Big Serge Thoughts

Big Serge Thoughts
1 Dec 2023 | 1:18 am

1. The End of Cabinet War

The dying dignity of a French warrior - L'Oublié! (Forgotten) by Émile Betsellère (1872)

The century intervening from the fall of Napoleon in 1815 to the beginning of the First World War in 1914 is usually regarded as a sort of golden age for Prusso-German militarism. In this period, the Prussian military establishment won a series of spectacular victories over Austria and France, establishing an aura of German military supremacy and realizing the dream of a unified Germany through force of arms. Prussia in this era also produced three of history's iconic military personalities - Carl von Clausewitz (a theoretician), Helmuth von Moltke (a practitioner), and Hans Delburk (a historian).

As the story usually goes, this century of victory and excellence created a sense of hubris and militarism in the Prusso-German establishment which led the country to march impetuously to war in the August of 1914, only to founder in a terrible war in which new technologies frustrated its idealized approach to warmaking. Pride, as they say, goes before the fall.

This is an interesting and satisfying story, which posits a rather traditional hubris-downfall cycle. To be sure, there is an element of truth to it, as there were many elements of German leadership which possessed an unseemly degree of overconfidence. However, this was far from the only emotion. There were also many prominent pre-war German thinkers who professed fear, anxiety, and unmitigated dread. They had valuable ideas to teach their colleagues - and perhaps us.

Let's go back, all the way to 1870, to the Franco-Prussian War.

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This conflict is generally considered the magnum opus of the titanic Prussian commander, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke. Exercising deft operational control and an uncanny sense of intuition, Moltke orchestrated an aggressive opening campaign which sent Prusso-German armies streaming like a mass of tentacles into France, trapping the primary French field army in the fortress of Metz in the opening weeks of the war and besieging it. When the French Emperor, Napoleon III, marched out with a relief army (comprising the rest of France's battle-worthy formations), Moltke hunted that army down as well, encircling it at Sedan and taking the entire force (and the emperor) into captivity.

Helmuth von Moltke - the man of iron and blood

From an operational perspective, this sequence of events was (and is) considered a masterclass, and a major reason why Moltke has become revered as one of history's truly great talents (he is on this writer's Mount Rushmore alongside Hannibal, Napoleon, and Manstein). The Prussians had executed their platonic ideal of warfare - the encirclement of the main enemy body - not once, but twice in a matter of weeks. In the conventional narrative, these great encirclements became the archetype of the German kesselschlacht, or encirclement battle, which became the ultimate goal of all operations. In a certain sense, the German military establishment spent the next half-century dreaming of ways to replicate its victory at Sedan.

This story is true, to a certain extent. My objective here is not to "bust myths" about blitzkrieg or any such trite thing. However, not everyone in the German military establishment looked at the Franco-Prussian War as an ideal. Many were terrified by what happened after Sedan.

By all rights, Moltke's masterpiece at Sedan should have ended the war. The French had lost both of their trained field armies and their head of state, and ought to have given in to Prussia's demand (namely, the annexation of the Alsace-Lorraine region).

Instead, Napoleon III's government was overthrown and a National Government was declared in Paris, which promptly declared what amounted to a total war. The new government abandoned Paris, declared a Levee en Masse - a callback to the wars of the French Revolution in which all men aged 21 to 40 were to be called to arms. Regional governments ordered the destruction of bridges, roads, railways, and telegraphs to deny their use to the Prussians.

Instead of bringing France to its knees, the Prussians found a rapidly mobilizing nation which was determined to fight to the death. The mobilization prowess of the emergency French government was astonishing: by February, 1871, they had raised and armed more than 900,000 men.

Fortunately for the Prussians, this never became a genuine military emergency. The newly raised French units suffered from poor equipment and poor training (particularly because most of France's trained officers had been captured in the opening campaign). The new mass French armies had poor combat effectiveness, and Moltke managed to coordinate the capture of Paris alongside a campaign which saw Prussian forces marching all over France to run down and destroy the elements of the new French Army.

Crisis averted, war won. All was cozy in Berlin, it would seem?

Far from it. While many were content to shake hands and congratulate each other on a job well done, others saw something horrifying in the second half of the war, and the French mobilization program. Surprisingly, Moltke himself was among this party.

Moltke viewed the ideal form of war as something which the Germans call a Kabinettskriege. Literally a Cabinet War, this referred to the limited wars which dominated affairs for much of the 16th through 19th centuries. The particular form of these wars was a conflict between the professional militaries of states and their aristocratic leadership - no mass levies, no horrible scorched earth, no nationalism or mass patriotism. For Moltke, his earlier war against Austria was an ideal example of a Cabinet War: the Prussian and Austrian professional armies fought a battle, the Prussians won, and the Austrians agreed to Prussia's demands. There was no declaration of a blood feud or a guerilla war, but instead a vaguely chivalrous acknowledgment of defeat and limited concessions.

What happened in France, in contrast, was a war which began as a Kabinettskriege and devolved into a Volkskriege - a people's war, and thus had brought into question the entire concept of the limited Cabinet War altogether. As Moltke put it:

The days are gone by when, for dynastic ends, small armies of professional soldiers went to war to conquer a city, or a province, and then sought winter quarters or made peace. The wars of the present day call whole nations to arms…

As Moltke saw it, the only solution to a Volkskriege was to respond with a "War of Extermination." Now at this, many will no doubt bristle, but Moltke was unequivocally not suggesting genocide. He meant something closer to the destruction of the French resource base - dismantling the state, destroying its material wealth, and arranging its affairs. In essence, he called for something like what Germany imposed on France in 1940 - Hitler did not try to annihilate the French population, but neither did he simply take a few territories and walk away. Instead, France as an independent state was steamrolled.

Moltke argued in 1870-71 that pursuing limited war aims against France no longer made sense, since the entire French nation was now aroused in anger at Prussia-Germany. The French, he argued, would never forgive Prussia for taking the Alsace region, and would become intractable enemies. Therefore, France had to be leveled as a military-political entity or else it would simply rise again and become a dangerous enemy very soon. Unfortunately for Moltke, the Prussian Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, wanted a fast resolution to the war and was not interested in trying to occupy and humiliate France. He told Moltke to hunt down the new French army and get it over with, so Moltke did.

However, Moltke's basic fear - that a limited war would do no lasting damage to France as a threat - proved true. It took only a few years for the French to completely rebuild their military - by 1875, Moltke and his staff estimated that the window of opportunity was closed and France was fully prepared to fight another war.

Meanwhile, from a military perspective, there were many in the Prussian establishment who were terrified by France's success mobilizing an emergency army. Prussia's victory, they argued, was possible only because the French mobilization had been improvised - lacking weapons and training. A nation that was prepared to mobilize and arm millions of men in repetitive conscriptions, with the requisite logistics and training infrastructure, might be nearly impossible to defeat, they argued, and put the entire framework of Prussian war-making in question.

The idea was so important that Moltke dedicated much of his final pre-retirement speech to the Reichstag to the topic. As he put it on that oft-quoted occasion:

The age of Kabinettskriege is behind us - all we have now is Volkskrieg, and any prudent government will hesitate to bring about a war of this nature with all its incaluclable consequences… If war should break out… no one can estimate its duration or see when it will end. The greatest powers of Europe, which are armed as never before, will fight each other. None can be annihilated so completely in one or two campaigns that it would declare itself vanquished and be compelled to accept hard conditions for peace.

Such a statement seems to, and indeed does run contrary to the perception of Germany as overconfident and belligerent, and to the idea that all were taken aback by the length and savagery of the world war. In fact, Germany's most revered prewar practitioner explicitly predicted a gruesome, totalizing, and lengthy war.

Other members of Moltke's staff pontificated more explicitly on the threat of people's war, or total war. Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz was the most prolific of these, and wrote extensively on the French mobilization project, arguing that the French could have easily swamped the Germans if they had possessed the capacity to properly train and supply their new armies. His general thesis was that future wars would necessarily involve the whole resources of the state, and Germany ought to lay the groundwork to train and sustain mass armies for years of conflict.

In the years leading up to World War One, a minority wing of the German establishment arose which was remarkably clearsighted about the coming conflict, and argued that it would be won via total strategic attrition, with the full resources of the battling nations mobilized over many years. Functionally, the German military apparatus became split between a preeminent majority which looked to the first half of the Franco-Prussian War (with Moltke's massive victories) as the model, and a less prominent but vocal minority which dreaded the portents of France's national mobilization and feared a future of "people's war."

All of that is endlessly interesting to the aficionados of military history and the disciples of mankind's bloody record of war-making. What is interesting for our purposes, however, is the argument between Moltke and Bismarck in the waning months of 1870. Moltke saw clearly that France's patriotic animosity had been aroused and believed that a limited war would be counterproductive, in that it would fail to substantively weaken France in the long run, leaving an intact and vengeful enemy. This calculation proved essentially correct, and France was able to provision a powerful war effort in the world war. In contrast, Bismarck favored a limited war with limited aims, commensurate with the political situation at home. It is not an exaggeration to say that the decision to favor domestic political conditions over long-term strategic calculations cost Germany its chance at world power and led to defeat in the world wars.

