force in the heart of the American position and have their choice of follow up targets - they could drive on the American command and supply hub at Tebessa, or even head for the coast and try to envelop the French and British forces.

Rommel's Tunisian Battleplan: February, 1943

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Big Serge Thoughts
11 Jul 2023 | 8:24 pm

5. Red Army Rising: Kursk and Beyond

A German POW contemplates the end of all things in Soviet Ukraine

How do you fight a war that you cannot win?

It's an interesting question. Perhaps the question presupposes that the inevitability of defeat is obvious and well understood, but let us just presume - you know that victory is beyond reach, so how do you keep fighting? In our more level headed moments, we would say that the best thing to do would be to negotiate. After all, once the point of no return has been reached, continuing to fight only means wasting lives and probably angering the enemy more, bringing down more wrath on your head in the end.

Yet one of the quirks of history is that surrender is generally the object of shame, and is almost never applauded for its prudence. In the best examples, where a defeated state saw the handwriting on the wall and surrendered without dragging out the misery, the aura is one of cowardice, betrayal, and humiliation - think, for example, of France in 1940 or Germany in 1918. In the German case, it was plainly obvious that Germany could not win the war, and yet surrender plunged the country into decades of shame, resentment, and hysteria over the supposed "betrayal" of the army.

Perhaps the lesson is simply that defeat is defeat, and there is no good way out. Negotiation and surrender will risk allegations of cowardice and betrayal and will subject you to the whims of the enemy, but neither does fighting to the last man seem to be a good solution. Maybe this is simply what it means to lose.

But in any case, suppose that you have chosen to fight. How do you do it? When victory is gone, how do you even frame your operational objectives? Do you openly state that your goals are to die and take as many of the enemy with you as you can? Do you aim to achieve some sufficient battlefield success so that the enemy will give you better terms? Or do you blind yourself to the overall strategic situation and give yourself over to pure action - turning warmaking into a mechanical activity devoid of strategic meaning?

Maybe the answer is all three, or at least some combination therein. In the case of Nazi Germany, all of these elements seemed to be at play. Some German commanders spoke of their fight as a "delaying action" - which sounds reasonable, but delaying what? Death? This sounds less nice, and implies that they sacrificed millions of men so that Hitler could avoid killing himself for a few extra months. Others detached themselves from the broader geostrategic disaster and became psychically embedded in their operations - blinding themselves to all but the enemy and their situation maps. Others were released from the psychological burden of fighting a lost war - tens of thousands of German officers would die as the Wehrmacht was chewed up at an ever increasing pace. A few channeled their energies inward and tried to kill Hitler, but most did not. For the most part, the German officer corps was determined to fight to the end. There would be no cracks, no surrender, no betrayal as there had been in 1918.

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Germany tried the path of surrender in 1918 and found it distasteful. In 1943 and onward, they chose to fight a lost war with increasing savagery and in the face of an increasingly totalizing geostrategic catastrophe. They found that fighting a lost war is much harder and less romantic than it sounds, and instead of reliving the shame of Versailles they willingly dragged Germany into the most comprehensive military defeat in modern history.

Planning a Lost War

The Battle of Kursk has tremendous cachet and name-recognition among devotees of military history. The mere mention of the name Kursk is almost sure to invoke the classic, almost reverent response - the greatest tank battle in history! The idea of an enormous tank on tank clash is certainly exciting, made all the more cinematic by the presence, for the first time, of the iconic late-war German tank models like the Panzer V Panther and especially the Tiger, which remains one of the most famous and beloved articles of military hardware in history (yes, tanks are beloved - don't ask).

If Kursk retains an undeniable element of excitement and climax today, in real time excitement was the farthest thing from the minds of the German officers who planned the operation.

The Wehrmacht faced an unenviable situation in the spring of 1943. A year ago, they had wrestled with the prospect of waging a full-spectrum strategic defense of their European Empire against a powerful Anglo-American coalition. A daunting prospect, to be sure, but they had found solace in a few optimistic propositions. First, they believed (or at least hoped) that it might be a matter of several years before the Americans could project force into the European theater. Surely the Japanese would keep them tied down for a while? This lag period while American combat power came online would, hopefully, allow the Wehrmacht to finalize the defeat of the Soviet Union, consolidate control over Soviet natural resources, and prepare for the siege of Europe.

Instead, things had gone from bad to worse. The powerful Japanese momentum which Germany had banked on to delay American entry in Europe had collapsed with shocking speed. The Japanese carrier forces had been smashed at Midway in June, and American mobilization had been faster than expected. By November there were already American troops in North Africa, and although the American army struggled in their first operations, they had gotten into the fight far too fast for Berlin's comfort.

But that was only the half of it. The real trouble was in the east. Army Group South had expended enormous energy trying to reach the Caucasus with nothing to show for it, and after the disaster at Stalingrad it had taken a herculean effort by Manstein and his staff just to save the army.

So, there it was. After driving hundreds of miles east and then hundreds of miles back to the west, the Wehrmacht had essentially wasted 1942, lost hundreds of thousands of men, and burned through huge amounts of material just to end up defending a line almost identical to the one they'd occupied at the start of the year. In territorial terms, 1942 was essentially a wash, with the Red Army and the Wehrmacht returning roughly to their starting positions, but the geostrategic situation had deteriorated rapidly for Germany. They now faced twin dooms - both a rapidly approaching Anglo-American invasion of Europe and laughable overmatch by the Soviets in the east. Like a patient riddled with diseases, the question was not so much whether death was approaching, but when it would come and which particular pestilence would deliver the killing blow.

Overmatched but determined to fight on - SS Division "Das Reich" rolls into action

The scale of the overmatch on the Eastern Front is, for us, baked into the situation maps by the scale by which the two armies are identified. It is common (as in my map below) to continue to locate German field armies - multidivisional formations that might be up to several hundred thousand men. The Red Army, on the other hand, had by this time reached such an extreme level of force generation that it is generally mapped in fronts, which was the Soviet parlance for an Army Group. By June, 1943, the Wehrmacht had 11 frontline field armies in the east, which were lined up across from no less than ten Red Army fronts.

In a sense, virtually every German unit corresponded to a Soviet formation that was at least a full level of organization higher than itself. Just for example, the newly reconstituted German 6th Army (guarding a line on the Mius River on the far southern end of the front) was arrayed against the Soviet Southern Front, which had five field armies in its order of battle. In total, a spring inventory counted 147 infantry divisions in Germany's eastern army, with the corresponding Soviet count at a whopping 504. The disparity in tanks and aircraft was similar. In total, Soviet manpower on the frontline was roughly twice that of the German eastern army, and the Soviets furthermore had nearly four million men in available reserves - needless to say, the Germans did not. The Red Army by this time had also come to fully embrace the role of artillery, and Soviet forces routinely enjoyed a 5 to 1 superiority in tube and rocket artillery. There really was nothing to be done for the Wehrmacht in this situation - let alone with the Anglo-American coalition forces in the wings.

So, there it was. The war was lost, but it still had to be fought anyway. How does one plan a losing war?

With considerable difficulty, as it would turn out.

Conceptually, Germany's Kursk Operation - Operation Zitadelle (Citadel) as it would eventually be named - is perhaps one of the easiest battles in history to understand. Manstein's lively counterattack in Central Ukraine during the winter had driven the Red Army back over the northern Donets River and regained the cities of Kharkov and Belgorod. However, due to the general weakness of the German formations further north, a synergistic attack towards the city of Kursk had been called off. As a result, the Red Army occupied an enormous bulge, or salient centered around Kursk. A salient like this would naturally draw the eyes of any planning team, and in this case the target was particularly attractive because the Wehrmacht controlled cities - Orel and Belgorod - directly on the "shoulders" of the bulge. Kursk also happened to lie on the operational boundary between Army Group Center (under Field Marshal Günther von Kluge) and Army Group South (under Manstein).

The conception was therefore fairly straightforward. An army from each of the two army groups would attack across the base of the bulge, attempt a linkup in the rear, and destroy the encircled Soviet forces inside the salient. Surely such a simple and obvious operation would have been easy to plan?

Planning a Lost War

In fact, despite being one of the most schematically simple operations of the war, Citadel had one of the most tortured planning processes, which revealed the increasingly cursed position that the Wehrmacht found itself in.

The genesis of Citadel actually came in March, as Manstein was triumphantly driving the Soviets back over the Donets. Manstein wanted to keep the momentum going, and immediately saw the potential for forces from Army Group Center to provide a northern pincer in a concentric drive on Kursk - but he envisioned this as a continuation of his counterattack, rather than a discrete operation which would have to be planned and prepared for at a later date.

However, Manstein's plan to keep rolling ran into two insuperable obstacles. The first of these was the onset of the mud season, which locked the front up during the spring thaw and forced the two sides to lick their wounds. The second and more enduring problem was the simple fact that German combat power was shockingly degraded. Manstein's own Army Group had been all over the map - starting on the Donets in the spring of 1942, fighting all the way to the Volga and the Caucasus, retreating practically back to the Dnieper, and then counterattacking back to the Donets. Keeping up "momentum" sounds well and good, but Army Group South was in no condition to continue attacking. Army Group Center had issues of its own - largely the fact that it had been deprioritized in 1942 and had been stripped of most of its panzers.

So, between mud and insufficient fighting power, Manstein's plan to keep the attack going had to be shelved - but the Kursk salient was still there, and something would have to be done about it.

This was where the trouble began. It was one thing to swoop down on Kursk during the fluid operational situation, but it was entirely another matter to launch an attack after an operational pause. The crux of the matter was that Kursk was such an obvious place to attack that there was little chance that the Red Army would fail to prepare. Indeed, on April 8th Marshal Zhukov informed Stalin that the Germans would launch "a two-pronged movement to envelop Kursk" and that counteracting preparations would be made. The timing is interesting - "Operational Citadel" was named for the first time in an operational order issued by Hitler's headquarters on April 5th. The implication is that the Soviets began preparing to counter the German attack at essentially the same time that the Germans were planning the assault.

Hence, Operation Citadel threatened to become little more than a frontal assault against a fully prepared and alert enemy defense - precisely the sort of action that German officers found anathema. There was really no "operational art" here, no maneuver, simply taking a battering ram to the single most obvious sector of front - a sector that the enemy was rapidly turning into a fortress.

By late April it was already becoming apparent (as aerial reconnaissance confirmed) that the Kursk salient was being absolutely packed with Soviet forces who were in the process of preparing elaborate defensive belts. In time, the Kursk salient would be stuffed to the brim with antitank guns and artillery pieces, until it resembled nothing short of a high explosive porcupine. It is not an exaggeration to say that by summer the Kursk salient had been turned into the most heavily fortified and armed section of land on earth - a veritable "anti-tank fortress."

The Red Army turned the Kursk Salient into a maze of obstacles, minefields, trenches, and prepared firing positions

And so, the Wehrmacht was caught in an unsolvable problem, rooted in the basic fact that the Soviet Union could generate combat power far faster than Germany could. It sounds all well and good to use an operational pause to build up more forces for the attack, but in this case the force ratios turned more and more against Germany's favor the longer the attack was postponed. The trajectory clearly dictated that, no matter what the Germans did, the Soviets would have a clear force advantage against any attack on the Kursk salient.

The fundamental problem of Operation Citadel was probably expressed the most explicitly and succinctly by the head of Military Intelligence for the eastern army, General Reinhard Gehlen:

The Russians have been expecting our attack in the relevant sections of the front for weeks and have done everything, with characteristic energy, to absorb it at an early stage both by building several successive defensive positions and by an appropriate deployment of forces. There is therefore little likelihood of a German breakthrough. Nor can it be expected, given the quantity of reserves at the Russians' disposal, that CITADEL will inflict such great losses on them as to prevent them from pursuing their general intentions at the desired time owing to insufficient numbers. On the German side, the reserves which will be sorely needed at a later stage in view of the overall position (situation in the Mediterranean!) would be deployed and used up. I consider the envisaged operation a critical error of the highest order that will have very serious consequences.

There are no flaws in Gehlen's assessment. Yet Citadel went ahead.

Was this really the best they could do? How could this Wehrmacht - which had garnered such a reputation for creativity, agility, and mobile warfare - really have no better ideas than a frontal attack against a superior enemy that was fully alert to their plans? It was not merely that the Soviets knew that Citadel was coming - the Germans knew that they knew it, and were fully aware that the Red Army was preparing for the defense of the salient. So why did they attack at all?

As the war went on and increasingly turned against Germany's favor - and eventually to Germany's ruin - it becomes common for the historiography to speak of the Wehrmacht becoming increasingly Hitler-ified - that is, it became less intelligent and operationally minded, less willing to maneuver deftly, and more focused on a brutal "stand in place and fight" model. This of course coincides with Hitler's serial dismissal of officers and his central role in the planning process.

Kursk, therefore, tends to fit the bill as an iconic "Hitler" battle. The operational conception was very simple, in the end amounting to little more than a frontal attack against a seemingly impregnable Soviet defense. An ill-advised operation if ever there was one - surely this one has Hitler's fingerprints all over it?

We must consider the planning process in the full context of Germany's war. Hitler, of course, was the commander in chief and thus bears ultimate responsibility for the woes inflicted on and by Germany (this is what it means to lead) but an examination of the planning process reveals that Germany's strategic impasse had brought military leadership to a state of paralysis.

Citadel had roughly been identified as a key action item for the year, but there was a great deal that remained unsettled. A critical staff meeting was held in Munich on May 3-4. The discussion, which was recalled in the memoirs of virtually all the relevant attending personnel, presents a scene radically different from the stereotype - neither the imperious, bullying Fuhrer nor the competent and visionary officer corps was in attendance.

Hitler, rather remarkably, was something of a non-entity at the conference. There was no monologue, he did not issue a firm directive, and he did not directly contradict or argue with any of his subordinates. Instead, he presented the outline of Operation Citadel, as first conceived by Manstein in March and then formally drafted by the Chief of the General Staff, Kurt Zeitzler. The plan was presented neutrally, with Hitler neither backing nor opposing it. The discussion then went around the room, and the variety of opinions voiced were surely disquieting to an already unsettled Fuhrer.

General Walter Model (whose 9th Army was to form the northern pincer of the attack) was concerned that his force was not strong enough to breach the Soviet defense, and wanted to postpone the attack until he had taken delivery of the new Panther and Tiger tanks. Manstein, in contrast, was in favor of the operation only if it could be launched immediately (April would have been even better, he added) due to the ongoing Soviet reinforcement of the Kursk salient. Field Marshal Kluge of Army Group Center (Model's boss) supported the operation unequivocally. Heinz Guderian (now promoted to general inspector of the Panzer Troops) opposed the operation categorically, and wanted to hoard Panzers to create a mobile reserve for defensive operations. Albert Speer, in charge of armaments production, opposed the attack. The Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, Hans Jeschonnek, supported the attack but was against delay.

This was a bad sign. These were experienced and extremely competent officers trained to view war in a particular way, but the broader strategic situation was becoming so dismal that - given license by Hitler to speak honestly - the war council could settle nothing. All the choices were bad. Model was right: 9th Army was too weak to break into the salient. But Manstein was also right: every week of delay allowed the Soviets to make the salient more impregnably. Perhaps most importantly, there were no alternatives suggested: the choice was between the Kursk operation and simply sitting in a defensive stance and waiting for the Red Army to take the initiative.

We can see, then, how the Germans arrived at the Battle of Kursk as a sort of default option. There was limited enthusiasm for the operation, and the continued shortages of material and fighting power led to a series of postponements. Ironically, however, every postponement made it more difficult to call the operation off, because the Wehrmacht continued to send men, equipment, and supplies to the staging areas. Calling off the operation in April when minimal preparations had been made would have been one thing; calling it off at the end of June after spending months staging the assault forces was entirely another. Manstein would eventually suggest to Hitler that Citadel be scrapped so that Panzer forces could be used for a mobile defense, but this was a nonstarter. The Kursk operation had been Manstein's idea in the first place - how, after three months of planning and stockpiling, could he now suggest ditching it?

Panzers on the move

Thus, a battle that nobody particularly wanted ended up consuming a huge amount of German fighting power and mental energy. The Wehrmacht was trapped in a doom loop of cognitive paralysis. Indecision led to delays, delays led to further investment of time and resources, and these investments created a sunk cost fallacy that psychically locked them into the plan.

Ultimately, we can see Operation Citadel as a manifestation of German military instinct in the face of a catastrophe. The Wehrmacht had fought its way into an impasse - overmatched by the Red Army, ejected from North Africa, with the Anglo-Americans threatening offshore. The roof was threatening to cave in all over the place. Crisis bred command paralysis. Facing (but not admitting) the obvious truth that it was impossible to win the war, the Wehrmacht attacked the single most obvious section of the front in an act of pure instinct.

On May 10, Guderian had a short but telling conversation with Hitler. "Why are we attacking in the East at all this year?" he asked. "Do you think anyone even knows where Kursk is?" Hitler replied, "You're right. Whenever I think about this attack, my stomach turns over." But the planning and preparation had a momentum of its own that Hitler lacked the willpower to arrest.

Operation Citadel

By the time Citadel was finally ready for launch on July 5th, the Wehrmacht had managed to assemble a genuinely impressive strike package. Although each of Citadel's pincers was to consist of a single field army, these had been repeatedly beefed up throughout the many delays. The northern pincer - Model's 9th Army - had ballooned up to a nineteen division behemoth with nearly 700 tanks in its inventories, plus a bevy of assault guns and other mechanized elements. The southern pincer - Hoth's Fourth Panzer Army - was even more nasty, as it included the 2nd SS Panzer Corps. This was perhaps one of the single most powerful German formations of the war, with three SS divisions which enjoyed privileged access to recruits and new equipment, including the new Tiger tanks.

Altogether, the Wehrmacht managed to assemble some 630,000 men for Citadel, with 2,700 tanks and assault guns, 9,500 cannon, and a powerful concentration of Luftwaffe air support. Given the overall state of Germany's strategic position, this was an exceptionally powerful force accumulation.

Brand new Tigers being railed to the east

It was absolutely dwarfed by the Soviet preparation. To counter these two German field armies, the Red Army had packed the salient with three whole army groups (fronts). Center Front (six armies, 700,000 men, and 1,800 tanks) lined up across from Model's 9th army in the northern wedge of the salient, and Voronezh Front (6 armies, 625,000 men, 1,700 tanks) guarded the southern line across from Hoth's Panzer Army. Finally, the Steppe Front (six armies, 575,000 men, and 1,500 tanks) loitered in the rear as an operational reserve. Germany had no meaningful operational reserve in the theater at all.

And so, after months of hand wringing, delays, and obsessive preparation, the Wehrmacht launched a frontal attack against a fully prepared enemy position, in which the enemy enjoyed a force advantage of at least 3:1 in every major arm. The Red Army not only anticipated the general nature of the German operation, but also the particular sectors where the Germans would attempt to breach, and even the date of the operation's start: Soviet artillery and air assets were active from the first moment of the German assault.

The German attack utterly failed to break through the Soviet defenses. The most we can say is that they broke into them. The Kursk salient had by this time been fortified with no less than eight sequential defensive belts, each bristling with prepared firing positions, antitank guns, trenches, ditches, and thousands upon thousands of mines. The Wehrmacht, which had previously measured its advances in hundreds of miles, now failed to get any momentum at all and almost immediately became entangled in material-heavy positional fighting.

Operation Citadel

The basic dynamic of the Battle of Kursk and the Soviet defensive scheme can be elucidated as follows.

  1. Minefields and prepared fortifications forced the Germans to repeatedly confront complicated combat engineering problems to advance successfully. Soviet defenses wove minefields and anti-tank ditches into a complicated maze of obstacles, which created a complex engineering and navigation problem that would have slowed the German advance even in the absence of defensive fighting.

  2. The echeloned Soviet defensive belts made exploitation impossible; even where German groupings managed to create a breach and leap forward, the advance became a stop-start affair.

  3. Powerful Soviet strongholds that were cost-prohibitive to storm repeatedly forced German commanders to stop and seek alternative routes to bypass these strong fortresses.

  4. German breaches were consistently counterattacked by Soviet reserves, making it difficult to pull large forces through the breach. Almost immediately after breaching a defensive position, German forces would find their lead elements coming under attack.

  5. Counterattacks against the flanks of the German advance forced the lead German elements to bleed strength, dropping off forces to protect their flanks as they went.

This was unequivocally the most intelligent and effective defense that the Red Army had yet fought, and the Germans quickly realized that this battle was nothing like the mobile campaigns they had fought in previous years. The Germans never really did maneuver at all, because they never got free of Soviet forces and defenses. They'd concentrated enormous fighting power in very small sectors, and this did allow them to move forward at a slow and costly pace, but as they advanced they never got free of the Soviet defenders. Instead, Soviet fixed defenses and counterattacking forces stuck all over their front. The advance was rather akin to trying to walk through a dense mess of cobwebs - it is possible to move forward, but the webbing gets gradually more and more splattered and stuck all over. The overall effect became powerfully claustrophobic and constraining.

Soviet forces counterattack

The suffocating nature of the Soviet defense bred, for the first time, a measure of tactical uncertainty in the Germans. The German mechanized package had always worked like clockwork. The basic Panzer assault had never really had problems breaching enemy positions - the main problem for the Germans was always that there simply weren't enough Panzer divisions to go around. At Kursk, however, the German tactical system was for the first time thrown into question.

The German pincers were commanded by two of Germany's best commanders - Hermann Hoth in the south, and Walter Model in the north. Both were hard driving and aggressive commanders, but the Soviet defenses proved flummoxing, and they chose different tactical methodologies. Hoth was a Panzer man through and through - he had been commanding Panzer groups for years at this point - and, wielding perhaps Germany's strongest panzer force of the war in the 2nd SS Panzer Corps, he chose to use tanks as his spearhead breaching asset. Model, on the other hand, did not want to lose tanks trying to break fortified positions - he wanted to conserve them for exploitation once the Soviet lines were breached. Accordingly, while Hoth's assault in the south featured tanks in the leading role, Model leaned more heavily on infantry, artillery, and engineering units.

The differing tactics speaks to the general fact that the Wehrmacht was having an unusually difficult time making progress, and its normal toolbox did not seem to have an obvious answer to the problem. It was not so much a question of whether Hoth or Model had the correct approach - the simple fact that these experienced and confident commanders could not agree on an obvious tactical approach was foreboding. Slowly making their way through a maze of Soviet defenses and facing constant counterattacks, the Germans plodded forward, making at best a few kilometers of progress per day. Model's group, after nearly a week of hard fighting, had penetrated less than 20 kilometers into the Kursk salient, and had wasted two days (July 10 and 11) trying and failing to capture a Soviet stronghold on fortified high ground.

And so, by July 11th Model's attack had firmly stalled. He still had some unspent forces left to feed in, and was busy with his staff trying to plot a way to go around the fortified high ground which had already cost him two days and a substantial amount of combat power. Maybe he could find a seam, a weak spot, a hole in the defense and finally break into the open? The northern pincer was stalled, but perhaps not entirely dead?

Yet, even in this optimistic view of the situation, Model had to admit that he was trapped in a "rolling battle of attrition." This was not mobile warfare at all - it looked nothing like the sweeping German campaigns of the previous years. Model had seen this kind of fighting before though - when he was a young man, only a Lieutenant, at the Battle of Verdun.

Meanwhile, in the south, the 2nd SS Panzer Corps was fighting a different kind of battle entirely.

The Tank Fan's Delight: Prokhorovka

I generally try my best to shy away from "debunking" historical mythology, at least in an overt and condescending way. Our world already has far too many obsequious and self absorbed "fact checkers" and "debunkers" and they are generally the sort of people that nobody likes. Therefore, we will tread gently as we address what is probably the single most famous tank engagement of all time - the clash between the 2nd SS Panzer Corps and the 5th Guards Tank Army on the fields outside the small village of Prokhorovka on July 12, 1943.

There is absolutely no denying that Prokhorovka was a genuinely tremendous fight, involving many hundreds of vehicles, characterized by close range tank on tank combat, and for that reason alone it probably ought to satisfy all the tank aficionados to some extent. What the battle was *not*, however, was a particularly important engagement. Nor was it a Soviet victory - arguably, it was the Red Army's worst misfire in the Battle of Kursk. Rather counterintuitively, in fact, the fame of Prokhorovka is largely due to propagandistic efforts of the Soviet officer who committed the blunder.

Let us elaborate.

The actual events that led to the fight at Prokhorovka are relatively straightforward. 2nd SS Panzer Corps under General Paul Hausser was the single most powerful formation in Operation Citadel, and accordingly it had made the best progress, though its penetration was still shallow at only 25 miles after 10 days. Meanwhile, the powerful Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army under General Pavel Rotmistrov was pulling up into position on 2nd SS's right, aiming to counterattack against the approaching SS spearhead. Catching wind of their approach, Hausser wheeled right to meet them. By happenstance, the 5th GTA pulled out of their staging area at the village of Prokhorovka (itself little more than a name on the map) and ran directly into Hausser's lead elements. In this way, an entire Panzer Corps and an entire Tank Army crashed into each other and inadvertently began the world's most famous tank duel.

The scene must have been cinematic and terrifying; thousands of tanks colliding in a confined space, firing and driving frantically around trying to find soft spots - even ramming each other! Rotmistrov's forces would report destroying 400 Panzers, and he described the scene thusly:

Dead bodies, destroyed tanks, crushed guns, and numerous shell craters dotted the battlefield. There was not a single blade of grass to be seen: only burnt, black, and smoldering earth throughout the entire depth of our attack—up to eight miles.


Except it did not really happen this way. For one thing, the entire 2nd SS Panzer Corps only had 267 tanks, and so it's not quite clear how Rotmistrov got to 400 kills. In fact, the German ledger shows a much more modest number of irretrievable tank losses at… 3. There's a big difference between losing 400 tanks and losing 3. Clearly somebody has some explaining to do.

Big, Expensive, Awkward, Deadly, and Strangely Beautiful

What actually happened was not the outright collision of two enormous tank masses, but an ill advised frontal assault by Rotmistrov. When the 5th Guards Tank Army began its assault at 7:30 in the morning, most of the SS men were asleep. Rudely awakened by the sight of Rotmistrov's lead corps barreling down the road in a mass, the Germans sorted themselves out for fighting.

The tactical dynamic of the ensuing fight was dictated by two structural issues. First, the Soviets were the ones attacking (or counterattacking, if you will) which meant they were the ones coming out to meet the Germans. As a result, the Soviets had to wind around their own anti-tank ditches. These ditches prevented them from driving straight towards the Panzers and forced them to take circuitous routes that left them exposed to fire for longer. In essence, many of the Soviet tankers spent the battle navigating a maze of ditches while being shot at. The second structural factor was the technological gap that now existed between the tank forces.

Kursk is traditionally celebrated as the coming out party for the German Big Cats: the Panzer V Panther and the world famous Tiger. Let us say a few words about the latter magnificent machine.

In 1941, the Wehrmacht found the quality of Soviet armor to be a nasty surprise, and were frustrated by the inability of many of their anti-tank weapons (like the 37mm PaK) to reliably penetrate the armor on vehicles like the T-34 and KV1. In response, the Wehrmacht asked manufacturers Henschel and Porsche to submit designs for a heavy tank that could mount a derivative of the high powered 88mm gun which was already in use for flak and anti-tank purposes. Although the original specifications called for a 45 ton tank, Henschel's winning design - the Tiger - would come in at a whopping 57 tons. The Porsche design, despite losing the bid, would be converted into a limited run of enormous assault guns fittingly nicknamed the Elephant after weighing in at 68 tons.

The British Tank Museum showing off the only currently operable Tiger

Now, if you are not a tankophile, perhaps these weights don't impress you, but context reveals the Tiger to be an absolutely colossal beast. The largest early war German tank model, the stalwart Panzer IV (the Honda Accord of Panzers) weighed in at a modest 25 tons, while the better armored Soviet T-34 clocked just under 31 tons. The American Sherman weighed 33. In fact, even modern tanks are not appreciably heavier than the Tiger - both the British Challenger and the German Leopard come in at around 62 tons. The weight of the Tiger was mindboggling considering the engineering constraints of the day. To move that 57 ton burden, the Tiger's engine could put out only 690 horsepower (compare to the 1500 HP engine inside a modern Leopard).

By the standards of the day, then, the Tiger was an enormous tank (the Panther, at 43 tons, was lighter than the Tiger but still much beefier than competitors). This tremendous weight came with the advantage of armor that was on average around 60% thicker than a T-34's, and an absolutely mammoth main cannon (the Tiger's 88mm shells weighed more than twice as much as the T-34's 75mm ordnance).

There were countless drawbacks to the Tiger, of course, and these drawbacks mattered a great deal in the broader context of the war. It was expensive both to build and maintain, which limited its production and combat availability. The transmission, suspension, and overlapping road wheels were overengineered and chronically problematic for maintenance teams. It was a fuel hog that broke bridges with its enormous weight. The sheer size of the thing made it troublesome to rail to the front and even more difficult to tow away in the event of a breakdown or damage. All things considered, it was a horribly annoying machine to build, move, and maintain.

These things, as we said, mattered in larger picture. On the field at Prokhorovka, however, what mattered was that the Tiger could very easily knock out a T-34 with a frontal hit from 2,000 meters away, while the Soviet tanks could not reliably pierce the Tiger's front armor at any distance.

A Tiger at Kursk

And so, at Prokhorovka, General Rotmistrov had launched what amounted to a massed frontal charge against an enemy which had in its inventories tanks that he lacked a realistic way to kill. Although Tigers and Panthers formed only a portion of German inventories, the balance largely consisted of new-model Panzer IV's, equipped with long barrel 75mm guns that, while not as punchy as the Big Cats, still had a 700 meter range advantage on the T-34's.

Only the night before the engagement, Rotmistrov had spoken with his boss, General Nikolai Vatutin (commander of the Voronezh Front). Vatutin had acerbically told Rotmistrov that if his forces encountered any of the new German tanks, their best option was to "engage in hand-to-hand and board them." He was being sarcastic, but the real point was that the Soviet tankers had to close to point blank range to have any real chance of knocking out the new German models.