Obviously what I have woven for you here is thinly veiled historical analogy.

Russia began a Kabinettskriege in 2022 when it invaded Ukraine, and found itself mired in something closer to a Volkskriege. Russia's mode of operation and war aims would have been instantly recognizable to a 17th Century statesman - the Russian professional army attempted to defeat the Ukrainian professional army and achieve limited territorial gains (the Donbas and recognition of Crimea's legal status). They called this a "special military operation."

Instead, the Ukrainian state has decided - like the French National Government - to fight to the death. To Bismarck's demands for Alace-Lorraine, the French simply said "there can be no reply but Guerre a Outrance" - war to the utmost. Putin's cabinet war - limited war for limited aims - exploded into a national war.

Unlike Bismarck, however, Putin has opted to see Ukraine's raise. My suggestion - and it is only that - is that Putin's dual decisions in the autumn of last year to announce a mobilization and to annex the disputed Ukrainian territories amounted to a tacit agreement to Ukraine's Volkskrieg.

In the debate between Moltke and Bismarck, Putin has chosen to follow Moltke's lead, and wage the war of extermination. Not - and again we stress this - a war of genocide, but a war which will destroy Ukraine as a strategically potent entity. Already the seeds are sown and the fruit begins to bud - a Ukrainian democide, achieved through battlefield attrition and the mass exodus of prime age civilians, an economy in shambles and a state that is cannibalizing itself as it reaches the limits of its resources.

There is a model for this - ironically, Germany itself. After the Second World War, it was decided that Germany - now held to account for two terrible conflagrations - could simply not be allowed to persist as a geopolitical entity. In 1945, after Hitler shot himself, the allies did not demand the spoils of a Cabinet War. There was no minor annexation here, no redrawn border there. Instead, Germany was annihilated. Her lands were divided, her self-governance was abolished. Her people lingered on in a stygian exhaustion, their political form and life now a plaything of the victor - precisely what Moltke wanted to do to France.

Putin is not going to leave a geostrategically intact Ukraine which will seek to retake the Donbas and exact revenge, or become a potent forward base for NATO. Instead, he will transform Ukraine into a Trashcanistan that can never wage a war of revanchism.

Clausewitz warned us. He too wrote of the danger of a people's war. He spoke of the French revolution thus:

Now war stepped forth in all its raw violence.

War was returned to the people who to some extant had been separated from it by professional armies; war cast off its shackles and crossed the bounds of what had once seemed possible.


Big Serge Thoughts
15 Nov 2023 | 11:41 pm

2. Russo-Ukrainian War: The Reckoning

The Last Argument of Kings

The Russo-Ukrainian War has been a novel historical experience for a variety of reasons, and not only for the intricacies and technicalities of the military enterprise itself. This became the first conventional military conflict to occur in the age of social media and planetary cinematography (that is, the ubiquitous presence of cameras). This brought a veneer (though only a veneer) of immanence to war, which for millennia had unveiled itself only through the mediating forces of cable news, print newspapers, and victory steles.

For the eternal optimist, there were upsides to the idea that a high intensity war was slated to be documented in thousands of first-person view videos. Purely from the standpoint of intellectual curiosity (and martial prudence), the flood of footage from Ukraine offers insight into emerging weapons systems and methods and allows for a remarkable level of tactical-level data. Rather than waiting for years of agonizing dissection of after action reports to reconstruct engagements, we are aware in near real time of tactical movements.

Unfortunately, all the obvious downsides of airing a war live on social media were also in effect. The war instantly became sensationalized and saturated with fake, fabricated, or incorrectly captioned videos, cluttered with information that most people are simply not equipped to parse through (for obvious reasons, the average citizen does not have extensive experience differentiating between two post-Soviet armies using similar equipment and speaking similar, or even the same language), and pseudo-expertise.

More abstractly, the war in Ukraine was transformed into an American entertainment product, complete with celebrity wonder weapons (like Saint Javelin and the HIMARS), groan-inducing references to American pop culture, visits from American celebrities, and voiceovers from Luke Skywalker. All of this fit very naturally with American sensibilities, because Americans ostensibly love underdogs, and in particularly spunky underdogs who overcome extreme odds through perseverance and grit.

The problem with this favored narrative structure is that underdogs rarely win wars. Most major peer conflicts do not have the conventional Hollywood plot structure with a dramatic turning point and reversal of fortune. Most of the time, wars are won by the more powerful state, which is to say the state with the ability to mobilize and effectively apply more fighting power over a longer period of time. This has certainly been the case in American history - no matter how much Americans may long to recast themselves as a historical underdog, America has historically won its wars because it has been an exceptionally powerful state with irresistible and innate advantages over its enemies. This is nothing to be ashamed of. As General George Patton famously said: Americans love a winner.

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Thus we arrived at a convolution situation where, despite Russia's many obvious advantages (which in the end come down to a superior indigenous capacity to mobilize men, industrial output, and technology), it became "propaganda" to argue that Russia was going to achieve some sort of victory in Ukraine - that Ukraine would end the war having failed to re-attain its 1991 borders (Zelensky's stated victory condition) and with the country in a wrecked state of demographic hollowing and material destruction.

At last, we seem to have reached a denouement phase, where this view - allegedly an artifact of Kremlin influence, but in reality the most straightforward and obvious conclusion - is becoming inescapable. Russia is a bigger fighter with a much bigger bat.

The case for Ukraine's victory rested almost entirely on dramatic success in a summer counteroffensive, which was supposedly expected to smash its way through the Russian positions in Zaporizhia Oblast, knife to the Sea of Azov, sever Russia's land bridge to Crimea, and place the entire underbelly of Russia's strategic position in jeopardy. A whole host of assumptions about the war were to be tested: the supremacy of western equipment, Russia's paucity of reserves, the superiority of Western-Ukrainian tactical methods, the inflexibility and incompetence of Russian commanders in the defense.

More generally - and more importantly - this was intended to prove that Ukraine could successfully attack and advance against strongly held Russian positions. This is obviously a prerequisite for a Ukraine strategic victory. If the Ukrainian armed forces cannot advance, then Ukraine cannot restore its 1991 boundaries and the war has transformed from a struggle for victory into a struggle for a managed or mitigated defeat. The issue ceases to be whether Ukraine will lose, and becomes a question only of how much.

Ukraine's Summer Calamity

Western observers are at long last beginning to engage with the fact that Ukraine's summer counteroffensive devolved into an abject failure and a military defeat of historical significance. It's important to remember that, prior to the start of the operation, there were real expectations both among Ukrainian officials and western backers that the offensive could achieve the isolation or blockading of Crimea, if not its outright recapture. Underpinning this optimistic outlook were key assumptions about the superiority of western-gifted armored vehicles and a Russian army that was supposedly beginning to run dry. A purportedly leaked Ukrainian Order of Operations memorandum intimated that the AFU intended to reach and mask major cities like Berdyansk and Melitopol.

Remembering that the Ukrainians and their benefactors genuinely believed that they could reach the Azov coast and create an operational crisis for Russia is very important, because only in the context of these objectives can the letdown of the attack be fully comprehended. We are now (as of my typing of this sentence) at D+150 from the initial massed Ukrainian assault on the night of June 7-8, and the gains are paltry to say the least. The AFU is stuck in a concave forward position, wedged between the small Russian held villages of Verbove, Novoprokopivka, and Kopani, unable to advance any further, taking a steady trickle of losses as it attempts half-hearted small unit attacks to cross the Russian anti-tank ditches that ring the edges of the fields.

At the moment, the maximum advance achieved by the counteroffensive lies just ten miles from the town of Orikhiv (in the Ukrainian staging area). Ukraine failed not only to reach its terminal objectives, but it never even threatened its intermediate waypoints (like Tokmak). In fact, they never created even a temporary breach in Russia's defenses. Instead, the AFU threw the bulk of the newly formed and western-equipped 9th and 10th Corps against fixed positions of the Russian 58th, 35th, and 36th Combined Arms Armies, became embedded in the outer screening line, and the attack collapsed after heavy casualties.

Debacle: The Battle of Robotyne

As the autumn began to drag on without battlefield results materializing for Ukraine, the process of finger pointing began with remarkable predictability. Three distinct lines of thought emerged, with observers in the west blaming a supposed Ukrainian inability to implement western tactics, some Ukrainian parties countering that western armor was too slow to arrive, which gave the Russian army time to fortify its positions, and others arguing that the problem was that the west failed to provide the necessary aircraft and strike systems.

I think that all of this rather misses the point - or rather, all of these factors are merely tangential to the point. The various Ukrainian and western figures pointing fingers at each other are rather like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant. All of these complaints - insufficient training, slow delivery timetables, shortages of air and strike assets - merely reflect the larger problem of attempting to assemble on an improvised basis an entirely new army with a hodgepodge of mismatched foreign systems, in a country with dwindling demographic and industrial assets.

All that aside, the internecine quarreling in the Ukrainian camp obscures the importance of tactical factors and ignores the highly active role that the Russian armed forces played in spoiling Ukraine's great attack. While the dissection of the battle is likely to continue for many years, a litany of tactical reasons for Ukrainian defeat can already be enumerated as follows:

  1. The failure of the AFU to achieve strategic surprise. Notwithstanding an ostentatious OPSEC effort and attempted feint operations on the Belgorod border, around Bakhmut, Staromaiorske, and elsewhere, it was readily apparent to all involved that the point of the main Ukrainian effort would be towards the Azov littoral, and specifically the Orikhiv-Tokmak axis. Ukraine attacked precisely where they were expected to.

  2. The danger of staging and approach in the 21st century. The AFU had to congregate assets under exposure to Russian ISR and strike assets, which repeatedly subjected Ukrainian rear areas (like Orikhiv, where ammunition dumps and reserves were repeatedly struck) to Russian fire, and allowed the Russians to routinely take deploying Ukrainian battlegroups under fire while they were still in their marching columns.

  3. Inability (or unwillingness) to commit sufficient mass to force a decision. The density of the Russian ISR-Fires nexus incentivized the AFU to disperse its forces. While this can reduce losses, it also meant that Ukrainian combat power was introduced in a piecemeal trickle which simply lacked the mass to ever seriously threaten the Russian position. The operation largely devolved into company-level attacks which were clearly inadequate for the task.

  4. Inadequacy of Ukrainian fires and suppression. A fairly self-evident and all-encompassing capabilities gap, with the AFU facing a shortage of tubes and artillery shells (forcing HIMARS into a tactical role as an artillery substitute), and lacking sufficient air defense and electronic warfare assets to mitigate the variety of Russian airborne systems, including drones of all types, attack helicopters, and UMPK bombs. The result was a series of under-supported Ukrainian maneuver columns being raked in a firestorm.

  5. Inadequate combat engineering, which left the AFU vulnerable to a web of Russian minefields that were evidently far more robust than expected.

Taken together, we actually have a fairly straightforward tactical conundrum. The Ukrainians attempted a frontal assault on a fixed defense without either the element of surprise or parity in ranged fires. With the Russian defense fully on alert and Ukrainian staging areas and approach lanes subject to intense Russian fires, the AFU dispersed its forces in an effort to reduce losses, and this all but ensured that the Ukrainians would never have the necessary mass to create a breach. Add it all up, and you get the summer of 2023 - a series of frustrating and fruitless attacks on the exact same sector of the defense, slowly frittering away both the year and Ukraine's best, last hope.

The failure of Ukraine's offensive has seismic ramifications for the future conduct of the war. Combat operations always occur in reference to Ukraine's political objectives, which are - to put it bluntly - ambitious. It's important to remember that the Kiev regime has maintained from the very beginning that it would not settle for anything less than the 1991 territorial maximum of Ukraine - implying not only the recovery of the territory occupied by Russia after February 2022, but also the subjugation of the separatist polities in Donetsk and Lugansk and the conquest of Russian Crimea.

Ukraine's war aims have always been defended as reasonable in the west for reasons related to the supposed legal niceties of war, the western illusion that borders are immutable, and the apparent transcendent divinity of Soviet-era administrative boundaries (which after all were the source of the 1991 borders). Regardless of all these matters, what Ukraine's war aims implied as a practical matter was that Ukraine needed to capture de-facto prewar Russian territory, including four major cities (Donetsk, Lugansk, Sevastopol, and Simferopol). It meant dislodging the Russian Black Sea Fleet from its port somehow. This was an extraordinarily difficult task - far more complicated and more vast than anyone wanted to admit.

The obvious problem, of course, is that given Russia's superior industrial resources and demographic reservoir, Ukraine's only viable pathways to victory were either a Russian political collapse, Russian unwillingness to fully commit to the conflict, or the inflicting of some astonishing asymmetric battlefield defeat on the Russian army. The first now clearly seems like a fantasy, with the Russian economy shrugging off western sanctions and the political cohesion of the state completely unperturbed (even by the Wagner coup), and the second hope was dashed the moment Putin announced mobilization in the autumn of 2022. That leaves only the battlefield.

Therefore, the situation becomes very simple. If Ukraine cannot successfully advance on strongly held Russian positions, it cannot win the war according to its own terms. Thus, given the collapse of Ukraine's summer offensive (and myriad other examples, like the way an ancillary Ukrainian attack banged its head meaninglessly on Bakhmut for months) there is a very simple question to be asked.

Will Ukraine ever get a better opportunity to attempt a strategic offensive? If the answer is no, then it necessarily follows that the war will end with Ukrainian territorial loss.

It seems to be a point of near triviality that 2023 was Ukraine's best opportunity to attack. NATO had to move heaven and earth to scrape together the attack package. Ukraine will not get a better one. Not only is there simply nothing left in the stable for many NATO members, but assembling a larger mechanized force would require the west to double down on failure. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hemorrhaging viable manpower, due to a combination of high casualties, a flood of emigration as people flee a crumbling state, and endemic corruption which cripples the efficiency of the mobilization apparatus. Add it all up and you get a growing manpower squeeze and looming shortages of munitions and equipment. This is what it looks like when an army is attrited.

At the same time that Ukrainian combat power is declining, Russia's is climbing. The Russian industrial sector has dramatically increased output despite western sanctions, leading to belated recognition that Russia is not going to conveniently run out of weapons, and indeed is comfortably out-producing the entire western bloc. The Russian state is in the process of radically raising defense expenditures, which will pay further dividends in combat power as time goes on. Meanwhile, on the manpower front, Russian force generation is stable (IE, does not require an expanded mobilization), and the sudden realization that the Russian army does in fact have plenty of reserves left prominent members of the Commentariat arguing with each other on Twitter. The Russian army is now poised to reap the benefits of its investments over the coming year.

The picture is not overly complicated. Ukrainian combat power is in a decline which has little chance of arrest, particularly now that events in the Middle East mean that it no longer has an uncontested claim to western stocks. There are a few things the west can still do to try and prop up Ukrainian capabilities (more on that later), but Meanwhile, Russian combat power is stable and even rising in many arms (note, for example, the steady increase in Russian UMPK drops and FPV drone strikes, and the growing availability of the T90 tank).

Ukraine will not recover its 1991 borders, and is unlikely to recapture any meaningful territories going forward. Thus, language has shifted sharply from references to retaking lost territories to merely freezing the front. None other than Commander in Chief Zaluzhny has admitted that the war is stalemated (an optimistic construction), while some western officials have begun to float the idea that a negotiated settlement (which would necessarily entail acknowledging the loss of Russian-held territories) may be Ukraine's best path out.

This does not imply that the war is nearing an end. Zelensky continues to be adamantly against negotiations, and there are certainly plenty in the west who support continuing Ukrainian intransigence, but I think rather they are all missing the point.

There is only one way to end a war unilaterally, and that is by winning. It may very well be that the window to negotiate is over, and that Russia is ramping up its spending and expanding its ground and aerospace forces because it intends to use them to attempt a decisive victory on the battlefield.

We will likely see an increasingly vigorous debate in the coming months as to whether or not Kiev ought to negotiate. But the premise of this debate may well be wrong in toto. Maybe neither Kiev nor Washington gets to decide.

Avdiivka: Canary in the Coal Mine

The subsidence of Ukraine's summer offensive corresponds to a phase shift in the war, wherein Ukraine will shift to a full-spectrum strategic defense. Almost perfectly on cue, the Russian army kicked off the next sequence by beginning an operation against the crucial and strongly held Ukrainian stronghold of Avdiivka, in the suburbs of Donetsk.

Avdiivka was already in something of a salient, owing to previous Russian operations which had captured the town of Krasnogorivka, to the north of the city. Over the month of October, Russian forces launched a large assault out of these positions and successfully captured one of the key terrain features in the area - a tall mound of discarded mining byproduct (a spoil heap) which directly overlooks the main railway into Avdiivka, and lies adjacent to the Avdiivka coke plant. As of this writing, the situation looks like so:

The Avdiivka Battlespace

The Avdiivka operation almost immediately spawned a familiar cycle of dooming and histrionics, with many getting ready to compare the attack to Russia's failed assault on Ugledar last winter. Despite successful Russian capture of the waste heap (along with positions along the railway), the Ukrainian sphere was pleased, claming that the Russians are suffering catastrophic losses in their assault on Avdiivka. However, I think that this fails to hold water for a few reasons.

First and foremost, the premise itself does not obviously appear to be true. This war is being eagerly documented in real time, which means we can actually check for a sharp increase in Russian losses in the tabulated data. For this, I prefer to check in with War Spotting UA and their Russian equipment loss tracking project. While they have an overtly pro-Ukrainian orientation (they track only Russian and not Ukrainian losses), I think they are more reliable and reasonable than Oryx, and their tracking methodology is certainly more transparent.