Accordingly, that morning at Prokhorovka, the attacking Soviet tanks had to rush at full speed, weaving around their own anti-tank ditches, to close with Hausser's panzers. German crews described the attack as a seemingly suicidal action, but for Soviet tank crews ordered to attack head on, the only real option was to try and close the gap. This, in effect, turned the field into a shooting gallery for the Panzers.

Soviet losses at Prokhorovka were horrible all over the field. Two armored companies (consisting of 14 Panzer IVs and a mere 4 Tigers) reported destroying "hundreds" of Soviet tanks. The figure seemed so unbelievable that General Housser initially dismissed it as rubbish and drove up to their position to see for himself. Sure enough, Soviet figures (unavailable to the Germans but available to us) confirm that the 29th Armored Corps (Rotmistrov's spearhead element) lost 172 of its 219 armored vehicles in the opening charge.

Soviet armor fared poorly against the new generation of German tanks

All told, Rotmistrov's 5th Guards Tank Army lost at least 250 tanks at Prokhorovka, and only destroyed 3 Panzers - a further modest number of German vehicles were damaged, but were towed away for repairs and a return to action. The upshot of the day was an incredibly foolish head on assault by the Soviet tankers against technologically superior German vehicles. The scene certainly would have been shocking and thrilling enough, but this "tank duel" largely consisted of the Panzers sitting in a defensive stance taking potshots at the T-34s as they futilely tried to close the gap.

So how did this one-sided affair turn into the famous story of the world's greatest tank battle? For that, we can thank Rotmistrov himself. He had been the only commander in the entire Kursk operation foolish enough to throw his forces across open terrain into a head-on assault on the new German tanks - and worst yet, he chose to pick a fight with the best equipped formation in the German assault package. Other Soviet commanders fought a more cautious and defensive battle and were able to blunt the German advance in a much less costly manner.

General Pavel Rotmistrov - architect of the debacle at Prokhorovka, and owner of a very fine mustache

In a sense, this reflects the general principle that prudent and technically sound fighting is always less sexy and cinematic than higher risk (and costlier) action. Perhaps the idea of sitting in a prepared gun pit and firing antitank rounds from cover is less exciting to readers than sending hundreds of tanks straight into German firing lanes, but it is a better way to fight. Ironically, Rotmistrov's attack at Prokhorovka is the most famous single engagement of the Kursk operation precisely because it was the most ill advised, and he had to create the story of an enormous tank duel to save his career.

Rotmistrov benefited, however, from the fact that Operation Citadel was called off the day after Prokhorovka. Not because of Prokhorovka mind you, but the timing was a gift from above. Rotmistrov had to report huge losses among his tank forces, but he was also able to report that the 2nd SS Panzer Corps was withdrawing. Nevermind the fact that the Germans left with virtually all of their vehicles - what mattered is that they were leaving. It was relatively easy for him to connect the dots and claim that he had fought a huge battle and dished out damage as well as he'd taken it. The story was tacitly accepted by his superiors, including Vatutin and Stalin himself, because both had supported the idea of a big counterattack inside the Kursk salient. Rotmistrov was not punished for wasting his corps, and in fact would later receive a promotion, while the Battle of Prokhorovka entered the mythology of the war as the swan song of the Panzer force.

So Prokhorovka, far from being a climactic tank duel for the future of the world, was a tactical debacle for a Soviet tank army that flung itself headlong towards the Tigers, but it was a debacle that did not matter much in the end (except to the brave souls who perished), simply because the larger Kursk operation was dead in the water. For the SS tankers who shot up the charging Red Army tanks, it was a remarkable experience and no doubt a satisfying tactical victory - but it was soon swallowed up in an all-encompassing strategic defeat.

The Revenge of Reality

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Big Serge Thoughts
26 Jun 2023 | 9:47 pm

6. Russo-Ukrainian War: The Wagner Uprising

The events of the past weekend (June 23 - 25, 2023) were so surreal and phantasmagorical that they militate against narration and defy description. On Friday, the infamous Wagner Group launched what appeared to be a genuine armed insurrection against the Russian state. They occupied portions of Rostov on Don - a city of over 1 million people, regional capital, and headquarters of Russia's Southern Military District - before setting off in an armed column towards Moscow. This column - replete with heavy military equipment including air defense systems - came within a few hundred miles of the capital - virtually unmolested by Russian state forces - before abruptly stopping, announcing that a deal had been brokered with the aid of Belorussian President Aleksandr "Uncle Sasha" Lukashenko, turning around, and heading back to Wagner bases in the Ukrainian theater.

Needless to say, the spectacle of a Russian mercenary group making an armed march on Moscow, and of Wagner tanks and infantry cordoning off Ministry of Defense buildings in Rostov, sparked widespread confidence among the western commentariat that the Russian state was about to be toppled and the Russian war effort in Ukraine would evaporate. There were confident and outlandish predictions pushed out in a matter of hours, including claims that Russia's global footprint would disintegrate as the Kremlin recalled troops to defend Moscow and that Russia was about to enter a state of Civil War. We also saw the Ukrainian propaganda machine kick into overdrive, with characters like Anton Gerashchenko and Igor Sushko absolutely bombarding social media with fake stories about Russian army units mutinying and regional governors "defecting" to Prigozhin.

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There's something to be said here about the analytic model that prevails in our time - there's a machine that instantly springs to life, taking in rumors and partial information in an environment of extreme uncertainty and spitting out formulaic results that match ideological presuppositions. Information is not evaluated neutrally, but forced through a cognitive filter that assigns it meaning in light of predetermined conclusions. Russia is *supposed* to collapse and undergo regime change (Fukuyama said so) - therefore, Prigozhin's actions had to be framed in reference to this assumed endgame.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we saw some similar measure of aggressive model-fitting from "Trust the Plan" Russia supporters, who were confident that the Wagner uprising was just an act - an elaborate ruse concocted in concert by Prigozhin and Putin to fool Russia's enemies and advance the plan. The analytic error here is the same - information is parsed only for the purpose of buttressing and advancing a pre-concluded endgame; except it is Russian omnicompetence which is assumed instead of Russian state collapse.

I took something of a middle view. I found the idea that Russia faced civil war or state collapse to be bizarre in the extreme and completely unfounded, but I also did not think (and I feel that events have vindicated this view) that Prigozhin was acting in collaboration with the Russian state to create a charade. If indeed the Wagner uprising was a Psyop (Psychological Operation) to trick NATO, it was an extremely elaborate and convoluted one which hasn't yet shown any clear benefits (more on this in a moment).

My broad belief is that Prigozhin was acting of his own volition in an extremely risky way (which risked both his own life and a destabilizing effect on Russia). This presented the Russian state with a genuine crisis (albeit one which was not sufficiently severe to threaten the state's existence) which I think they handled quite well on the whole. The Wagner uprising was quite clearly bad for Russia, but not existentially so, and the state did a good job containing and mitigating it.

Let's get into it, starting with a short look at the timeline of events.

Anatomy of a Mutiny

The amount of disinformation (particularly propagated by the Ukrainians and by Russian liberals residing in the west) that flew around throughout the weekend was extreme, so it might be prudent to review the progression of events as they actually happened.

The first sign that something was amiss came with a few explosive statements by Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin on the 23rd (Friday). In a rather long and erratic interview, he made the shocking claim that Russia's pretext for the war in Ukraine was an outright lie and that the war had been fraught with corruption and the murder of civilians. Things then got even crazier when Wagner claimed that the Russian army had struck their camp with a missile. This was extremely weird - the video which was released (purporting to show the aftermath of this "missile strike") did not show an impact crater, debris, or any wounded or killed Wagner personnel. The "damage" from the missile consisted of two campfires burning in a trench - apparently Russia has missiles that can start small controlled fires without destroying the surrounding plant life?

The video obviously did not show the aftermath of a missile attack, but Prigozhin's rhetoric escalated after this and he soon announced that Wagner would begin a "march for justice" to gain redress for his various grievances. It was not clear exactly what he wanted, but it seemed to center on personal grudges against Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

Shortly thereafter, a few videos came from the Russian authorities (including one featuring General Surovikin) apparently pleading with Wagner to "stop the movement of their columns" and return to their posts, to prevent bloodshed and destabilization. This validated some of the rumors that Wagner was leaving the theater in force. News that Russian National Guard had been activated in Moscow and elsewhere seemed to vindicate the fear that an armed clash in Russia was imminent.

By the end of Friday, armed Wagner convoys were in Rostov (bearing the red Z mark) and had taken control of several military offices in what amounted to a bloodless coup of the city. The scenes were a bit outlandish - tanks on the city streets and security cordons around key facilities, but seeming indifference from the population. People mingled among the Wagner troopers, street sweepers went about their work, Wagner bought cheeseburgers, and people took pictures with the tanks.

A T-72 is the ultimate accessory

That evening, Prigozhin had a tense but civil face to face meeting with two high level MOD officials - Yanus Evkurov (Deputy Defense Minister) and Vladimir Alekseev (Deputy Head of the military intelligence directorate).

Things really got heated the next day (Saturday the 24th) with the news that two substantial armed bodies were on the move within the prewar Russian borders. One was a column of Wagner personnel and weapons who left Rostov for Moscow, and other was a Chechen force dispatched by the state to Rostov. Amid the news that Russian state forces were establishing roadblocks and defensive positions outside of Moscow, it looked like two separate battles might have been imminent - one by the Wagner column fighting state forces outside Moscow, and another fought between the Chechens and the Wagner remnants for control of Rostov.

It was at this point that Ukrainian disinformation really began to run wild, with claims flying around that Russian military units and regional administrations were defecting to Prigozhin - in effect positing that this was not just an uprising by Wagner against the state, but a wholesale revolt of the Russian system against Putin's government. In fact (and this is a key point to which I will return later) there were no defections in any regular Russian military units or regional governments and there was no civil unrest. The mutiny was confined to the Wagner Group, and even so not all of Wagner participated.

Be that as it may, by the early evening hours on Saturday there were real reasons to worry that shooting might start outside Moscow or in Rostov. Putin issued a statement denouncing treason and promising an appropriate response. The Russian Ministry of Justice opened a criminal file on Prigozhin for treason. Two Russian MoD aircraft were shot down (an Mi-8 helicopter and an IL-22) by the Wagner column. The global atmosphere became notably more humid from the volume of salivation flowing from Washington.

Can't park there, buddy

Then, the Wagner column stopped. The government of Belarus announced that a settlement had been negotiated with Prigozhin and Putin. Lukahsenko's office claimed "they came to agreements on the inadmissibility of unleashing a bloody massacre on the territory of Russia." The column turned aside from the road to Moscow and returned to Wagner's field camps around Ukraine, and the Wagner forces left in Rostov packed up and left. Aside from the crews of the two downed aircraft, nobody was killed.

Of course, speculation immediately turned to the terms of the deal between Prigozhin and the state. Some speculated that Putin had agreed to remove Shoigu, Gerasimov, or both from their posts (perhaps this was the point all along?). In fact, the terms were relatively lame and anticlimactic:

  1. The treason case against Prigozhin was dropped and he was to go to Belarus

  2. Wagner fighters who participated in the uprising would not be charged and would return to operations in Ukraine

  3. Wagner fighters that did not participate in the uprising would sign contracts with the Russian military (essentially exiting Wagner and become regular contract troops)

  4. A vague reference to "security guarantees" for Wagner fighters

So, this is all very weird. A genuine armed insurrection with tanks and heavy weapons (not a man in a buffalo headdress) with a takeover of military facilities brought to a sudden resolution by Lukashenko, and all that Prigozhin seems to have gotten out of it was… free passage to Belarus? Odd indeed.

So let's try to parse through what happened here using an analytical framework that is not pre-deterministic - that is, let us assume that neither Russian omnicompetence nor Russian regime change and neoliberal cuddliness are guaranteed.

I'd like to start by addressing precisely these two ideologically predetermined theories. On one side we had those claiming that Russia was about to be plunged into civil conflict and regime change, and on the other those who think the whole thing was a pre-planned psyop by the Russian government. The former have already been discredited by virtue of the fact that all their dramatic predictions collapsed in 24 hours - Prigozhin did not, in fact, lead a metastasizing mutiny, overthrow Putin, and declare himself Tsar Eugene I. The other extreme theory - the psyop - remains viable, but I think extremely unlikely, for reasons I will enumerate now.

Psyop Scenarios

It's relatively easy to simply say "the mutiny was a psyop" without elaborating. It's trivially obvious that the Wagner uprising "fooled" western analysis - but this isn't ipso facto evidence that the uprising was staged for the purpose of fooling the west. We have to ask for something more specific - to what end might the uprising have been scripted?

I've identified what I think are four discreet theories that at least merit examination - let's take a look at them and talk about why I think they all ultimately fail to explain the uprising to satisfaction.

Option 1: Live Bait

One potential explanation - which I have seen suggested quite frequently - is the idea that Prigozhin and Putin staged the uprising for the purpose of drawing out theoretical networks of seditionists, foreign agents, and disloyal elements. I suppose the thinking was that Prigozhin would create a controlled, but cosmetically realistic sense of crisis for the Russian state, making Putin's government appear vulnerable and coercing treacherous and enemy parties across Russia into revealing themselves.

Conceptually, this amounts to little more than Putin's government pretending to be a wounded animal for the purpose of drawing out the scavengers so they can be killed.

I think this theory has appeal to people because it posits Putin as an extremely crafty, Machiavellian, and paranoid leader. This is also why I think it's wrong. Putin has derived a great deal of legitimacy from his ability to fight the war without disrupting day to day life in Russia - there's no rationing, no conscriptions, no restrictions on movement, etc. In fact, one of the biggest criticisms of Putin has been from the war party, who allege that he's fighting the war too timidly for fear and is too preoccupied with maintaining normalcy in Russia.

It seems incongruous, then, that a leader who has taken great care to avoid putting Russian society on a war footing would then do something as destabilizing as staging a fake uprising. Furthermore, if indeed the Wagner revolt was a charade to smoke out other treacherous and terroristic elements, it failed badly - there were no defections, no civil unrest, and no denunciations of Putin. So for several reasons, the live bait theory does not pass the sniff test.

Option 2: Masking Deployments

A second theory is the idea that the Wagner uprising was essentially a giant smokescreen to enable the movement of military forces around Russia. I suppose the thinking here is that if armed columns are seemingly flying around wildly, people might not notice if Russian forces moved into position to, say, attack Sumy or Kharkov. This take was cosmetically bolstered by the news that Prigozhin would be going to Belarus. Was this entire thing a ruse to mask the redeployment of Wagner for an operation in Western Ukraine?

The problem with this line of thinking is three fold. First, it misunderstands the complexity of staging a force for operations. It's not just about driving a line of trucks and tanks into position - there are enormous logistical needs. Ammo, fuel, rear area infrastructure all need to be staged. This can't be done in 24 hours under the temporary cover of a fake mutiny.

Secondly, the "distraction" effect is mostly directed at media and the commentariat, not at military intelligence. Put another way - CNN and the New York Times were definitely fixated on the Wagner uprising, but American satellites continue to pass over the battlespace and western ISR is still functioning. Prigozhin's antics would not stop them from observing staging to attack a new front.