A quick note about their data is important. First, it's incorrect to be overly focused on the precise dates that they ascribe to losses - this is because their logged dates correspond to the date that losses are first photographed, which may or may not be the same day the vehicle is destroyed. When they log a date for a destroyed vehicle, they are logging only the date the picture was taken. It's thus reasonable to pencil in a few days worth of potential error on the dating of losses. This simply can't be helped. Furthermore, they - like anyone else - have the capacity to misidentify or accidentally double count vehicles filmed from different angles.

All that is to say, it's not useful to get too bogged down looking at specific loss clusters and photos, but looking at the trends in their loss tracking is very useful. If Russia was really losing an inordinate amount of equipment in a month-long assault, we would expect to see a spike, or at least a modest level increase in losses.

In fact, that's not apparent in the loss data. Russia's overall burn rate from the summer of 2022 until now comes out to approximately 8.4 maneuver assets per day. Yet the losses for the autumn of 2023 (which includes the Avdiivka assault) are actually slightly lower, at 7.3 per day. There are a few batches of losses, which correspond to the aftermath of assaults, but these are not abnormally large - a fact that can be easily checked by referencing the time series of losses. The data shows a modest increase from the summer of this year (6.8 per day) to the autumn (7.3), which corresponds to a shift from a defensive to an attacking posture, but there is simply nothing in the data here that suggests an abnormal elevation in Russian loss rates. Overall, the loss data suggests a high intensity attack, but the losses overall are lower than in other periods where Russia has been on the offensive.

We can apply the same basic analytic framework to personnel losses as well. Mediazona - an anti-Putinist Russian dissident media outlet - has been dutifully tracking Russian casualties via obituaries, funerary announcements, and social media posts. Lo and behold, they - like Warspotting UA - fail to record an inordinate spike in Russian losses through the Autumn thus far.

Now, it would be silly to deny that Russia lost armored vehicles or that attacking does not incur costs. There is a battle being fought, and vehicles are destroyed in battles. That is not the question here. The question is whether the Avdiivka assault has caused an unsustainable or abnormal spike in Russian losses, and quite simply there is nothing in the tracked loss data that would suggest this. Therefore, the argument that Russian forces are being eviscerated at Avdiivka simply does not seem supported by the available information, and so far the tracked daily losses for Autumn are simply lower than the average over the previous year.

Furthermore, fixation on Russian losses can lead one to forget that the Ukrainian forces get badly chewed up as well, and we actually have videos from the Ukrainian 110th Brigade (the main formation anchoring the Avdiivka defense) complaining that they have taken unsustainable losses. All to be expected with a high intensity battle underway. The Russians attacked in force in force and took proportional losses - but was it worth it?

We need to think about that initial Russian assault in the context of the Avdiivka battlespace. Avdiivka is rather unique in that the entire city and the railway running towards it sit upon an elevated ridge. With the city now enveloped on three sides, remaining Ukrainian logistical lines run along the floor of a wetland basin to the west of the city - the only corridor that remains open. Russia now has a position on the dominating heights that directly overlook the basin, and are in the process of expanding their position along the ridge. In fact, contrary to the claim that the Russian assault collapsed with heavy casualties, the Russians continue to expand their zone of control to the west of the railway, have already breached the outskirts of Stepove, and are pushing into the fortified trench network in southeastern Avdiivka proper.

Avdiivka Elevation Map

Now, at this point it's probably rational to want to compare the situation to Bakhmut, but the AFU forces in Avdiivka are actually in a much more dangerous position. Much was made of so-called "fire control" during the battle for Bakhmut, with some insinuating that Russia could isolate the city simply by firing artillery at the supply arteries. Needless to say, this didn't quite pan out. Ukraine lost plenty of vehicles on the road in and out of Bakhmut, but the corridor remained open - if dangerous - until the very end. In Avdiivka, however, Russia will have direct ATGM line of sight (rather than spotty artillery overwatch) over the supply corridor on the floor of the basin. This is a much more dangerous situation for the AFU, both because Avdiivka has the unusual feature of a single dominating ridge on the spine of the battlespace, and because the dimensions are smaller - the entire Ukrainian supply corridor here runs along a handful of roads in a 4 kilometer gap.

Clearly, control of the waste heap and the rail line are of paramount importance, so the Russian Army committed a significant assault force to ensure the capture of their key objectives. Attacking the waste heap furthermore required exposing Russian attack columns to perpendicular Ukrainian fire, attacking across well surveilled ground. In short, this entailed many of the tactical problems that plagued the Ukrainians over the summer. Modern ISR-fire linkages make it very difficult to successfully stage and deploy forces without incurring losses.

Unlike the Ukrainians, however, the Russians committed sufficient mass to create an irreversible snowball in the attack on the commanding heights, and Ukrainian fires were inadequate to stymie the assault. Now that they have them, the Russians will recoup losses as the Ukrainians attempt to counterattack - indeed, this has already begun, with UA Warspotting recording a sharp drop in Russian equipment losses over the last three weeks. This establishes the pattern of the operation - a massed assault early to capture keystone positions that put the Russians in control of the battlespace. The Russians successfully forced a decision from the get-go by committing to their attack with a level of violence and force generation that was lacking all summer for the AFU. The juice is worth the squeeze.

More to the point, the Ukrainians clearly know that they are in trouble. They have already begun scrambling premier assets to the area to begin counterattacking against the Russian position on the ridge, and there are already Bradleys and Leopards burning around Avdiivka and in the Ukrainian staging areas in the rear. The same basic problem now exists which proved so insurmountable in the summer: counterattacking Ukrainian forces (staging over ten kilometers in the rear, past Ocheretyne) face long and well-surveilled lines of approach which expose them to Russian standoff fires - the Ukrainian 47th Mechanized Brigade has now already lost armored vehicles both in its staging areas and in failed counterattacks on Russian positions around Stepove.

In the coming weeks, Russian forces will carry their momentum forward into attacks on the axes through Stepove and Sjeverne to the west of the city, leaving the AFU tied to a long and precarious logistical chain on the floor of the basin. One of Ukraine's longest and most strongly held fortresses now threatens to become an operational trap. I don't expect Avdiivka to fall in a matter of weeks (barring an unforeseen and unlikely collapse in the Ukrainian defense), but it is now a matter of time and the winter months will likely bring the steady whittling away of the Ukrainian position here.

Sustaining AFU combat power in the city will be particularly difficult, with Ukrainian "mosquito logistics" (referring to their habit of running supply lift with pickup trucks, vans, and other small civilian vehicles) struggling across the floor of a muddy basin under the watchful eye of Russian FPV drones and direct fire. The AFU will be forced to attempt to sustain a brigade-level defense by running small vehicles through a beaten zone. If the Russians successfully capture the coke plant, the game will end much sooner, but the Ukrainians know this and will make the defense of the plant a preeminent priority - but even so, it is only a matter of time, and once Avdiivka falls, the Ukrainians do not have a solid place to anchor their defense until they fall all the way back to the Vovcha River (Volchya on Russian maps). This is a process that should play itself out through the winter.

Anticipated future developments around Avdiivka

And that begs the question: if Ukraine could not hold Bakhmut, and time proves that they cannot hold Avdiivka, where can they hold? And if Ukraine cannot successfully attack, what are they fighting for?

A failed defense only counts as a delaying action if you have something to look forward to.

Strategic Exhaustion

The war in Ukraine is now transitioning to enter its third phase. The first phase, from the onset of hostilities in February 2022 until the autumn of that year, was characterized by a trajectory of exhaustion of indigenous Ukrainian capacity by the operations of the limited initial Russian force. While Russian forces successfully degraded or exhausted many aspects of the prewar Ukrainian war machine - elements like communications, air defense interceptor stocks, and the artillery park - the initial Russian strategy floundered on critical miscalculations concerning both Ukraine's willingness to fight a long war and NATO readiness to backstop Ukrainian material and provide critical ISR and command & control capabilities.

With the Russians facing with a much larger war than anticipated, and with utterly inadequate force generation for the task, the war took on the character of industrial attrition as it moved into the second phase. This phase was characterized by Russian attempts to shorten and correct the frontline, creating dense fortifications and locking up forces in grinding positional battles. This phase, more generally, was about the Ukrainians attempting to exploit - and the Russians enduring - a period of Ukrainian strategic initiative as Russia moved to a more expansive war footing, expanding armaments production and raisings force generation through mobilization.

In essence, Ukraine faced a dire strategic dilemma from the moment President Putin announced the mobilization of reserves in September, 2022. The Russian decision to mobilize was a de-facto signal that it accepted the new strategic logic of a longer war of industrial attrition - a war in which Russia would enjoy numerous advantages, including a much larger pool of manpower, vastly superior industrial capacity, indigenous production of standoff weaponry, armored vehicles, and shells, an industrial plant beyond the reach of systematic Ukrainian attacks, and strategic autonomy. These, however, are all systemic and long-term advantages. In the shorter term, however, Ukraine enjoyed a brief window of initiative on the ground. This window, however, was squandered with the botched summer assault on Russia's defenses in the south, and the second phase of the war ends alongside the AFU's drive on the Azov shore.