Third and finally, it doesn't appear that much of Wagner will be accompanying Prigozhin to Belarus - his journey to Lukashenko Land looks more like an exile than a redeployment of the Wagner Group.

Option 3: Engineered Radicalization

This is the usual "false flag" sort of theory that circulates any time anything bad happens anywhere. It's become rather blasé and trite: "Putin staged the uprising so he could escalate the war, increase mobilization, etc."

This doesn't make any sense and is pretty easy to dismiss. There have been real Ukrainian attacks inside Russia (including a drone attack on the Kremlin and cross-border forays by Ukrainian forces). If Putin wanted to intensify the war, he could have used any of these opportunities. The idea that he would choose to orchestrate an internal uprising - running the risk of widespread destabilization - rather than focusing on Ukraine is ridiculous.

Option 4: Consolidation of Power

Of all the psyop theories, this is the one that probably has the most merit. There were two different strains to this, which we'll treat in turn.

At the beginning, some speculated that Putin was using Prigozhin to create a pretext to force out Shoigu and Gerasimov. I thought this was unlikely for a few reasons.

First, I don't think there is a valid case to be made that these men deserve to be fired. There were uneven elements of Russia's war in the beginning, but there is a clear arc of improvement in the armaments industry with key systems like the Lancet and Geran becoming available in ever increasing quantities, and right now the Russian armed forces are making mulch out of Ukraine's counteroffensive.

Secondly, if Putin wanted to remove either Shoigu or Gerasimov, doing so in response to a faux-uprising is the worst way to do it, because this would give the appearance of Putin bowing to the demands of a terrorist. Keep in mind, Putin has not publicly criticized either Shoigu or Gerasimov for their handling of the war. Publicly, they appear to have his full backing. Could the president really remove them in response to Prigozhin's demands without appearing incredibly weak? Far better if Putin simply fired them of his own volition - making himself, and not Prigozhin, the kingmaker.

Sure enough, it does not appear at this point that either Shoigu or Gerasimov will lose their posts. This led the "power consolidation" theory to pivot to a second line of thinking, that Putin wanted to use Prigozhin to essentially stress-test the Russian political system by seeing how regional administration and army leadership would respond.

The objects of Prigozhin's wrath?

This treats the uprising like a fire drill - turn on the alarm, and see how everyone responds, and take notes on who followed instructions. To be sure, Russian political figures came crawling out of the woodwork to affirm their support for Putin and denounce Wagner - complete with some trademark Russian flair, like the Governor of Tver calling on Prigozhin to commit suicide. This perhaps lends credibility to the idea that Putin wanted to test his subordinates.

Again, however, I think this theory misses a few key points. First off, Russia appeared to be internally very stable. Putin was facing no opposition or pushback, no civil unrest, no mutinies in the army, no criticism from high profile political figures - it's not clear why he would feel the need to rock the country just to test the loyalty of the political apparatus. Perhaps you think he's a hyper-paranoid Stalin figure who feels driven to play mind games with the country, but this really does not square with his operating pattern. Secondly, the trajectory of the war is overwhelmingly in Russia's favor at the moment, with victory at Bakhmut fresh in the public memory and Ukraine's counteroffensive looking more and more like a world historical military bust. It makes little sense why at this time in particular, when things are going very well for Russia, Putin would want to drop a grenade just to test reaction times.

Ultimately, I think that all of these "Psyop" theories are very weak when evaluated in good faith in their own terms. Their errors share a common thread. Things have been going very well for Russia, with the army performing excellently in the ongoing defeat of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, no internal disorder or unrest, and a growing economy. The psyop line of thought presumes that, in a time where things are going well, Putin would take an enormous risk by staging a fake mutiny for negligible gains, risking not only civil unrest and bloodshed but also marring Russia's image of stability and dependability abroad.

The presumption is that the Putin team is omnicompetent and is able to game out a highly complex deception scheme. I don't think the Russian government is omnicompetent. I think they are simply a normal level of competent - too competent to pull a high risk, low reward stunt like this.

What Prigozhin Wants

I sometimes like to think of western "end of history" predeterminism (in which all of history is an inexorable march towards global neoliberal performative democracy and the final liberation and happiness of all mankind is announced when the victorious pride flag flies in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Pyongyang) as being essentially a geopolitical corollary to Jurassic Park - a poignant story of hubris and ruin (and one of my favorite movies).

The analytic model of Jurassic Park's creators presumed that the dinosaurs - creatures about whom they knew practically nothing - would over time submit to control routines like zoo animals. Blinded by the illusion of control and the theoretical stability of their systems (presumed to be stable because it was designed to be stable), there was no appreciation for the fact that the Tyrannosaurus had an intelligence and a will of its own.

I think that Yevgeny Prigozhin is a bit like the Tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park. Both the western neoliberal apparatus and the Russian four dimensional plan-trusters seem to think of Prigozhin as a cog that exists to execute the function of their world model. Whether that model is the long march of history towards democracy and the last man or a brilliant and nuanced master plan by Putin to destroy the unipolar Atlantic world, it does not matter much - both tend to negate Prigozhin's agency and turn him into a slave of the model. But perhaps he is a Tyranosaurus, with an intelligence and will that has an internally generated direction indifferent to our world models. Perhaps he tore down the fence for reasons of his own.

A would-be Lenin? Or just a man with his back at the wall?

We have to return to who Prigozhin is, and what Wagner is.

To Prigozhin, Wagner is first and foremost a business which has made him a huge amount of money, particularly in Africa. Wagner's value (in the most fundamental sense) comes from its high degree of combat effectiveness and its unique status as an independent entity from the Russian armed forces. Any threat to either of these factors represents a financial and status catastrophe for Prigozhin.

Recently, developments in the war have evinced an existential threat to the Wagner group as a viable PMC. These are, namely:

  1. A concerted push by the Russian government to force Wagner fighters to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense. In effect, this threatens to liquidate Wagner as an independent organization and subsume it wholesale into the regular Russian military.

  2. Wagner is losing the manpower surge from last year's conscriptions (including convicts). These conscripts provided an enormous manpower buffer that allowed Wagner to shoulder the large-scale fighting in Bakhmut, but many have completed their tours of duty.

This means that Wagner faces potential destruction from two fronts. Institutionally, the Russian government wants to essentially neutralize Wagner's independence by folding it into the MoD. From Prigozhin's point of view, this essentially means the nationalization of his business.

Furthermore, a slimmed down Wagner (having shed much of the conscripts that fleshed it out to Army Corps size) is not something that Prigozhin wants to send into combat in Ukraine. Once Wagner is stripped down to its core of experienced wet work operators, casualties in Ukraine will begin eating directly into Wagner's viability.

In other words, Prigozhin and the authorities were at an impasse. What Prigozhin probably wanted most of all, to put it bluntly, was to use the fame won in Bakhmut to take Wagner back to Africa and start making lots of money again. What he did not want was to have his PMC absorbed into the Russian military, or to have his core of lethal professionals attrited in another major battle in Ukraine. The MoD, on the other hand, very much wants to absorb Wagner fighters into the regular army and use them to defeat Ukraine on the battlefield.

So, we have a clear conflict of interests.

But what can Prigozhin do about it? He has absolutely no institutional power, and Wagner is dependent on the Ministry of Defense for equipment, supplies, ISR, and so much more. Furthermore, Prigozhin's personal wealth and his family are under the jurisdiction of the Russian state. He has very limited leverage. There are really only a few things he can do. He can record videos to embarrass, harass, and degrade the Ministry of Defense. Of course, it's probably unwise to directly attack Putin in these rants, and it might not play well to insult ordinary Russian soldiers, so these attacks have to be properly targeted at precisely the sort of bureaucratic higher ups that the Russian public is predisposed to dislike - men like Shoigu and Gerasimov.

Apart from these video tantrums, Prigozhin really had only one other play to stop the institutional absorption of Wagner - stage an armed protest. Get as many men as he could to join him, make a move, and see if the state could be rocked enough to give him the deal he wanted.

It sounds weird, of course. You've heard of gunboat diplomacy - now we get to see tank-based contract negotiations. Yet it is clear that the dispute over Wagner's independence and status vis a vis Russian military institutions was at the heart of this. Earlier this month, Prigozhin announced his intention to disobey a presidential order that required his fighters to sign MoD contracts by July 1.

Prigozhin's statement this morning (Monday, June 26), however, was extremely instructive. It focused almost exclusively on his central grievance: Wagner was going to be absorbed into the institutional military. He doesn't take this to its conclusion and note that this would nationalize his highly profitable business, but his comments leave no doubt as to his motivation. Here are a few key points that he makes:

  • Wagner did not want to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense

  • Absorption into the MoD would mean the end of Wagner: "This unit was supposed to cease its existence on July 1."

  • "The goal of our campaign was to prevent the destruction of Wagner Group."

But what did Prigozhin think would happen? What was his optimistic scenario? Likely, he hoped that general anti-bureaucratic and anti-corruption sentiments, combined with Wagner's popularity and fame, would lead to an upswell of support for the group which would put the government in a position to acquiesce to Wagner's independence.

It was a bold decision. Facing institutional absorption, Prigozhin gambled on a measured destabilization campaign that would rock the country just enough to spook Putin into cutting him a deal. Prigozhin might have convinced himself that this was a clever and decisive roll of the dice that could turn things in his favor. I rather think that they were not playing dice at all. They were playing cards, and Prigozhin had nothing in his hand.

Russia's Crisis Management

This is the part of the article that I suspect will ruffle feathers and earn me accusations of "coping" - so be it. Let's just get this out in the open:

Russia handled the Wagner uprising extremely well, and its management of the crisis points to a high degree of state stability.

Now, what I am not saying is that the uprising was good for Russia. It was clearly a net-negative in several ways. Russian aircraft were shot down by Wagner and Russian pilots were killed. Prigozhin was then allowed to walk away after causing these deaths - a stain on the government. There was widespread confusion which does nothing good for morale, and operations in the Southern Military District were disrupted by Wagner's occupation of Rostov.

On the whole, this was not a good weekend for Russia. It was a crisis, but it was a crisis that the state handled quite well overall and mitigated the downsides - perhaps even making a glass or two of lemonade out of Prigozhin's lemons. It's a bit fitting, perhaps, that Shoigu used to be Minister of Emergency Situations (essentially disaster relief). Disasters are never good, but it's always better to handle them well when they happen.

The state response was actually pretty straightforward: call Prigozhin's bluff.

Prigozhin drove toward Moscow with his column - but what was he going to do if he got there? Russian national guard was preparing to block them from entering the city. Would Wagner attack Moscow? Would they shoot national guardsmen? Would they assault the Kremlin or shell Saint Basil's? Doing so would lead to the inevitable death of every man involved. Wagner, with no supply or procurement of its own, cannot fight the Russian armed forces successfully and probably could not supply itself for more than a day or two.

The problem with Prigozhin's approach is that pantomiming a coup doesn't work if you aren't willing to actually attempt a coup - and a coup only works if institutional authorities side with you. It's not as if Prigozhin could drive a tank up to Lenin's mausoleum and begin issuing orders to the federal ministries and armed forces. Coups require control over institutional levers of power - regional governorships, government ministries, and the officer corps of the armed forces.

Prigozhin not only lacked all of these things, but in fact the entire apparatus of power denounced him, scorned him, and branded him a traitor. Having mutinied his way into a dead end, his only choices were to either start a firefight outside Moscow and guarantee that he would die and be known to history as a traitorous terrorist, or to surrender. It is probable that the Wagner column shooting down Russian aircraft (which Prigozhin later claimed was a "mistake") spooked him and confirmed that he was going too far and did not have a good way out. When your opponent calls and you have nothing in your hand, there is nothing to do except fold.

Consider then, for a moment, the actual scene in Russia. An armored column was driving towards the capital. What was the response from the Russian state and people? Authorities at all levels publicly denounced the uprising and stated support for the president. There were no defections, either from military units or civilian administration. There was no civil unrest, no looting, no loss of even basic government control in the country. Compare the scenes in Russia during an armed rebellion to the United States in the summer of 2020. Which country is more stable, again?

In the end, the government managed to dissipate a crisis situation, which could easily have spiraled into substantial bloodshed, without any loss of life apart from the crews of the two downed aircraft (deaths that we should not minimize, and must be remembered as victims of Prigozhin's ambition). Furthermore, the terms of the "settlement" amount to little more than surrender by Prigozhin. He himself seems to be bound for a sort of semi-exile in Belarus (potentially awaiting a Trotsky ice-pick moment) and it seems that the majority of Wagner will sign contracts and be absorbed into the Russia institutional military. Based on the speech that Putin gave this evening (fifteen minutes ago as of this writing), Wagner fighters have only three options: sign MOD contracts, disband and go home, or join Prigozhin in Belarusian exile (presumably without their gear). As it relates to the institutional status of Wagner, Prigozhin lost and the state won. Wagner as an independent fighting body is finished.

We must be honest, of course, about the damages of the uprising.

Prigozhin killed Russian servicemembers when his column downed those aircraft, and then had his treason charge dropped. One can say, of course, that bringing a peaceful resolution prevented further bloodshed, but this doesn't change the fact that he killed Russian soldiers and gets to walk away. This is a failure with both a moral and an institutional legitimacy dimension.

Additionally, this entire episode ought to serve as a poignant lesson about the inherent instability of relying on mercenary groups who operate outside of formal military institutions. There are many such groups in Russia, not just Wagner, and it will be malpractice if the government does not move decisively to liquidate their independence. Otherwise, they are simply waiting for something like this to happen again - potentially with a far more explosive outcome.

On the whole, however, it seems rather undeniable that the government handled an extreme crisis rather competently. Contrary to the new western spin that the Wagner revolt revealed the weakness of Putin's government, the unity of the state, the calmness of the people, and the coolheaded strategy of de-escalation suggest that the Russian state is stable.

Conclusion: 1917

One of humanity's most universal and beloved pastimes is making bad historical analogies, and that process was certainly in high gear this past weekend. The most popular comparison, naturally, was to compare Prigozhin's uprising to the fall of the Tsar in 1917.

The problem is that this analogy is a perfect inversion of the truth.

The Tsar fell in 1917 because he was at army headquarters far away from the capital. In his absence, a garrison mutiny in Petrograd (Petersburg) led to a collapse of government authority, which was then picked up by a new cabinet formed from the state Duma. Coups are not achieved through mindless bloodshed. What matters most is the basic question of bureaucratic authority, for this is what it means to rule. When you pick up a phone and give an order to shut down a rail line; when you summon a military unit to readiness; when you issue a purchasing order for food or shells or medicine - are these instructions respected?

It was trivially obvious that Prigozhin lacked either the force, the institutional support, or any real desire to usurp authority, and the idea that he was attempting a genuine coup was absurd. Imagine, for a moment, that Wagner managed to bash its way through the Russian National Guard into Moscow. Prigozhin storms the ministry of defense - he arrests Shoigu and sits in his chair. Do we really believe that the army in the field would suddenly follow his orders? It's not a magic chair. Power only comes up for grabs in the event of total state collapse, and what we saw in Russia was the opposite - we saw the state closing ranks.