And so we come to the third phase, characterized by three important conditions:

  1. Steadily rising Russian combat power as a result of investments made over the previous year.

  2. Exhaustion of Ukrainian initiative on the ground and increasing self-cannibalization of AFU assets.

  3. Strategic exhaustion in NATO.

The first point is relatively trivial to comprehend and has been freely confessed by western and Ukrainian authorities. It is now well understood that sanctions failed to make a meaningful dent in Russian armaments production, and in fact the availability of critical systems is growing rapidly as a result of strategic investments in new and expanded production lines. However, we can enumerate a few examples of this.

One of the key elements of expanding Russian capabilities has been both the qualitative and quantitative improvement in new standoff systems. Russia has successfully launched mass production of the Iranian-derived Shahed/Geran drone, and has an additional factory under construction. Production of the Lancet loitering munition has risen exponentially, and a variety of improved variants are now entering use, with superior guidance, effective range, and swarming capabilities. Russian production of FPV drones has risen significantly, with Ukrainian operators now fearing a snowballing Russian advantage. UMPK guided glider adaptations have been modified to accommodate much of the Russian arsenal of gravity bombs.

All of this speaks to a Russian military with an expanding capacity to fling high explosives in greater numbers and accuracy at AFU personnel, equipment, and installations. Meanwhile, on the ground, tank production continues to rise, with sanctions having little apparent impact on Russian armor availability. In contrast to previous predictions that Russia would begin scraping the bottom of the barrel, pulling ever older tanks out of storage, Russian forces in Ukraine are fielding *newer* tanks, with the T-90 appearing on the battlefield in greater numbers. And, despite repetitive western predictions that a new mobilization wave would be required in the face of supposedly horrific casualties, the Russian defense ministry has confidently said that its manpower reserves are stable, and a Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman recently said that they believe there are over 400,000 Russian troops in the theater (to which can be added the sizeable reserves that remain in Russia).

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces are likely to become increasingly self-cannibalizing. This occurs on multiple levels, as a motif of a strategically exhausted force. On the strategic level, self-cannibalization occurs when strategic assets are burned off in the name of short term exigencies; on the tactical level, a similar degradative process occurs when formations remain in combat for too long and begin to grind away as they attempt combat tasks for which they are no longer suited.

You're likely rolling your eyes at that paragraph, and understandably so. It's heavily jargonized, and I apologize for it. However, we can see a concrete example of what both forms of self-cannibalization (strategic and tactical) look like, from the same unit: the 47th Mechanized Brigade.

The 47th was slated long ago to become one of the premier assets in Ukraine's counteroffensive. Trained (as best as time allowed) to NATO standards and with privileged access to high-end western equipment like the Leopard 2A6 Tank and the Bradley IFV. This brigade was both meticulously prepared and widely advertised as the deadly tip of the spear for Ukraine. However, a summer of frustrating and failed attacks on Russia's Zaporizhia line left the brigade with severe losses, degraded combat power, and infighting among the officers.

What followed ought to raise red flags. First, in early October it was reported that the 47th had a new commander, with the change spurred by demands from above that the brigade continue its efforts to attack. The problem was that the 47th had gradually exhausted its attacking potential, and the solution implemented by the new commander was to scrounge the brigade's rear areas and technical crews for replacement manpower. As the MilitaryLand report reads:

As claimed by soldiers of anti-tank missile unit of Magura in now removed video appeal, the brigade's command refuse to admit the brigade lost its offensive potential. Instead, command sends mortar crews, snipers, artillery crews, basically all it has available to the front as assault infantry.

This is a classic example of tactical self-cannibalization, wherein a loss in combat power threatens to accelerate as ancillary and technical elements of the unit are burned off in an attempt to compensate for losses. However, the 47th is also been cannibalized on the strategic level. When the Russian assault around Avdiivka began, the Ukrainian response was to pull the 47th out of the Zaporizhia front and scramble it to Avdiivka to counterattack. At this point, the Ukrainian defense there depends on the 110th Brigade, which has been in Avdiivka for nearly a year without relief, and the 47th, which was already degraded from months of continuous offensive operations in the south.

This is strategic cannibalization: taking one of the premier assets in the stable and rushing it, with no rest or refitting whatsoever, directly into combat as a defensive exigency. Thus, you have the 47th Brigade being cannibalized on an internal level (burning itself off as it attempts combat tasks that it is no longer appropriately equipped for) and on a strategic level, with the AFU grinding it down in a positional defense around Avdiivka rather than rotating it out for rest and refit to be earmarked for future offensive operations. A recent report with interviews of 47th personnel painted a dire picture: the brigade had lost over 30% of its personnel over the summer and its howitzers are rationed to a mere 15 shells per day. Russian mortars, they say, have an eight to one advantage.

The iconic image of modern war: mountains of discarded shell casings

The situation can be vaguely likened to a person in crisis, who wears themselves down biologically and emotionally through a lack of sleep and stress, while also burning away their assets - selling their car and other critical possessions to pay for immediate necessities like food and medicine. This is an unsustainable way to live, and cannot stave off catastrophe indefinitely.

The Russians are doing everything they can to encourage this process, methodically reactivating grinding attacking operations across the breadth of the front, including not only Avdiivka but also at Bakhmut and Kupyansk, in an intentional pinning program designed to keep Ukrainian assets in combat after being exhausted over the summer. The 47th is emblematic of this - attacking all summer only to immediately be scrambled into defense in the Donbas. As one associate of mine put it, the last thing you want to do after running a marathon is begin a sprint, and this is where the Ukrainians find themselves after losing the strategic initiative in October.

It is not just Ukraine, however, that faces strategic exhaustion. The United States and the NATO bloc find themselves in a similar situation.

The entire American strategy in Ukraine has worked its way into an impasse. The logic of the proxy war lay in assumptions about a cost differential - that the United States could stymie Russia for pennies on the dollar, supplying Ukraine out of its surplus inventories while strangling the Russian economy with sanctions.

Not only have sanctions failed to cripple Russia, but the American approach on the ground has come up bust. Ukraine's counteroffensive failed spectacularly, and the depleted Ukrainian ground force now must contrive a full-spectrum strategic defense against rising Russian force generation.

The basic strategic quandary for the west, then, is how to get out of a strategic cul-de-sac. NATO has reached the limits of what it can give Ukraine out of surpluses. In regards to artillery shells (the totem item in this war), for example, NATO allies have openly admitted that they have more or less run out, while the United States has been forced to redirect shell deliveries from Ukraine to Israel - a tacit admission that there are not enough on hand for both. Meanwhile, new production of shells is behind schedule in both the United States and Europe.

Facing a massive Russian investment in defense production and the following enormous ramp in Russian capabilities, it's not clear how the United States can proceed. One possibility is the "all-in" option, which would require industrial restructuring and de-facto economic mobilization, but it's not clear how this could be achieved given the parlous state of both the western industrial base and its finances.

Indeed, there are unmistakable signs that bringing western arms manufacturing out of its deep freeze will be enormously expensive and logistically challenging. New contracts demonstrate exorbitant cost runup. For example, a recent Rhenmetall order clocked in at $3500 per shell - an astonishing increase when one considers that as recently as 2021 the US Army was able to procure at a mere $820 per shell. No wonder the head of NATO's Military Committee complained that higher prices are defeating efforts to build up stockpiles. Meanwhile, production is constrained by a lack of skilled workers and machine tools. Going "all in" on Ukraine would require a level of breakneck economic restructuring and mobilization that western populations would likely find intolerable and confusing.

A second option is "freezing" the conflict by pushing Ukraine to negotiate. This has already been broached in public by American and European officials, and was received with mixed reviews. On the whole, this seems rather unlikely. Opportunities to negotiate an end to the conflict were rebuffed on multiple occasions. From the Russian perspective, the west deliberately chose to escalate the conflict and would now want to walk away after Russia answered with its mobilization. It's not clear then why Putin would be inclined to let Ukraine off the hook now that Russian military investments are beginning to bear fruit, and the Russian army has the real possibility of walking away with the Donbas and more. Even more troubling, however, is Ukrainian intransigence, which seems bound to sacrifice more brave men attempting to prolong Kiev's fingerhold grip on territories that cannot be held indefinitely.

In essence, the United States (and its European satellites) have four options, none of which are good:

  • Commit to an economic mobilization to substantially ramp up material deliveries to Ukraine

  • Continue the extant trickle of support to Ukraine and watch it suffer a progressive and slow defeat

  • End support for Ukraine and watch it suffer a more rapid and totalizing defeat

  • Attempt to freeze the conflict with negotiations

This is a classic formula for strategic paralysis, and the most likely outcome is that the United States will default to its current course of action, supporting Ukraine at a trickle level commensurate with the financial and industrial limits in place, keeping the AFU in the field but ultimately overmatched in myriad dimensions by rising Russian capabilities.