So in the end, both the neoliberal commentariat and the Russian plan trusters are left with an unsatisfactory view of events. Prigozhin is neither the harbinger of regime change nor a piece in Putin's four dimensional chess game. He's simply a mercurial and wildly irresponsible man who saw that his Private Military Corporation was going to be taken away from him and decided to go to extreme and criminal lengths to prevent this. He was a card player with nothing in his hand who decided to bluff his way out of a corner - until his bluff was called.


Big Serge Thoughts
23 Jun 2023 | 9:41 pm

7. Death Tango: The Race to the Dnieper

Author's Note: This essay marks a direct continuation of a previous discussion of Germany's 1942 campaign in southern Russia, which culminated in the Battle of Stalingrad. It is warmly suggested that you read this prior entry for context.

[They] constructed the largest and most complex military machine that has ever existed. It has been hammered and damaged to such an extent that it is questionable if it can ever be repaired. The supply, maintenance and administration of her retreating armies may already be beyond her capacity to control. We believe, therefore, that a situation may arise, and for which we must be prepared, in which [they] will be unable to stabilize and hold a line in Russia for any length of time at all. If that should occur, organized resistance in Russia might collapse.

A timeless assessment - usable in many contexts. But who said it, and of whom? It certainly reads like one of the overconfident predictions made by German leadership in the summer of 1941 during Operation Barbarossa - or perhaps it is a contemporary analysis by some talking head on cable news predicting the immanent collapse of the Russian army in Ukraine?

In fact, this was the assessment of the Anglo-American Joint Intelligence Committee in February 1943, after the Red Army's world historical victory in the Battle of Stalingrad. The allies, which previously had fretted that the Wehrmacht would overrun the Soviet Union, now worried that German defeat was not only inevitable, but also that the Germans might be unable to wage a defensive campaign at all, and that the Soviets might win a rapid victory unfavorable to western interests. The whiplash is intense - a full 180 degree turn, from worrying that Germany was on the verge of conquering the USSR to fearing that the Red Army would sweep over Europe before the allies could get into the game.

Clearly, exaggerated and fickle doom-mongering has been around longer than we generally recognize. As Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun.

Stalingrad is, to be sure, an easily identifiable turning point in the Nazi-Soviet War - marking, as we previously said, the first outright destruction of an operational level German formation and the end of the phase of the war where Germany held operational initiative and dictated the tempo and location of the fighting.

Yet in contrast to the melodramatic assessment of Anglo-American intelligence, which feared the immanent total collapse of the German Eastern Army, neither German nor Soviet planners were under any illusions about the fact that this war was far from over. Modern armies are, after all, unbelievably difficult to destroy outright, and even if the Wehrmacht no longer had any path to victory, it still had plenty of fight left in it. Purely in chronological terms, the Nazi-Soviet War was not even halfway over: by the time the Stalingrad pocket was liquidated at the end of January, 1943, a total of 588 days had elapsed since the Wehrmacht invaded the USSR, and there would be 830 more days of fighting before Germany surrendered. Nor, for that matter, had casualties reached their halfway mark.

Stalingrad was a turning point, yes, but one which left neither party room to contemplate its significance. The loss of the Sixth Army created a whole host of operational crises for the Wehrmacht, which left no time to sit around and mope; but neither could the Red Army sit on its laurels and celebrate - for the Soviets were planning an ambitious slate of even larger and more expansive follow up operations.

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The irony of Stalingrad, then, was that although the battle is rightfully seen as a climactic moment and a discernable turning point in the momentum of the war, both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army viewed it as a subsidiary or secondary component of a much larger campaign. For the Wehrmacht, Stalingrad was an ancillary objective to a more expansive effort to capture the Caucasus, while the Red Army understood its counteroffensive at Stalingrad as only the first phase in a much larger plan to smash German Army Group South altogether. The deadly drama on the Volga, far from being a denouement, in fact only signaled that it was time for the pace to quicken.

To the Ends of the Earth: Edelweiss

As the German Sixth Army fought for its life inside the pocket at Stalingrad, their comrades four hundred miles to the southwest had a different set of problems. In Stalingrad, the war suffocated with its unbearable closeness - Russians across the street, through the wall, in the sewers, never more than a hundred feet away. This was a claustrophobic fight, brought to a fitting end in an ever shrinking encirclement, with the starving Sixth Army slowly squeezed to death by a closing vice.

In sharp contrast, the German 17th and 1st Panzer Armies in the Caucasus were tyrannized by distance. This was Operation Edelweiss - fittingly named after a high altitude flower which grows on the slopes of the Alps, Edelweiss was to be the final stage of Germany's 1942 lunge for the Soviet Union's oil fields: an aggressive armored thrust into the Caucasus to seize the oil cities of Maikop, Ordzhonikidze, Grozny, and Baku. Whereas Stalingrad was an intensely compacted battlespace measured in blocks and buildings and rooms, Edelweiss presumed to reach objectives many hundreds of miles away across a vast mountain range.

Where the Steppe gives way to the Mountains

The infamy of Stalingrad - and its apocalyptic scenery - has resulted in something of a reversal between operational priority and the narrative structure of the war. Almost everybody knows about Stalingrad; few know of Edelweiss. Yet in real time, Edelweiss was very much the primary operation, and Stalingrad the secondary. Stalingrad, in point of fact, was fought for the sake of Edelweiss; the drive to the Volga being conducted for the sole purpose of shielding the flank of the German thrust into the Caucasus (as we discussed at great length in the previous essay).

The Caucasus Plan

Although the drive into the Caucasus was construed as a sort of "final effort", with the oil fields finally in sight, nothing about the operation was simple or modest. The Caucasus region was larger than prewar France or Poland, and the distances that the Wehrmacht needed to cover were significantly greater than the spaces covered in any of Germany's early war operations. In fact, the distance from Edelweiss's start line to its farthest objective (Baku) was 700 miles, making it the most geographically ambitious operation of Germany's war - and the start line was already 1200 miles from home! The central feature of the region - the Caucasus Mountains - were by far the most difficult terrain feature that the Wehrmacht had yet attempted to navigate, and at the end of it all there were enormous cities like Baku and the threat of horrible urban fighting thousands of miles from home. Even the successful mediation of these obstacles and the capture of the oil fields threatened to create a complex engineering problem, as Germany would then have to devise a way to extract the oil.

Problems, problems, problems.

Like most of Germany's operations in the war, what shocks the most about Edelweiss is how close it came to success. Loaded up with a pair of Panzer Armies and initially given top priority for fuel and truck transport, Edelweiss absolutely exploded off the start line on July 26. The Soviets were still in the process of establishing a coherent Caucasus front, and over the following two weeks Army Group South would storm across the Kuban Steppe, sweeping aside patchy Soviet resistance and pausing only to deal with a few engineering complications, like bridging rivers.

By August 10, the Wehrmacht had captured Maikop - the first of the three major oil cities identified as the objectives of Edelweiss, to be followed by Ordzhonikidze and Baku. Of course the oil fields had been thoroughly and competently taken offline by Soviet engineering, which not only destroyed all the above-ground extraction and refining gear but even poured concrete down the oil wells. So while the capture of Maikop did nothing to ameliorate German fuel shortages in the near term, given enough time German engineering could get the fields back online.

German soldiers approach the burning oil fields at Maikop

The Wehrmacht at Maikop represents what we might classically call a culmination point, far moreso than the Sixth Army at Stalingrad. In a little over two weeks, the Germans had driven 250 miles south from the Don and captured a major oil field, completing a critical operational objective. This was also the moment that the German strategic expansion, which had seemed so unstoppable for four years now, finally drifted to a halt like the ocean reaching high tide.

There were several problems. First and foremost, Maikop was the last stop before the flat and accommodating steppe gave way to the domineering Caucasus Mountains. Of course, it ought not to come as a surprise that operations in the mountains come with exceptional difficulties, but even so the Wehrmacht found it slow going. The sparse and crude roads made it a veritable nonstarter to bring heavy equipment up the slopes, and so the Panzers and motorized infantry had to give way to lighter formations like Jaegers and specialized Alpine units. The tactical difficulties are obvious, in that the rocky and forested crags of the Caucasus favored the defense by accommodating hidden firing positions and ambushes, but the problems with supply were perhaps even more aggravating - supply trucks simply could not reach forward positions, which meant virtually every bullet and every mouthful of food had to be taken either by mule or on foot to the front. All of this is to say nothing of the climactic extremes: the Wehrmacht fought in triple digit (Fahrenheit) temperatures and choking dust on the steppe in August, and in a snowy, high altitude freeze in the winter mountains.

Fighting on the Roof of the World

The mountains were obviously a rather intractable obstacle to waging mobile operations, but the larger issue was that the German forces in the Caucasus were stripped of much of their fighting power right when they needed it. By late August, Sixth Army's progress towards Stalingrad was stalling, and the response from Hitler and high command was to shift resources away from Edelweiss, including not only the entirety of 4th Panzer Group but also most of the theater air support - they even demoted the Caucasus group's priority for fuel.

This speaks, once again, to the impossible choices facing the Wehrmacht. Every allocation of strength necessarily implied a denuding of fighting power in some other critical part of the front. There was not enough air power, not enough fuel, not enough Panzers, not enough of anything to wage such an expansive war across such astonishing distances. Hard driving Panzer crews, who had come so far, had to sit idly for days at a time awaiting fuel, loitering in the shadow of the mountains.

The Panzers slogged up the mountain roads, the Jaegers and Engineers and Alpine troops fought on the slopes, and once again the Wehrmacht came agonizingly close to its objectives. By the first week of November, the 3rd Panzer Corps had crawled to within two kilometers of Ordzhonikidze and the nearby oil fields at Grozny. Two kilometers. But like the battle at Moscow a year previously, the advancing force was simply exhausted, massively understrength, and straining to keep itself upright with a trickle of food and ammunition. And, like at Moscow, it had to fall back in the face of a timely Soviet counterattack.

Operation Edelweiss

This was an emerging theme - the Wehrmacht continued to set itself impossible operational objectives, come agonizingly close to reaching them, and then watch it all fall apart under the immense strain.

A few months later, on February 18, 1943, Reich Propaganda Minister Goebbels would deliver the most famous speech of his life at the Berlin Sportpalast. Now infamously known as the "Total War Speech", the address for the first time acknowledged a sense of military crisis and called on the German people to intensify their commitment to the war and save Europe from onrushing Bolshevism. His famous line, "Do you want total war?" demanded a totalizing national commitment to victory, whatever the cost. War without limits.

The speech was several months too late. The Wehrmacht had already been waging war without limits in the Caucasus - not, perhaps, the moral and ideological limits implied by Goebbels, but a war blind to the limits of distance, material, and altitude.

In Operation Edelweiss, the Wehrmacht attempted something impossible. They began the year with an understrength army group and then prosecuted a busy summer operation in Case Blue, leaving the force further weakened and with a backlog of supply and maintenance problems. Then, with virtually no rest and dangling at the end of a 1,000 mile long supply line, they split that understrength Army Group in two and ordered two field armies (each of them half strength at best) to attempt a 700 mile drive, cross one of the world's most difficult mountain ranges, and capture three major oil fields along the way.

Somehow, they captured one of the oil fields at Maikop and came within two kilometers of Ordzhonikidze. Two kilometers.

Don't Slip

War without limits had long characterized this Wehrmacht, especially from 1941 onward - blind indifference to degraded fighting power, catastrophic supply problems, and tyrannizing distance, this was an army that continued to unload heavy swings at the enemy's head, like an injured fighter running on pure adrenaline. And once again, the Wehrmacht had made it a frighteningly close run affair.

There was always this nagging question - just how far could an army get purely on aggressiveness, tactical proficiency, and willpower? It could get close. But not close enough.

Hardly consolation to the troops now strung out in the Caucasus fighting both bitter cold and Soviet forces, or to their commanders who had once again fought their way into a dead end, without the strength to go forward and unable to go back. They were nearly 1400 miles from home, with another 300 to go to get to Baku - but with the state of this army, Baku might have well been on Mars.

So many problems. How to get hot food to the frontline. How to move ammunition. How to get the oil wells at Maikop producing again. How to gas up the panzers. How to move forward. Problems everywhere.

And then, 300 miles to the north, the roof caved in at Stalingrad.

Deep Battle Unleashed

It was, at long last, time for the Red Army to make a powerful demonstration of its operational art.

The encirclement of German Sixth Army had been a tremendous achievement and a great victory, but there was nothing about the operation that was particularly Soviet in nature - no special trademark signatures, if you will. Operation Uranus had been a fairly straightforward and obvious maneuver - two pincers smashing through the Romanian armies on the flank, meeting up at the Don River in the German rear. Lovely, clean, wonderfully effective, but this was not "Deep Battle" or any particular manifestation of the Soviet operational sensibility.

The unique quality of Soviet operational theory was not the use of pincers or encirclements. Lots of armies throughout history (and the Germans most of all) did this. The special Soviet ingredient was the concept of Consecutive Operations (sometimes called Sequential Operations) which emphasized the preparation of a series of assault packages that could launch one blow after another, hammering the enemy with a series of chained attacks. Modern armies had become so powerful and organizationally robust that it was impossible to destroy them in a single decisive blow (as the Germans had learned in 1941), so it was necessary to be ready to unload a series of coordinated punches, so that the enemy could not regain his balance and get back into a defensive stance.

In the early months of 1943, the Soviets at last found the perfect opportunity to demonstrate sequential operations. Operation Uranus had bagged the 6th Army, but this was just one of a series of operations which aimed to bag much larger prey. A field army was a fine catch - but what about destroying an entire army group?

The encirclement of German Sixth Army in November created a crisis for the Wehrmacht that went far beyond the simply loss of fighting power (a considerable blow in and of itself). Edelweiss had launched a large German force deep into the Caucasus, consisting of the entirety of 17th Army and 1st Panzer Army, the majority of 4th Panzer Army, and a variety of Romanian units that were in tow. The Soviet counteroffensive at Stalingrad now raised the possibility of a larger offensive to cut off the German line of supply and retreat and bag the entire operational group in the Caucasus.

The German line along the Don River was manned by units of variegated strength and national origin - from north to south, the German 2nd Army anchored the defense at the top around Voronezh; the Hungarian 2nd sat to its south, followed by the Italian 8th, the remnants of the Romanian 3rd, and then - a giant hole, where Sixth Army used to be. To plug this hole, the Wehrmacht created an improvised grouping - optimistically designated "Army Group Don" and rushed in one of their most gifted commanders to run it - Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. He was tasked with stabilizing the defensive front and - if it was even possible - counterattacking towards Stalingrad to rescue 6th Army.


This offers a useful opportunity to comment on the… shall we say, organizational liberties which the Germans increasingly began to dispose of. Manstein (probably the best overall German commander of the war) was nominally given command of a new army group - in theory, this was one of history's greatest talents being handed a powerful bat to smack the enemy. But of what did this army group actually consist? As it turns out, not much at all.

Manstein's new "Army Group" consisted on paper of three armies, but one of these was actually the Sixth Army - almost all of which was encircled at Stalingrad. So that left two armies, but one of these was almost exclusively Romanian and had little combat value. That left one army - ostensibly the 4th Panzer Army. Surely Manstein with a Panzer Army could do some damage! In fact, most of 4th Panzer had been previously split off and sent back to the Caucasus, and the portion left for Manstein had no Panzer divisions and consisted largely of… Romanians.

So Army Group Don, despite its lofty title, had virtually no organic combat power. Manstein was under orders to rescue 6th Army at Stalingrad, but he initially had no armor to speak of. In the end, he received a mere two Panzer divisions - the 6th (fresh off a refit in France) and the 22nd, which was transferred from the Caucasus and had a mere 30 tanks left in its inventory. These two divisions were used to launch "Operation Winter Storm" - an impossibly optimistic attempt to punch through the Soviet ring and reestablish a ground connection to 6th Army at Stalingrad. Predictably, the attack collapsed in only a few days.

Woefully understrength, Operation Winter Storm was doomed to failure

And so Manstein, tasked with protecting the crucial sector of front connecting the German grouping in the Caucasus, was forced to fight with "Kampfgruppen."

The Wehrmacht has been romanticized and mythologized in countless ways, and few are as bizarre as the idealization of the Kampfgruppe. Literally a "battle group", these were improvised units that were increasingly used to deal with emergencies as the war turned against Germany. The Kampfgruppe is frequently romanticized as a symbol of a preternatural German inclination for warfare and a skill for improvisation. The notion is that the Germans could just throw together random units - a battalion of infantry, a few halftracks, a mortar, and a handful of assorted Panzers - and create highly effective and flexible units.

More often than not, the Kampfgruppen were ineffective and broke apart quickly. Usually, they did not even consist of proper troops and they were frequently commanded by officers who were not field commanders, but were put in charge because they happened to be available - logistics, personnel, and engineering officers, for example. The names on the German order of battle - "Gruppe Stahel", or "Hollidt Gruppe" - vaguely conjure up the idea of stoic and experienced commanders leading gritty units, but more often than not these were rear area officers leading rear area personnel, like Luftwaffe ground crews, engineering units, military police, administrative staff, and the like - in short, men that were given rifles and hauled up to the front because the Wehrmacht was being defeated by the Red Army.

The contrast of these two armies could not have been more extreme.

While Manstein was trying to rescue Sixth Army with a pair of panzer divisions and stabilize the defensive front with combat ineffective Kampfgruppen, the Soviets prepared a sequence of operations that aimed to shatter the entire German line in the south and cut off the Caucasus grouping.

The operational agenda for the Red Army was genuinely impressive and spoke to an army that was fighting with increasing confidence. Operation Uranus had smashed the Romanians around Stalingrad and encircled 6th Army, and would be followed up by a series of similarly powerful attacks all across the Don River line. Each Axis army was to be targeted by a multi-Army offensive. The Italians were to be smashed by Operation Little Saturn; the Ostrogozhsk Operation would hit the Hungarians; Operation Gallop would attack westward across the Don against Manstein's "Don" grouping, and finally Operation Star would smash the German 2nd Army near Voronezh.

Soviet Operations in the South - Winter 1942-43

These operations were to occur in a sequence, one after the other with little intermittent lag. This was to be a bona fide display of Successive Operations (or Consecutive/Sequential - pick your preferred terminology), which would hammer in a sequence along the entire German front. For an army like the Wehrmacht that had very little in the way of reserves, this promised a catastrophe, and if the Red Army reached Rostov they would cut off the entire German grouping in the Caucasus - a disaster that would have been a full order of magnitude more deadly than Stalingrad.

It should come as no surprise to anybody that the Red Army's attacks broke through almost everywhere. Little Saturn began on December 16 and positively shredded the Italian 8th Army, which had no anti-tank weapons or armor to speak of. Many Italian units (somewhat stereotypically) either surrendered or fled without a fight. The Soviet 24th Tank Corps drove 150 miles into the rear in only nine days and overran a major Luftwaffe airfield on Christmas Eve. This produced one of the most cinematic scenes of the entire war, with dozens of German aircraft destroyed on the runways by Soviet tanks - some Red Army tankers rammed the tails to save ammunition. Overrunning an enemy airfield has always been a classical indicator that genuine operational exploitation has been achieved, and in this case it served as an iconic proof of Little Saturn's great success.

Wrecked German JU-52s at the Tatsinskaya Airfield

January brought another catastrophe, with the Soviet Ostrogozhsk offensive beginning on the 13th and rapidly overrunning the Hungarian force, which consisted of only light infantry.

It is perhaps tempting to write this off as simply another instance of Germany's allies being lightweights, but this would in fact be rather unfair. The German armies targeted by Operations Gallop and Star did not fare discernably better than the Hungarians and Italians did. The rather plain fact was that the Axis defense along the Don was overstretched, undersupplied, and completely overmatched by the enormous force that the Red Army had assembled. It was little wonder that the Soviets put up one of the most substantial operational successes of the war.

By the middle of February, the Red Army had advanced all along a front nearly 350 miles long from north to south, and most importantly they had gone deep - nearly 300 miles, in some places. Major industrial cities were recaptured in short order - Voronezh, Kursk, Belgorod, Kharkov. Since the start of Operation Uranus in November, no fewer than six axis field armies had been either destroyed outright or mauled to the edge of disintegration. Most importantly of all, the Red Army seemed poise to not only reach Rostov (cutting off the German Caucasus grouping) but perhaps even drive to the Dnieper - destroying Army Group South in its entirety.

T-34s on the move in their winter camo

Little wonder then, that it was precisely at this time that Anglo-American Joint Intelligence issued their warning that German forces in Russia might collapse altogether.

Deep Battle, and more specifically Sequential Operations had been a smashing success of the highest order. The Red Army had as recently as October been defending along the Volga, but they'd caved in the German line on the Don, crossed the Donets, and now the Dnieper was in view! At which river would they stop? The Bug? The Vistula?

The Rhine?

The crisis faced by the Germans was proportionate to the elation of the Red Army. A whole line of armies had crumbled, Edelweiss was stalled out, the Caucasian grouping faced entombment in the mountains if they failed to get moving soon, and the entire southern theater was collapsing.

To try and restore this appalling situation map, Army High Command took the discombobulated order of battle, with its disjointed, strung out, half-strength army groups - "Group A", "Group B", "Group Don" - and merged them back into a single command as Army Group South. This command was given to Manstein, along with a simple objective: save the army.

Manstein had always fancied himself a genius in the vein of Moltke or Napoleon - gifted with both the preternatural aggression of the classical German school, a precocious intellect and deft command of operational realities, and that ethereal ability to see things, to extract truth from the map, to know and act and win. Most of his colleagues, enemies, and historians agreed, however begrudgingly, that he was probably right. He was the architect of the world historic victory over France, and his solo command in Crimea had been an amazing success. No one could deny it: Manstein was talented. Perhaps he was even a genius.

It would take a genius to save Army Group South.

Manstein's Immortal Maneuver

The Field Marshal glowered at the map. Problems everywhere. He finally had what he had wanted from the very start. Full theater command - carte blanche and a whole army group. Well… it used to be an army group. Now it was just a mess. There were two Panzer Armies in the inventory, but they were way out in the Kuban, far south of the Don. He had to get them out of there, somehow. The Hungarians and Italians had melted away. That much was to be expected, he supposed, but it still left a gaping hole in the center of his front, and the Soviets were plowing through it - heading for the Dnieper. If they reached the river… Something had to be done. 2nd SS Panzer Corps was arriving in theater. He could do something with that. There was some real fighting power. And the two Panzer Armies in the South. Yes… there were enough pieces here to achieve something. They just needed to be brought into position. Somehow.

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Big Serge Thoughts
7 Jun 2023 | 8:42 pm

8. Russo-Ukrainian War: Dam!

It is probably safe to say that the current week (June 5-11, 2023) is shaping up to be one of the most significant of the entire Russo-Ukrainian War. On Monday, all eyes were on the Ukrainian Armed Forces and their much anticipated summer counteroffensive, which began with a series of battallion level attacks across the breadth of the theater. After these initial assaults in the Ugledar, Bakhmut, and Soledar sectors began to collapse with heavy losses, it looked like the topic of discussion for the forseeable future would be Ukraine's prospects for breaching strongly held Russian defenses.

Instead, the entire Ukrainian offensive was overshadowed by the sudden and entirely unexpected failure of the dam at Nova Kakhovka on the lower Dneiper.

Let's be clear about one thing: the destruction of this dam marks a qualitative change in the course of the war; a dam represents an entirely different tier of target. There is a broad sense that dams are not legitimate military targets, as they fall in the category of "objects containing dangerous forces", along with things like sea walls, dykes, and nuclear power plants. However, attacks on dams are not without precedent, and the legality of such attacks is a complicated and thorny topic - it is not so simple as to say "attacking dams is a war crime" in all circumstances.

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In any case, the legalities are not the main point here. The destruction of dams has the potential to impact civilians on a scale which is an order of magnitude higher than anything which has yet occured. The reality of the war in Ukraine is that, due to the fact that most of the fighting is occuring in depopulated areas (along with Russia's use of precision standoff weapons) civilian casualties have been mercifully low. Through May of this year, there were fewer than 9,000 recorded civilian deaths in Ukraine (including both Ukrainian and Russian controlled territories). This is a thankfully low number, compared (for example) to the war in Syria, where over 30,000 civilians are killed annually, or Iraq, where nearly 18,000 civilians died per year in the years following the American invasion in 2003.

A breaking dam, however, massively escalates the threat to civilians. Tens of thousands of civilians are in the flood path and have to be evacuated - but perhaps even more significantly, the destruction of the dam creates a major threat to agriculture. There are also rising escalation risks, and the last thing anybody wants is for dams to become a permanent menu item.

The worst war crime of all: turning Ukraine into New Orleans

In this article, I want to conduct a preliminary assessment of the destruction of the dam, its consequences, and its potential causes. In particular, I want to sort through the evidence and get a sense of whether Ukraine or Russia is a more likely culprit. As it currently stands, the situation is in flux and it is not as if we will find either Zelensky's or Putin's fingerprints on the detonator, but we can at least put some puzzle pieces roughly into position and get a sense of what the picture looks like.

One thing that I want to mention, first off, is that we do not need to assume that the dam was intentionally destroyed. For example, in a now infamous Washington Post article, we learn that Ukraine experimenting with hitting the dam with GMLRS rockets in an attempt to blow a hole and create a controlled flood. The sense that one gets here is that Ukraine did not necessarily intend to destroy the dam altogether, but rather that they wanted to create a limited breach and by extension a limited flood.

We will keep such possibilities in mind and consider them to be a distinction without difference. It's entirely possible that one party or the other attempted to create a limited breach and accidentally brought about a much larger dam failure, but from our perspective this isn't particularly different from intentionally bringing the whole thing down.

With this little distinction in mind, let's begin to sort through what we know about this whole dam thing.

Water World

What on earth is (or was) the Kakhovka dam and what was its relation to the larger geography of the surrounding steppe?

To begin with, let's make a brief note about the Dnieper. In its natural state, the Dnieper is a deeply difficult and turbulent river, characterized by a series of essentially unnavigable rapids. In fact, the Dnieper's fiesty nature is precisely why the city of Kiev is where it is. 1200 years ago, when enterprising traders came rowing down the Dnieper (trying to get to the Black Sea, and thence to Constantinople), they found that certain portions of the river were impassable, and it was necessary to "portage" their boats - which means dragging them out of the river and overland to get past the rapids.

Portaging a boat on the middle Dnieper in 800 AD was dangerous. While disembarked and laboriously dragging the boat downstream, a trading party would be highly vulnerable to attack by the various warlike tribes which inhabited the region at the time. So it became necessary to build some sort of outpost stronghold which could serve as a waypoint to make passage down the river at least acceptably safe. Hence, Kiev - buit originally as a timber fortified trading post to ease passage along the middle Dnieper.

This is perhaps interesting, but as an aside it illustrates the basic point that for most of human history the Dnieper was not a friendly or easily navigable river akin to the Mississippi or the Rhine, and in the Soviet era a major effort was undertaken at last to tame it, in the form of a series of hydroelectric dams. These dams stiffled the rapids, generated electricity, smoothed the river's course, and created enormous resevoirs, of which the Kakhovka resevoir is the largest by volume.

The Resevoirs and Dams of the Dneiper

The creation of the Kakhovka resevoir was also vitally linked to a series of canals which are fed from the resevoir. The most important of these is the Crimean canal, which carries Dnieper water to Crimea, but there are also a series of irrigation works which are vital to agricutlure in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts.

Canals fed by the Kakhovka Resevoir System

So that is the basic structure of the region's hydrology. We can therefore enumerate both upstream and downstream effects from the dam's breaching. Upstream effects relate to the draining of the Kakhovka resevoir, which will in time lead to insufficient flow through the canals, depriving both Crimea and regional farmland of water. Downstream effects are those of the enormous flooding which is currently taking place.

A threat to the Kakhovka dam first entered the discourse last autumn, when General Surovikin made the stunning decision to withdraw Russian forces from west bank Kherson - a decision which he said was prompted by the fear that Ukraine might destroy the dam and create a flood which would trap Russian troops on the far shore. That decision certainly looks prescient now, but thanks to this earlier discussion there was already a bevy of analysis conducted predicting what the flood path might look like.

As per the latest information as of this writing, the river has not yet crested and water levels continue to rise, but this has already turned into a vast and extremely disruptive flood. This is a severe humanitarian and ecological disaster with implications for the military situation in Ukraine. The question is - who did it?

Incriminating Evidence

Let's start by looking at the most direct evidence potentially implicating Russia or Ukraine. I'd like to start by looking at an allegedly damning (haha) video which has been circulating rapidly, which purports to confirm that Russia blew the dam.

The video in question allegedly shows a Russian soldier giving an interview in December in which he boasts that the Russian army mined the Kakhovka dam and plan to destroy it to create a cascading flood and wash away the Ukrainian troops downstream.

Not to be blunt, but this is an egregiously bad bit of trickery and it's difficult to believe that people are falling for it. To begin with, this is an interview with a Ukrainian blogger and youtuber who goes by the screen name "Edgar Myrotvorets" - interestingly naming himself after the infamous Ukrainian kill list. The "Russian soldier" who he is interviewing is allegedly a gentleman named Yegor Guzenko. Yegor seems to be an interesting fellow - he pops up on social media periodically largely to confess to stereotyped Russian war crimes, like kidnapping civilians and executing Ukrainian prisoners, and of course blowing up dams.

Essentially, we are being asked to believe that there is a Russian soldier out there who is giving interviews to Ukrainian media in which he confesses to all of Russia's nefarious activities, and then goes about his duties without being stopped or punished. It should be pretty obvious that Yegor is actually Yehor, and is not a Russian soldier at all but a Ukrainian impersonator - funnily enough, Yegor also has a beard even though the Russian MOD has been cracking down on facial hair.

In any case, Yegor's explosive interview is the main piece of direct evidence which is being used to prove that Russia blew up the dam.

In contrast, the evidence implicating Ukraine is pretty straightforward: they openly talked about experimenting with ways to breach the dam, and have actively shot rockets and artillery shells at it in the past. We refer back to the infamous WaPo article, and in particular the key passage:

Kovalchuk [commander of Ukrainian Operative Commandment South] considered flooding the river. The Ukrainians, he said, even conducted a test strike with a HIMARS launcher on one of the floodgates at the Nova Kakhovka dam, making three holes in the metal to see if the Dnieper's water could be raised enough to stymie Russian crossings but not flood nearby villages.