And this, ultimately, brings us back where we started. There is no wonder weapon, no cool trick, no operational contrivance coming to save Ukraine. There is no exhaust port on the Death Star. There's only the cold calculus of massed fires over time and space. Even Ukraine's isolated successes only serve to emphasize the enormous disparity in capabilities. For example, when the AFU uses western missiles to attack Russian ships in drydock, this is only possible because Russia has a navy. The Russians, in contrast, have a wide arsenal of anti-ship missiles that they are not using, because Ukraine does not have a navy. While the spectacle of a successful hit on a Russian vessel makes for nice PR, it only reveals the asymmetry in assets and does nothing to ameliorate Ukraine's fundamental problem, which is the steady attrition and destruction of its ground forces in the Donbas.

As 2024 brings a steady erosion of the Ukrainian position in the Donbas - isolation and liquidation of peripheral fortresses like Adviivka, a double pronged advance on Konstyantinivka, an ever more severe salient around Ugledar as the Russians advance on Kurakhove - Ukraine will find itself in an ever more untenable place, with western partners questioning the logic of funneling limited weapons stocks into a shattered state.

In the third century, during China's Three Kingdoms era (after the Han Dynasty broke apart into a trifurcated state in the early 200's), there was a famous general and official named Sima Yi. While not as oft quoted as the better known Sun Tzu, Sima Yi has one pithy aphorism attributed to him which is better than anything in the Art of War. Sima Yi put the essence of warmaking the following way:

In military affairs there are five essential points. If able to attack, you must attack. If not able to attack, you must defend. If not able to defend, you must flee. The remaining two points entail only surrender or death.

Ukraine is working its way down the list. The events of the summer demonstrated that it cannot successfully attack strongly held Russian positions. Events in Avdivvka and elsewhere now test whether they can defend their position in the Donbas against rising Russian force generation. If they fail this test, it will be time to flee, surrender, or die. Such is the way of things when the time for reckoning comes.


Big Serge Thoughts
26 Oct 2023 | 11:32 pm

3. The Last Effort: Germany's Final Battle in the West

Belgium, December 1944

In competitive sports, there is a concept which Americans call Garbage Time. The premise is fairly simple - sometimes, a team attains a lead so substantial that it is fundamentally impossible for its opponent to win. A victory is essentially certain, but the rules dictate that the game must continue to be played until time expires (although in some baseball leagues there is a "Mercy Rule" which ends the game prematurely if one team falls behind too far) - this remainder of the game is called garbage time because it is played only as a formality, even though all involved know who is going to win and who is going to lose.

There is no such thing as garbage time when states engage in armed conflict. Certainly, as in sports, wars often reach a point where the ultimate outcome is no longer in doubt, but so long as armies remain in the field all of their strategic and operational decisions matter. On the most intimate level, the outcome of wars remain in doubt until the very end, in the sense that every man fighting still faces the possibility of death. By the autumn of 1944, for example, there was no longer any doubt that Germany faced strategic annihilation - but this was cold comfort to America, British, Canadian, French, or Soviet soldiers, who still faced the very real immanence of their own potential death. Millions of people would die in Europe in 1945, long after the outcome of the war had become a foregone conclusion. Wars are not over until the last shot is fired, and homes, lives, and families face destruction until that moment.

Operational decisions matter a great deal, therefore, both because they have the potential to accelerate or delay the end of the war (thus reducing or increasing casualties) and because they change the geopolitical outcome - particularly in the case of coalition warfare. It was clear, for example, that the allies would win, but the arrangement of that victory was an open question - who would take Berlin? Would the Anglo-Americans invade the Balkans? Who would get custody of coveted German assets, including her many gifted scientists, engineers, technologists, and operational planners? In this context, German strategic decisions mattered a great deal, in that they had the potential to change the particular way that her empire was overrun by the allied coalition.

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This makes the closing nine months of World War Two an object of intense intellectual curiosity. Facing annihilation, Germany continued to operate as a strategically intentional entity. The Wehrmacht planned operations, German industry churned out replacement equipment as best as possible and produced monstrously powerful new systems, like the mammoth Tiger II tank, innovative infantry anti-tank weaponry, and the cutting edge ME-262 jet fighter. The Germans conscripted replacements, trained and armed large numbers of increasingly young (and old) soldiers, hung soldiers and civilians alike for cowardice, and generally remained capable of powerful violence and surprising tactical effectiveness right up until the very end. And amid it all, the nervous system of the Wehrmacht - the officer corps - remained in the field, leading a brutal fight to the death.

The Inescapable Clausewitz

Our last entry left the Wehrmacht dangling at the end of a thread, reeling from one of the worst defeats in history. The summer of 1944 had been most unkind to the Germans, with simultaneous operational catastrophes unfolding in sequence. June and July saw Army Group Center in the east being swallowed up by the Red Army's Operation Bagration, and then August saw another army group thrashed in France at the Falaise Pocket. In an essentially unbroken chain of disaster, the most critical high level formations in both the eastern and western theaters were torn apart in the span of a few months.

What might be surprising, therefore, was that amid conditions that suggested a general collapse, the Germans managed to restore a cohesive front in both theaters. This fact is owed, above all, to the particular talents of one of Germany's most famous and infamous commanders - Field Marshal Walther Model.

Model is a rather difficult personality to parse, even by the standards of Nazi era German field commanders. Model was brilliant. That much is essentially indisputable. He seemed to be capable of mastering virtually any operational catastrophe, no matter how extreme, and this fact earned him the nickname "the Fuhrer's Firefighter." His prowess as a defensive expert who could fix gaping operational problems seems a bit overblown at times, but for our purposes consider that in the aftermath of Germany's three great operational cataclysms in 1944 - the winter collapse in Soviet Ukraine, Bagration, and the Falaise Pocket - it was Model who was rushed in to take charge in all three cases. After Bagration, he managed to stop the Soviet offensive with a timely counteroffensive in front of Warsaw (a topic for our next piece), after which he was almost immediately flown to the west to salvage the situation in France. It's not an exaggeration to say that in 1944, you could tell where the Wehrmacht was hurting the most by checking where Model was. Like a firefighter or a trauma surgeon, he had a gift for staving off disaster.

Walther Model - famous for his defensive acumen, deep devotion to Hitler, and monocle

Model was brilliant indeed. But that made his larger character even more confusing, because he was also a true believing Nazi - and not just in the sense of checking boxes and giving the necessary platitudes. He genuinely believed in Hitler and his historical mission, and even late in the war he spoke with absolute confidence of Germany's inevitable victory. Every bit of evidence that we have suggests that Model truly believed, deep down, that Hitler was a strategic genius, that the fighting qualities of the German soldier could transcend material factors, and that Germany would win the war. These beliefs firmly entered the realm of delusion, and this makes Model rather, shall we say, weird. It is difficult to understand how someone so gifted, talented, so obviously intelligent could also range into overtly cultish territory. Many of Germany's other great talents would grumble that Hitler had lost the plot, push back, complain, or defy. To the point, most of Germany's greatest operators were forced into retirement for being too argumentative. Virtually all of the most famous commanders - Rommel, Guderian, Manstein, Bock, Hoepner, Hoth - were fired (or even executed) before the war ended. Not Model. Uniquely along Germany's talents, he believed and pushed his subordinates to fight fanatically to the end.

One motif of Model's command was a fairly regular stream of missives exhorting his men to fight, invoking German superiority, the perils of Bolshevism, and their inevitable victory under Hitler's leadership. One such order proclaimed that "No soldier in the world may be better than we, the soldiers of our Führer, Adolf Hitler!" We can accuse Model of lying here, but as the great philosopher George Costanza reminds us, "It's not a lie if you believe it."

Model's exceptionally strong relationship with Hitler had two tangible operational implications which became a matter of life and death for hundreds of thousands of men.

First, it meant that Model was generally quite good at getting priority access to replacements and material, both because he had Hitler's ear and approval and because Model had learned early on that it was wise to massively over-ask. Model made it a habit to demand outrageous - nay, impossible, reinforcements, knowing that this could cajole high command into at least allocating something. Demand a dozen additional Panzer Divisions, and maybe you'll get 2. Ask for 800 tanks, and Hitler might give you 100. In the grand scheme of things, it sounds silly, but it became crucially important that Model's command generally enjoyed privileged access to reserves and equipment and were thus, by extension, often in better shape than the allies expected them to be.

Secondly, because Model was such a trusted subordinate, he was able to get away with things that other commanders could not - like retreating. Model was certainly capable of standing in place and fighting to the death when he felt like it, and this gave him some leeway to withdraw and give ground without being punished by Hitler. Probably, Hitler had some sense that if Model felt that it was necessary to pull back then there must have been a very good reason indeed. In any case, Model could operate with some level of impunity in a way that few others could.

Therefore, it genuinely mattered that Model was the man tagged to salvage the operational situation in France after the disaster at Falaise.

When Model arrived, the situation map might as well have been a flaming trash barrel. The tattered remnants of "Army Group B" were straggling out of western France towards Paris and the Seine, vaguely wandering towards a rendezvous with German 19th Army, which was retreating from southern France in the wake of an allied landing on the Mediterranean Coast. Probably the best look at the generally ragged state of the German force in France was an October 15th report from German High Command West which determined that the 41 infantry and 10 mechanized divisions in France had at most the combat power of a mere 27 infantry and 6.5 Panzer Divisions - a meager force to hold back the allied wave that was preparing break upon them.

Few would have judged allied command for feeling borderline euphoric. But it was at this juncture, as the mighty allied force rolled eastward out of Normandy towards Paris, the German border, and Berlin, that a dead hand reached from the grave to dampen their joy.

Carl von Clausewitz is perhaps the single most quoted and referenced writer on what we may call the philosophy of military operations, to the point where mentioning him is practically cliche. One of his critical concepts was the idea of friction and culmination - that attacking forces wear down over time and eventually have to stop. In Clausewitz's own day (the Napoleonic era) this in practice meant that horses and marching men got tired, fodder and powder ran low, wagon wheels broke, and armies generally became more disoriented and had a harder time navigating as they got farther from their bases of support. Furthermore, by definition the attacking army continued to move farther and farther from home, while the defending army got closer and closer, shifting the balance of fighting power in the defense's favor as time went on. The "culmination point", as Clausewitz called it, referred to the moment when the attacking force simply could not go any farther, and the attack subsided like the ocean at high tide. In a framework analogous to physics, we might say that attacking requires an energy expenditure which eventually subsides due to friction and resistance in the environment.

Clausewitz wrote his famous book, On War, before anyone had dreamed of trains or trucks or tanks or aircraft. For this reason, we must praise him, because his concept of friction and the culmination point long outlasted the technology of his era, and proved to be an enduring military reality - he had tapped into something genuinely true. And although Clausewitz had been dead for nearly 170 years, his damnable culmination point arose from the mist and confounded the all-conquering Anglo-Americans.

The allied force fanning out into France was genuinely astonishing. In a relatively short period of time it would expand to seven field armies, four of which were American, with a fifth (the French 1st Army) being equipped and supplied entirely by the Americans as well. This vast and seemingly all-powerful host had an astonishing level of material and fuel consumption, and unfortunately for the allies there was a rather limited logistical capacity. The allies had captured several potentially valuable ports, like Cherbourg and Calais, but the Germans successfully demolished the shipping infrastructure, to the effect that by September the allies were still relying on their improvised harbors on the Normandy beaches to supply their great advance.

In essence, the allies had won one of history's greatest operational victories in France and created a similarly colossal logistical mess. There were two problems - both how to land the supplies and then how to transport them overland. The only way to supply such enormous armies reliably was by rail, but the French rail network was trashed precisely because the allies had bombed it thoroughly to prevent the Germans from deploying and supplying forces to Normandy. It presents an interesting operational problem - when the enemy's supply system of today is your own supply system of tomorrow, what do you do?

The allies tried to instead lean on their prodigious truck lift. To be very fair, the American truck transport capacity in 1944 was genuinely astonishing - more than enough to drive the Germans green with envy. But it simply was not enough. The famous "Red Ball Express" - an improvised American truck convoy system - managed to move a little over 12,000 tons of supplies per day. This was an astonishing number for a purely truck based system. But by comparison, the port and rail net at Antwerp (in Belgium) could move some 40,000 tons per day. This represents a reality of engineering. No matter how hard one tries or how competent the organization, a trucking network simply pales in comparison to a large port and a working rail network, which the allies did not have. It is a credit to the American trucking system that it managed to sustain the allied advance for any meaningful length of time at all, but it could not work miracles and the advance eventually began to grind to a halt.

The Red Ball Express truck lift worked wonders but could never full replace a working port and rail network

The slowing of the allied advance gave Model just enough breathing room to once again perform an apparent work of magic and create a cohesive front out of a routed army. The task required a litany of narrow escapes, half solutions, delaying actions, and improvisations. Model had to withdraw his battered high level units (7th Army and 5th Panzer Army) from France, evacuate elements of the 15th Army by sea from various Belgian peninsulas and islands, contrive a way to insert the new 1st Fallschirmjäger (airborne) division into the line, and try to scrape together a variety of shattered units which were now streaming eastward out of France in a chaotic rout.

Some of the measures that Model had to resort to were rather shocking for this once proud army. Hastily assembled battlegroups were thrown at critical bridges and roadblocks to harass and delay the allied advance, small counterattacks were launched by tiny handfuls of panzers, and retreating personnel were ordered not to waste time looking for their own units but report to the first command post they could find. And crucially - because he was Model - reinforcements were on the way. Two veteran panzergrenadier divisions were en-route from Italy, and the first four of the brand new "Volksgrenadier" divisions were assigned to Model's command.

The Volksgrenadier formations were rather emblematic of late war Germany's predicament. Not to be confused with the Volksturm (untrained militia good only for dying), the Volksgrenadier were regular army formations with standardized weaponry and training, but organized far differently from the idealized early war infantry division. They drew their personnel from a variety of disparate sources, like "jobless" Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe staff (since these arms still had bloated manpower despite very few operative ships and aircraft), administrative personnel, and the straggling survivors of destroyed eastern front units. Instead of the typical nine infantry battalions in a standard infantry division, a Volksgrenadier division had six, and instead of a motorized component they were largely equipped with bicycles for transportation (this is not a joke). Most importantly, they were light on heavy weapons but liberally equipped with submachine guns and man portable antitank weapons, like the vicious panzerfaust.

An instructor demonstrates how to fire the single-shot antitank Panzerfaust

Needless to say, astride their bicycles and with very little artillery, the Volksgrenadier divisions were completely unsuitable for offensive action, but they were surprisingly combat effective in close-quarters defense, and this made them wonderful units for Germany's purposes, since this was no longer an army fighting to win a war but only to make its defeat as painful as possible for the enemy.

Narrowly extracting his forces from France, inserting precious reinforcements into the line, and reassembling shattered units on an ad-hoc basis - by the end of August, Model had recreated a continuous front across northern Belgium, and crucially had managed to hold the islands and peninsulas northwest of Antwerp, which ensured that the allies could not use the port despite capturing it on September 4th. General Omar Bradley described Model's resurrection of the German position the following way:

In one of the enemy's more resourceful displays of generalship, Model stemmed the rout of the Wehrmacht. He quieted the panic and reorganized the demoralized German forces into effective battle groups. From Antwerp to Épinal, 260 miles south, Model had miraculously grafted a new backbone on the German Army.

Model's stoic nerves and deft touch reassembling his line always draw high marks from the peculiar military historian caste, but we should not overemphasize or romanticize the Werhmacht's strength. This was a self-cannibalizing force reeling from a sequence of catastrophic defeats, building its line through self-destructive expedients, like using specialized airborne assets (the Fallschirmjäger) as line infantry, pulling resources from other fronts, and assembling ad-hoc battlegroups and Volskgrenadier formations.

Nevertheless, this was sufficient to greatly frustrate the allied camp. They had won a tremendous victory, driving the Wehrmacht from France and shattering its strength at Falaise, but they now faced the limits of their logistical network (the relevant chapter in Bradley's memoir is simply titled "Famine in Supply") and - crucially - the realization that they were losing the opportunity to translate their operational victory in France into a total strategic victory; in other words, Model had denied them the chance to exploit the rout in France by getting into Germany proper and winning the war outright.

It was this realization, that the war would likely not be won in 1944, that prompted British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to draft one of the most ambitious and heavily scrutinized allied operations of the war. One last chance to end the war by Christmas.

The Bridge at Arnhem

Operation Market-Garden was a plan conceived in frustration. The allies had achieved a great feat of arms by shattering the German position in France over the summer months, but the seemingly miraculous reconstitution of the Wehrmacht under Model's command, along with the ongoing supply headaches stemming from the lack of an operative port, indicated that there was a lot more fighting ahead. This was dispiriting and irksome to the allies, who had felt (rightly) that only a few weeks previously the Germans were on the run. The sense now was that the reward for the victories of the summer was only a brutal winter campaign in a war that now seemed unlikely to end soon. Bradley later wrote that "Montgomery winced as we did over the sudden reappearance of German opposition on his front" - but Montgomery was doing more than just wincing.

In the first weeks of September, Montgomery drafted (and Eisenhower approved) Operation Market Garden. As is often the case, Market-Garden was simple in concept and dreadfully complicated in execution. The premise was cozy enough - the war could be won in 1944, it was thought, if the allies could get their mechanized forces over the Rhine River and into Germany. Therefore, Montgomery proposed to thrust the British 2nd Army northeast through the Netherlands to cross the branches of the lower Rhine (what the Dutch call the Nederrijn) at Arnhem - from there they would roll down into the German plain and have no terrain features of note between them and the German heartland.