The test was a success, Kovalchuk said, but the step remained a last resort. He held off.

We even have footage of Ukraine striking the dam (particularly the roadway on top of it) from last year - footage which was incorrectly shared this week as being video of the strike that destroyed the dam on monday.

There is also a variety of circumstantial evidence worth sorting through.

A popular point being raised by the Ukrainian infosphere is the fact that the Kakhovka dam was under Russian control - therefore, they argue that only Russia could have planted explosives to create a breach (at this point, we do not know the precise technical method used to create the breach).

I rather think that Russia's control of the dam makes it much less likely that they are responsible, for the following basic reason. First, having control over the dam's gates means that Russia had the power to manipulate water levels downstream at will. If they wanted to create flooding, they could have simply opened all the gates. With the dam now breached, they have lost this control.

The situation is very much akin to the destruction of the Nordstream pipeline (which now seems to be being blamed on Ukraine, rather predictibly). Both Nordstream and the Kakhovka dam were tools that Russia had the power to swing in one direction or the other. These were levers that Russia could move from on to off and back again. The destruction of these tools actually robs Russia of control, and in both cases we are asked to believe that Russia intentionally disabled its own levers.

Cui Bono?

Ultimately, any analysis would be incomplete without asking a very basic question: who benefits from the destruction of the dam? This is where it gets a bit complicated, largely because there are so many concerns at cross-currents to each other. Let's enumerate a few.

First, the flooding disproportionately affects the Russian side of the river. This has been pretty thoroughly established. The eastern bank of the river is lower and thus more affected by flooding. We knew this in the academic sense, and now satellite imagery confirms that it is indeed the east bank that has suffered most of the flooding.

This has had the effect of washing out prepared Russian defenses, including minefields, and forcing withdrawls out of the flood zone, with plenty of imagery coming in of Russian soldiers standing in water up to their waists.

Secondly, the Upstream effects disroportionately affect Russia as well. Remember, the implications of the dam breach are not just downstream flooding, but also the draining of the resevoir, and this is particularly bad for Russia. First, in the long run this endangers the water flow through the Crimean Canal, which undermines a key Russian war aim. One of Russia's primary motivations for launching this war in the first place was precisely to secure the Crimean Canal, which Ukraine had dammed up in order to choke off the peninsula's water supply. Any analysis of the issue needs to aknowledge that, if you believe Russia blew the dam, you are essentially saying that they voluntarily trashed one of their primary war aims.

But it's not just the Crimean Canal - there are also the variety of irrigation canal networks which sustain agriculture in east-bank Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts - oblasts which Russia has annexed and which are firmly under Russian control.

The only way to spin all this (and there are some people, like Peter Zeihan, trying to spin it this way) as being in Russian interests is to argue that Russia expects to lose control of all this territory (including Crimea) and is going scorched earth in anticipation of defeat. But to believe this, you need to believe that Russia is badly losing the war and is on the verge of total defeat, and if you believe this I have nothing to say to you except to direct you to this link.

Third, we need to note the effects that this will have on a potential amphibious operation. In the short term, this obviously turns the lower Dneiper into a dangerous morass, and as the water subsides it will leave plenty of mess and mud which will make a river crossing very difficult for several weeks. In the long run, however, crossing the river may actually be easier - and here is where I want to make what I think is a critical point.

As long as Russia had control of the Kakhovka dam, they had the power to create flooding downstream at will. The optimal time to do this would be while Ukraine was attempting an amphibious assault out of Kherson. If you created flooding during such an assault, you would be complicating the crossing and washing out Ukraine's beachheads. Obviously, Russia has now lost the ability to do this.

We already know that Russia understands how and why to manipulate the water levels to its advantage. Earlier this year, they were actually keeping the Kakhovka resevoir levels extremely low, most likely to minimize the threat of Ukraine breaching the dam (as Surovikin was apparently quite worried about). However, in recent weeks they closed up the gates and filled the resevoir up to the top.

Kakhova Resevoir Levels

Why would they do this? It seems likely that Russia would want to retain water so that they could create a surge (not by destroying the dam, but by opening the gates up) to disrupt any Ukrainian attempt to cross the river. Again, the appeal of the dam for Russia is that it is a lever which can be throttled up and down as the situation calls for it. The breach of the dam, however, robs them of this tool.

This brings us to the corollary point, which is that the breach has two major benefits for Ukraine. Not only is it washing out Russian defenses and disproportionately disrupting the Russian side of the river, but Russia has now lost the ability to create a flood at the opportune moment later on.

If I had to make my guess about what happened to the dam, it would be as follows:

I believe Russia was retaining water to maintain the power to create flooding in the event of a Ukrainian amphibious assault across the lower Dnieper. Ukraine attempted to nullify this tool with a limited breach of the dam (of the sort which they rehearsed last December) but the dam failure cascaded beyond what they intended due to A) the resevoir being at extremely high levels, putting excessive stress on the strucure, and B) previous damage to the structure from prior Ukrainian shelling and rocketry attacks. Indeed, images of the dam seem to suggest that it failed in stages, with a single span leaking before the collapse metastasized.

I find the idea that Russia destroyed the dam to be very difficult to believe, for the following reasons (in recap):

  1. Flooding disproportionately affected the Russian side of the river and destroyed Russian positions.

  2. The loss of the dam does severe damage to core Russian interests, including Crimean water access and agriculture on the steppe.

  3. The dam, while intact, was a tool which Russia was using to manipulate the water level freely.

  4. Of the two beligerent parties, only Ukraine has openly shot at the dam and talked about breaching it.

We may learn, of course, that there was some accidental failure of some kind, potentially due to the water tug of war being waged between Russia and Ukraine as they try to balance the flow of the river. But in a wartime situation, when a major infrastructure object is destroyed, it is most rational to assume intentional destruction, and in this situation the costs to critical Russian infrastructure and the loss of a valuable tool for controlling the river make it extremely difficult to believe that Russia would blow up its own dam.

Ultimately, perhaps your judgement on the matter simply reflects your larger belief about who is winning the war. Breaching a dam is, after all, rather a desperation move - so maybe the question to ask is: who do you think is more desperate? Whose back is against the wall here - Russia, or Ukraine?

Or will Beavers inherit the earth?


Big Serge Thoughts
2 Jun 2023 | 7:54 pm

9. The Battle of Bakhmut: Postmortem

On May 20th, PMC Wagner forced Ukrainian troops out of their last remaining position within the city limits of Bakhmut, consequentially bringing about the nominal end of the largest battle of the 21st century (so far). Bakhmut has been the most substantial locus of military operations in Ukraine for most of the past nine months. Combat there took on a frustrating tempo, with progress often measured in single city blocks. This was a battle that was extremely violent and bloody, but at times agonizingly slow and seemingly indecisive. After countless updates in which nothing of note seemed to have happen, many people were surely beginning to roll their eyes at the very mention of Bakhmut. Consequentially, the abrupt capture of the city by Wagner in May (rather predictably, the final 25% of the city fell very quickly relative to the rest) seemed a bit surreal. To many it likely seemed that Bakhmut would never end - and then, suddenly, it did.

Bakhmut, like most high-intensity urban battles, exemplifies the apocalyptic potential of modern combat. Intense bombardment reduced large portions of the city to rubble, lending the impression that Wagner and the AFU were not so much fighting over the city as its carcass.

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The slow pace and extreme destruction has made this battle a rather difficult one to parse out. It all seems so senseless - even within the unique paradigm of war-making. In the absence of an obvious operational logic, observers on both sides have been eager to construct theories of how the battle was actually a brilliant example of four-dimensional chess. In particular, you can easily find arguments from both pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian commentators claiming that Bakhmut was used as a trap to draw in the other side's manpower and material for destruction, while buying time to accumulate fighting power.

Pro-Ukrainian sources are adamant that a huge amount of Russian combat power was destroyed in Bakhmut, while the AFU received western armor and training to build out a mechanized package to go back on the offensive. Pro-Russian writers similarly seem convinced that the AFU burned a huge amount of manpower, while the Russian army preserved its strength by letting Wagner do most of the fighting.

Clearly, they cannot both be correct.

In this article, I would like to take a holistic survey of the Battle of Bakhmut and adjudicate the evidence. Which army was really destroyed in this "strategically insignificant" city? Which army was being profligately wasteful of its manpower? And most importantly - why did this middling city become the site of the largest battle of the century? Homicide was committed, but nobody can agree on who murdered whom. So, let us conduct an autopsy.

The Road to the Death Pit

The Battle of Bakhmut lasted for so long that it can be easy to forget how the front ended up there, and how Bakhmut fits into the operations in the summer of 2022. Russian operations in the summer were focused on the reduction of the Ukrainian salient around Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, and came to a climactic head when Russian forces broke open the heavy defended Ukrainian stronghold of Popasna, encircled a pocket of Ukrainian forces around Zolote, and approached the Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway. The actual fall of the Lysychansk-Severodonetsk urban agglomeration came relatively quickly, with Russian forces threatening to encircle the entire bag and forcing a Ukrainian withdrawal.

Just for reference, here is what the frontline in the central Donbas looked like on May 1, 2022, courtesy of MilitaryLand:

In this context, Bakhmut already threatened to become a major battleground. It lay at a literal crossroad directly in the center of the Ukrainian salient. As Ukrainian positions in Lysychansk, Popasna, and Svitlodarsk were broken open, the axes of Russian advance converged on Bakhmut.

Ukrainian forces greatly needed to stabilize the front, and establish a stable blocking position, and there was really nowhere else to do this except at Bakhmut. Between Lysychansk and Bakhmut there are no sufficiently robust urban areas to anchor the defense, and there was absolutely no question of failing to adequately defend Bakhmut, for a few reasons that we can enumerate:

  1. Bakhmut is in the central position in this sector of front, and its loss would both threaten Siversk with envelopment and allow Russian forces to bypass the well fortified and strongly held defenses at Toretsk.

  2. The Russian strategic objective at Slavyansk-Kramatorsk cannot be successfully defended if the Russian army controls both the heights to the east (in the Bakhmut area) and Izyum.

Bakhmut itself, meanwhile, was a defensible urban area with dominating heights in its rear, multiple routes of supply, good linkages to other sectors of front, and a peripheral belt of smaller urban areas protecting its flanks.

This set up a rather obvious operational decision for Ukrainian forces. The choice was, all things considered, to either commit reserves to stabilize the front at Bakhmut (a strong and operational vital defensive anchor) or risk letting Russia bypass and sweep away an entire belt of defenses in places like Siversk and Toretsk. Asked to choose between a reasonably good option and an extremely bad option, there was no great controversy in the deciding.

Falling back from the loss of their eastern defensive belt, Ukraine needed to stabilize the front somewhere, and the only suitable place was Bakhmut - so this is where Ukrainian reserves were sent in force, and the AFU chose to fight. Operational logic, indifferent to those things that normally recommend cities to us as "important", decreed that the Styx should flow through Bakhmut.

Russia came to meet this challenge - bringing as their spearhead a mercenary group, staffed by convicts, wielding shovels, run by a bald caterer. What could go wrong?

Operational Progression

Because the general impression of Bakhmut is characterized by urban combat, it can be easy to forget that most of the battle took place outside the city itself, in the exurbs and fields around the urban center. The approach to Bakhmut is cluttered with a ring of smaller villages (places like Klynove, Pokrovs'ke, and Zaitseve) from which the AFU was able to fight a tenacious defense with the support of artillery in the city itself.

While Russian forces nominally reached the approach to Bakhmut late in June (even before Lysychansk was captured) and the city came under the extremes of shelling range, they did not immediately begin a concerted push to reach it. On August 1, the first assaults on the outer belt of villages began, and the Russian Ministry of Defense stated in its briefings that "battles for Bakhmut" had begun. This date is the most logical starting date for historiographical purposes, so we may firmly say that the Battle of Bakhmut was fought from August 1, 2022 to May 20, 2023 - a total of 293 days.

The first two months of the battle saw the Russian capture of most of the settlements east of the T0513 highway south of the city and the T1302 highway to the north, stripping Bakhmut and Soledar of most of their eastern buffer zones and pushing the line of contact right up to the edge of the urban areas proper.

Phase 1: The Outer Belt

At this point, the frontlines largely froze up for the remainder of the year, before Wagner set the stage for further advances with the capture of the small village of Yakovlivka, to the north of Soledar. This success can be construed as the first domino in a chain of events which led to Ukrainian defeat in Bakhmut.

Soledar itself serves a unique and critical role in the operational geography of Bakhmut. Laid out in a relatively long and thin strip, Soledar and its suburbs form a continuous urban shield stretching from the T0513 highway (which runs north to Siversk) all the way to the T0504 road (running east to Popasna). This makes Soledar a natural satellite stronghold which defends Bakhmut across nearly ninety degrees of approach. Soledar is also liberally gifted with industrial build, including the salt mine for which it is named, which makes it a relatively friendly place to wage a static defense, full of deep places and strong walls.

Wagner's capture of Yakovlivka on December 16, however, marked the first sign that the defense of Soledar was in trouble. Yakovlikva sits on an elevated position to the northeast of Soledar, and its capture gave Wagner a powerful position atop Soledar's flank. The Ukrainians recognized this, and Soledar was powerfully reinforced in response to the loss of Yakovlivka and the anticipated oncoming assault. The capture of Bakhmutske on December 27 (a suburb of Soledar directly on its southern approach) set the stage for a successful assault.

The attack on Soledar ended up being relatively fast and extremely violent, characterized by intense levels of Russian artillery support. The assault began almost immediately after the loss of Bakhmutske on December 27th, and by January 10th Ukraine's cohesive defense had been shattered. Ukrainian leadership, of course, denied losing the town and wove a story about glorious counterattacks, but even the Institute for the Study of War (a propaganda arm of the US State Department) later admitted that Russia had captured Soledar by January 11th.

The loss of Soledar, in combination with the early January capture of Klischiivka to the south, put Wagner in a position to begin a partial envelopment of Bakhmut.

Phase 2: Clearing the Flanks

It was at this point that the discussion shifted towards a potential Russian encirclement of Bakhmut. To be sure, the Russian wings did expand rapidly around the city, placing it in a firebag, but there was never a concerted effort to take the city into a proper encirclement. The Russian advance subsided on the approach to Ivanivske in the south, and over the vital M03 highway in the north.

A genuine encirclement was probably never in the cards, mainly because of the complication of Chasiv Yar - a strongly held rear area stronghold. To fully encircle Bakhmut, Russian forces would have been forced to choose between two difficult options: either blockade the road from Chasiv Yar to Bakhmut, or flare the envelopment wide enough to take Chasiv Yar into the pocket as well. Either option would have greatly complicated the operation, and so Bakhmut was never genuinely encircled.

What the Russians did succeed in doing, however, was establish dominant position on the flanks which accrued three significant advantages. First, they were able to direct fire on Bakhmut's remaining supply lines. Secondly, they were able to pummel Bakhmut itself with intense artillery fire from a variety of axes. Third - and perhaps most importantly - they were able to assault the Bakhmut urban center itself from three different directions. This, in the end, greatly hastened the fall of the city. By April, it was clear that the focus had shifted from expanding the envelopment on the flanks to assaulting Bakhmut itself, and it was reported that Russian regular units had taken custody of the flanks so that Wagner could clear the city.

Phase 3: Flaring the Wings

Fighting throughout April and early May at last shifted to the struggle in the urban center. AFU units in the city ultimately proved incapable of stopping Wagner's advance, largely due to tight Russian fires coordination and the cramped confines of the Ukrainian defense - with Wagner advancing into the city from three axes, the firing grids for Russian artillery became very narrow, and the AFU's static defense - while bravely contested - was slowly ground down.

By early May, it was clear that the city would fall soon, with the AFU desperately holding on to the western edge of the city. Attention soon shifted, however, to a Ukrainian counterattack on the flanks.

This became a rather classic instance of events on the ground being outrun by the narrative. There had been rumors of an impending Ukrainian counterattack circulating for quite some time, advanced by both Ukrainian and Russian sources. Ukrainian channels were predicated on the idea that General Oleksandr Syrskyi (commander of AFU ground forces) had hatched a scheme to draw the Russians into Bakhmut before launching a counterattack on the wings. This idea was seemingly corroborated frantic warnings from Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin that the Ukrainians had massed enormous forces in the rear areas behind Bakhmut which would be unleashed to counter-encircle the city.

In any case, the spring months came and went without any astonishing AFU counterattack, and all manner of material shortages and weather delays were blamed. Then, on May 15, all hell seemed to be breaking loose. The AFU finally attacked, and Prigozhin screeched that the situation on the flanks was approaching the worst case scenario.

In fact, what happened was rather anticlimactic. The AFU did bring a hefty grouping of units to play, including several of their best and most veteran formations. These included units from:

  • The 56th Brigade

  • The 57th Mechanized Brigade

  • The 67th Mechanized Brigade

  • The 92nd Mechanized Brigade

  • The 3rd Assault Brigade (Azov)

  • The 80th Air Assault Brigade

  • The 5th Assault Brigade

This sizeable strike package attacked a handful of mediocre Russian Motor Rifle brigades, achieved a bit of initial success, and culminated with heavy losses. Despite Prigozhin's assertion that the Russian regulars abandoned their posts and left the Russian wings undefended, we later learned that these forces - including mobilized motor rifle units - doggedly defended their positions and only withdrew under orders from above. These withdrawals (distances of a few hundred meters at most) brought the Russian defensive line to strongly held positions along a series of canals and reservoirs, which the AFU was unable to push through.

Now, this is not to say that Russia did not suffer losses defending against a tenacious Ukrainian attack. The 4th Motor Rifle Brigade, which was largely responsible for the successful defense outside Klishchiivka, was badly chewed up, its commander was killed, and it had to be promptly rotated out. However, the offensive potential of the Ukrainian assault package was exhausted, and there have been no follow on attempts in the past two weeks.

The Final Act: Ukraine's Counterattack

In the end, the vaunted Syrskyi plan looked rather lame. The counterattack did successfully unblock a few key roads out of Bakhmut, but it did nothing to prevent Wagner from finalizing the capture of the city, it burned through the combat power of several premier brigades, and on May 20th the last Ukrainian positions in the city were liquidated.

So. This was a strange battle. An agonizingly slow creep around the flanks of the city, a materializing threat of encirclement, and a sudden concentration of Wagner's combat energy in the city itself - all taking place under threats of an enormous counteroffensive by the AFU, which turned out to be ineffective and ephemeral.

It's not obvious, then, how this battle suited the operational logic of either army, nor that anyone would come away fully satisfied. Ukraine obviously lost the battle in nominal terms, but the Russian advance seemed so slow and Bakhmut so strategically random (at least superficially) that Wagner's success can be portrayed as a pyrrhic victory. To fully adjudicate the Battle of Bakhmut, we need to contemplate relative losses and expenditure of combat power.

The Butcher's Bill

Estimating combat losses in Ukraine is a difficult task, largely because "official" casualty estimates are often patently absurd. This leaves us with a need to fumble for reasonable figures using proxies and ancillary information. One such important source of knowledge is deployments data - we can get a general sense of the burn rate by the scale and frequency of unit allocation. In this particular case, however, we find that unit deployments are somewhat difficult to work with. Let's parse through this.

First and foremost, we need to grapple with the incontrovertible fact that a huge share of the Ukrainian military was deployed at Bakhmut at one point or another. The Telegram Channel Grey Zone compiled a list of all the Ukrainian units that were positively identified (usually by social media posts or AFU updates) as being deployed in Bakhmut throughout the nine month battle (that is, they were not there all at once):

This is an absolutely enormous commitment (37 brigades, 2 regiments, and 18 separate battalions (plus irregular formations like the Georgian Legion) which indicates obviously severe losses (for what it's worth, the pro-Ukrainian MilitaryLand Deployment Map admits a similarly titanic Ukrainian deployment in Bakhmut). However, this does not really get us close to accurately assessing losses, largely because Ukraine's Order of Battle (ORBAT) is a bit confused. Ukraine frequently parcels out units below the brigade level (for example, their artillery brigades never deploy as such) and they have a bad habit of unit cannibalization.

Doing some extremely rough back of the envelop math, minimal scratching off of just the 37 brigades could easily have pushed Ukraine past 25,000 casualties, but there are all manner of shaky assumptions here. First, this assumes that Ukraine withdraws its brigades when they reach combat ineffective loss levels (15% would be a placeholder number here), which isn't necessarily true - there is precedent for the AFU leaving troops in place to die, especially from lower quality units like Territorial Defense. In fact, an Australian volunteer (interview linked later on) claimed that the 24th mechanized brigade suffered 80% casualties in Bakhmut, so it's possible that a great many of these brigades were chewed up beyond task ineffectiveness levels (that is, they were not correctly rotated out) but were instead destroyed entirely. A recent article in the New Yorker, for example, interviewed survivors of a battalion that was almost entirely wiped out. In another instance, a retired Marine Colonel said that units at the frontline routinely suffer 70% casualties.

We can say a few things for certain. First, that Ukraine had an extremely high burn rate which forced it to commit nearly a third of its total ORBAT. Secondly, we know that at least some of these formations were left at the front until they were destroyed. Finally, we can definitively say that pro-Ukrainian accounts are incorrect (or maybe lying) when they say that the defense at Bakhmut was conducted to buy time for Ukraine to build up strength in the rear. We know this first and foremost because Bakhmut insatiably sucked in additional units, and secondly because this burn included a large number of Ukraine's premier and veteran forces, including fully a dozen assault, airborne, and armored brigades.

There's another problem with the ORBAT approach to casualties, however, and this concerns Wagner. You see, one of our objectives here is to try to get a sense of the comparative rates of loss, and ORBAT simply isn't a good way to do this in the particular case of Bakhmut. This is because the battle was mostly fought from the Russian side by the Wagner Group, which is a huge formation with an opaque internal structure.

Whereas on the Ukrainian side we can enumerate a long list of formations that fought at Bakhmut, on the Russian side we just put the 50,000 strong Wagner Group. Wagner of course has internal sub-formations and rotations, but these are not visible to those of us on the outside, and so we cannot get a sense of Wagner's internal ORBAT or force commitment. We understand generally that Wagner has a structure of assault detachments (probably a battalion equivalent), platoons, and squads, but we do not have a sense of where these units are deployed in real time or how quickly they are rotated or burned through. Sadly, when Prigozhin went in front of cameras he brought maps without unit dispositions on them, leaving ORBAT nerds squinting in vain trying to extract useful information. So, lacking good insight into Wagner's deployments, we are unable to make an adequate comparison to the bloated Ukrainian ORBAT in Bakhmut.

There are other ways that we can get at the casualties, however. The Russian dissident (that is, anti-Putin) organization Mediazona tracks Russian losses by tabulating obituaries, death announcements on social media, and official announcements. For the entire period of the Battle of Bakhmut (August 1 - May 20), they counted 6,184 total deaths among PMC personnel, inmates, and airborne forces (these three categories accounting for most of the Russian force in Bakhmut).

Meanwhile, Prigozhin claimed that Wagner had suffered 20,000 KIA in Bakhmut while inflicting 50,000 KIA on the Ukrainians. Concerning the first number - the context of this claim was an interview in which he was lambasting the Russian Ministry of Defense (as is his habit), and he has an incentive to overstate Wagner's losses (since he is trying to play up Wagner's sacrifice for the Russian people).

So, here is where we are at with Wagner losses. We have a "floor", or absolute minimum of a little over 6,000 KIA (these being positively identified by name) with a significant upward margin of error , and something like a ceiling of 20,000. The number that I have been working with is approximately 17,000 total Wagner KIA in the Bakhmut operation (with a min-max range of 14,000 and 20,000, respectively).

However, something we need to consider is the composition of these forces. Among the positively identified KIA, convicts outnumber professional PMC operators by about 2.6 to 1 (that is, Wagner's dead would be about 73% convicts). According to the Pentagon, however (taken with a large grain of salt), nearly 90% of Wagner's losses are convicts. Taking a conservative 75/25 split and rounding the numbers to make them pretty, my estimate is that Wagner lost about 13,000 convicts and 4,000 professional operators. Adding in VDV losses and motorized rifle units fighting on the flanks, and total Russian KIA in Bakhmut are likely on the order of 20-22,000.

So, what about Ukrainian losses? The major outstanding question remains: who is on the right end of the loss ratios?

Ukrainian commentators consistently ask us to believe that Russian losses were far worse due to their use of "human wave" attacks. There are several reasons why this can be dismissed.

First, we have to acknowledge that after nine months of combat we have not yet seen a single video showing one of these purported human waves (that is, Wagner convicts attacking in a massed formation). Keeping in mind that Ukraine loves to share footage of embarrassing Russian mistakes, that they have no qualms about sharing gory war porn, and that this is a war being fought with thousands of eyes in the sky in the form of reconnaissance drones, it must strike us as curious that not one of these alleged human wave attacks has yet been caught on camera. When videos are shared purporting to show human waves, they invariably show small groups of 6-8 infantry (we call this a squad, not a human wave).

However, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That being said, the "human wave" narrative has been contradicted on multiple occasions. Just for starters, General Syrskyi himself contradicted the human wave narrative and said that Wagner's methodology is to push small assault groups forward under intense artillery cover. Witnesses from the front concur. An Australian Army Veteran volunteering in Ukraine gave a very interesting interview in which he downplayed Wagner casualties and instead emphasized that "Ukraine is taking way too many casualties" - he later adds that the 24th brigade suffered 80% casualties in Bakhmut. He also notes that Wagner favors infiltration groups and small units - the veritable opposite of massed human waves.

I found this article from the Wall Street Journal to be nicely emblematic of the human wave issue. It contains the obligatory claim of human wave tactics - "The enemy pays no attention to huge losses of its personnel and continues the active assault. The approaches to our positions are simply littered with the bodies of the adversary's dead soldiers." This description, however, comes from the bureaucratic apparatus at the Ministry of Defense. What about people on the ground? A Ukrainian officer at the front says: "So far, the exchange rate of trading our lives for theirs favors the Russians. If this goes on like this, we could run out."

Ultimately, it's difficult to believe that the kill ratio favors Ukraine for the simple reason that the Russians have enjoyed a tremendous advantage in firepower. Ukrainian soldiers speak freely about Russia's enormous superiority in artillery, and at one point it was suggested that the AFU was outgunned by ten to one. The New Yorker's interview subjects claimed that their battalion's mortar section had a ration of a mere five shells per day!

The enormous Russian advantage in artillery and standoff weaponry suggests the a-priori assumption that the AFU would be taking horrific casualties, and indeed that's what we hear from myriad sources at the front. Then, of course, there was the shocking February claim by a former US Marine in Bakhmut that the life expectancy at the front line was a mere four hours.

All of this is really ancillary to the larger point. The enormous inventory of AFU units that were churned through Bakhmut included something on the order of 160,000 total personnel. Taking loss rates of between 25 and 30% (roughly on par with Wagner's burn rate), it's clear that Ukraine's losses were extreme. I believe total irretrievable losses for Ukraine in Bakhmut were approximately 45,000, with some +/- 7,000 margin of error.

So, my current working estimates for losses in the Battle of Bakhmut are some 45,000 for Ukraine, 17,0000 for Wagner, and 5,000 for other Russian forces.

But perhaps even this misses the point.

Ukraine was losing its army, Russia was losing its prison population.

Adjudicating the Battle of Bakhmut is relatively easy when one looks at what units were brought to the table. Bakhmut burned through an enormous portion of the AFU's inventory, including many of its veteran assault brigades, while virtually none of Russia's conventional forces were damaged (with the notable exception of the Motor Rifle brigades that defeated the Ukrainian counterattack). Even the Pentagon has admitted that the vast majority of Russian casualties in Ukraine were convicts.

Now, this is all rather cynical - nobody can deny it. But from the unsentimental calculus of strategic logic, Russia churned through its single most disposable military asset, leaving its regular ORBAT not only completely intact, but actually larger than it was last year.

Meanwhile, Ukraine was left with virtually no indigenous offensive power - the only way it can conduct offensive operations is with a mechanized package built from scratch by NATO. For all Ukraine's bluster, the force commitment at Bakhmut left it unable to undertake any proactive operations all through the winter and spring, its multi-brigade counterattack at Bakhmut lamely fizzled out, and it left its supporters grasping at straws about an immanent counteroffensive to encircle Wagner by a reserve army that doesn't exist. It was even reduced to sending small flying columns into Belgorod Oblast to launch terror raids, only to have them blown up - discovering that the Russian border is in fact crawling with forces of the very much intact Russian army.

I think that ultimately, neither army anticipated that Bakhmut would become the focal point of such high intensity combat, but the arrival of Ukrainian reserves in force created a unique situation. Russia was beginning a process of major force generation (with mobilization beginning in September), and the gridlocked, slow moving, Verdun-like environs of Bakhmut offered a good place for Wagner to bear the combat load while much of the regular Russian forces underwent expansion and refitting.

Ukraine, meanwhile, fell into the sunk cost fallacy and began to believe its own propaganda about "Fortress Bakhmut", and allowed brigade after brigade to be sucked in, turning the city and its environs into a killing zone.

Now that Bakhmut is lost (or as Zelensky put it, exists "only in our hearts"), Ukraine faces an operational impasse. Bakhmut was after all a very good place to fight a static defense. If the AFU could not hold it, or even produce a favorable loss exchange, can a strategy of holding static fortified belts really be deemed viable? Meanwhile, the failure of the Syrskyi plan and the defeat of a multi-brigade counterattack by Russian motor rifle brigades casts serious doubt on Ukraine's ability to advance on strongly held Russian positions.

Ultimately, both Ukraine and Russia traded for time in Bakhmut, but whereas Russia put up a PMC which primarily lost convicts, Ukraine bought time by chewing up a significant amount of its combat power. They bought time - but time to do what? Can Ukraine do anything that will be worth the lives it spent in Bakhmut, or was it all just blood for the blood god?


Big Serge Thoughts
10 May 2023 | 12:13 am

10. 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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