Home by Christmas? Montgomery's Lunge for Germany

The problem with this seemingly simple plan (drive to the river and cross it) was the peculiar geographic nature of the Netherlands, with its low lying wetlands and woods which are entirely unsuitable for armored operations. The terrain meant that the British advance would be confined largely to the main highway from Eindhoven to Arnhem (what is today the A50 highway, but in 1944 was called Highway 69) - creating a long, thin advance vulnerable to counterattack. The second problem was that this path of advance crossed no less than five significant rivers and canals. If the Germans managed to detonate any one of these bridges, the operation was kaput. Thus, a two part operation was necessary - the armored thrust up the highway to the Arnhem bridge (Operation Garden) and a series of paratrooper drops to prevent the Germans from blowing the bridges (Operation Market).

The mountain of postwar literature on Market-Garden tends to criticize the complexity of the plan. For the operation to succeed, the airborne forces had to secure all five bridges - even losing one would scuttle the whole thing. Furthermore, a shortage of air transportation meant that the drops would have to take place in waves, rather than all at once. As for the ground advance, it does not take a genius to understand that trying to push multiple armored brigades up a single highway is a tricky proposition. All things considered, Market-Garden was an operation that really had no margin of error. Everything had to go right - five bridges on one road - for it to succeed.

These were all real problems, but they rather miss the point. The allies wanted to end the war in 1944 for very obvious reasons, and the only way to do that was to get sizeable armored forces over the Rhine, and the only way to do that was to drive to Arnhem and cross the river, and the only way to do that was to push up the highway and secure the whole series of bridges along the way. Add it all up, and you get Market-Garden or something very much like it. If you wanted to end the war by Christmas, this was the play. So, the allies played it.

The problem with Market-Garden was not so much the complexity of the plan, but the fact that there were German forces who worked to foil it. Contrary to the common trope that Montgomery was surprised by the presence of Germans in the operations zone, he knew full well that they were there but believed that they would be largely combat ineffective units due to the mauling they'd received in France. In fact, one contemporary allied assessment concluded that, though Market-Garden was a risk, German forces were assessed to be so weak and disoriented that it would be negligent not to try it.

In fact, there were several operations-capable German entities of note at Arnhem, directly in the path of Montgomery's planned advance. One was an entire SS Panzer Corps, with its two panzer divisions: 9th SS Panzer was stationed only a few miles to the northwest of Arnhem, and the 10th was loitering a few miles to the south. Just as notable was the presence of Model himself, who had located his headquarters in a small town just to the west of the Arnhem bridge. Thus the most critical aspect of the whole operation - the air drop to seize the Arnhem bridge over the Lower Rhine - happened to land almost directly on top of Model and a pair of Panzer Divisions. In other words, the critical objective of the operation was occupied by nothing less than Germany's best defensive operator and a pair of the Wehrmacht's best tactical units.

The bridge at Arnhem

The critical task of capturing the main road bridge in Arnhem fell to the British 1st Airborne division, and so it was this unit that received the dubious honor of dropping over Model's headquarters when the operation was launched on September 17. Market Garden was essentially doomed the moment the airborne troops hit the ground - within an hour, Model had organized battlegroups that established blocking positions and hemmed much of the 1st Airborne into a few small pockets. A battalion or so worth of men did manage to reach the all-important bridge, but they lacked the combat power to capture it and remained trapped on the north bank of the river, exchanging gunfire with the Germans on the other side of the bridge. By the end of the day, 1st Airborne was trapped in a pair of pockets - one around their original landing zone, and the smaller one around the north end of the Arnhem bridge - and could do nothing except dig in and wait for the ground forces to link up with them.

Unfortunately, the ground advance was having all manner of difficulty building up steam. The problem, once again, was unexpected German combat potential. The first stage of the assault, around Eindhoven, drove directly in between a pair of German units - 59th Infantry Division to the west, and 107th Panzer brigade, equipped with Panther tanks, to the east. Meanwhile, the road itself was clogged up with doggedly defended German roadblocks.

British forces slog up the highway during Market-Garden

Because Operation Market Garden had called for only a single axis of advance, the British ground forces had no prospect for outflanking or avoiding these German defenses, and were obliged to slog their way up the road while fighting off counterattacks from either side. In fact, the terrain made any notion of fighting off-road almost impossible. The commander of the ground forces, General Brian Horrocks, flatly insisted that "The country was wooded and rather marshy, which made any outflanking operation impossible." It was the highway or bust.

With the ground advance behind schedule, the decision was made to proceed with a reinforcement of the airborne forces by dropping in the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade to back up the British paratroopers around Arnhem. Unfortunately, the Poles landed on the south side of the Neder Rhine (the British were still stuck on the north bank) and were soon trapped against the river as well.

A Bridge Too Far: Operation Market Garden

The whole thing ended rather quickly. With ground forces stuck in a slow and painful slog up the road, the allied paratroops at Arnhem were fundamentally doomed. The SS Panzer divisions around Arnhem wheeled in to crush the immobilized allied airborne forces, and it was all over by September 27. The Wehrmacht still held the Arnhem bridge.

Operation Market Garden is a much autopsied episode in the war - a fact that is perhaps odd, given how small it was. Total Allied casualties were a little over 16,000, with the Germans losing some 7,000 men at most. The worst of the damage by far fell on the poor British 1st Airborne, which took 1,500 killed and 6,500 captured (wiping out two-thirds of the 12,000 man unit). Still, in a war that was burning through divisions of all nationalities like cheap kindling, this wasn't a particularly grand or horrific battle.

The implication of Market-Garden's failure, however, was massive. It marked the end of an open and highly mobile phase of the war in the west and largely froze up the front for the following three months. The opportunity to exploit the rout in France had vanished, and the Wehrmacht once again manned a continuous front barring the path into Germany. The war would not end in 1944, and there would be no end-run over the top of the Rhine into Germany.

Allied paratroopers hit the ground

Part of the endless fascination with Market Garden stems, to be sure, from the nagging American dislike of Montgomery, which leads to something bordering on an ill-placed schadenfreude at "Monty's" failure. Naturally, American patriots did not extend the criticism to Eisenhower, who signed off on Market Garden with full agreement. Of course, on the other side, the British tend to be highly defensive of Market-Garden (and Montgomery by extension), and both Churchill and Montgomery argued that the operation was "90% successful" in that it liberated a swathe of Dutch territory. In any case, all manner of finger pointing ensued, with some Americans blaming Montgomery, Eisenhower blaming the weather, and Montgomery blaming both a "lack of support" and the Polish paratroopers, whom he accused of performing poorly.

They all should have blamed the Wehrmacht, and Model in particular. Operation Market Garden would have been a perfectly viable operation if the Germans had been in a state of disarray and general combat ineffectiveness, as they indeed had been as recently as the end of August. Model demonstrated - as if this war had not provided more than enough proof already - that modern armies have absolutely astonishing recuperative powers, so long as the command apparatus remains intact and the men in the field feel that the war is still worth fighting. In Holland, in 1944, Model's personal presence was significant, both through his skill in returning order and cohesion to his forces, and in his privileged access to replacements and equipment. In the case of Market Garden, a mere two weeks was sufficient for the Germans to sort themselves out and defeat Montgomery's audacious push for the Rhine.

The Germans had suffered two extraordinary defeats, in Soviet Belarus and in Normandy, which by all accounting ought to have pushed them past the breaking point and yet here they were, still fighting hard with a continuous front in both theaters - in both cases thanks in large part to Model's fanatical and competent handling of the operations map. The Germans could not win the war, of course, but the force regeneration powers of the Wehrmacht remained prodigious, German men of increasingly disparate ages still believed that the Reich was worth fighting and dying for, and no single defeat - no matter how catastrophic - was sufficient to knock the Germans out of the field. And so, with the front congealing into a solid wall, the summer maneuver period gave way to something far more primitive and horrible.

The Things Their Fathers Saw

With the end of Market Garden and the failure of the allies to fully clear the river lines in a continuation of the summer campaigning season, the western front coagulated into a continuous arc of wall to wall armies, lined up across from each other all the way from the English Channel to the Swiss border. The German line - understrength and overmatched, but still continuous and cohesive - ran from the channel coast just north of Antwerp (where littoral positions still allowed the Wehrmacht to block allied access to the port) due east towards Arnhem and the Rhine; from there it curled southward towards Switzerland passed through the Ardennes, the Moselle Valley, and the so-called Burgundian Gap, in a course that roughly corresponded to the prewar western borders of the Reich.

Overall, this front was nearly 600 miles long, and given the parlous state of German manpower it was hardly a simple matter to man it properly. Crucially, however, the allies were still struggling with endemic fuel shortages (and would continue to do so until Antwerp was unblocked) which forced them to undertake limited offensive actions - in effect, attacking the entire German line frontally all across the board in a firepower-intensive grind.

Wall to wall armies from the channel to the Alps, limited mobility, and fires-intensive frontal assaults across a broad front. If it sounds familiar, that's because it is - and for the last three months of 1944, the Germans and the Allies would fight an attritional-positional battle reminiscent of the First World War: a gruesome homage to the war their fathers fought.

In theory, much of the German defense was now anchored on the infamous "Siegfried Line", or the "West Wall" - a dense nest of German defenses erected in a sort of mirror image to France's prewar Maginot Line. On paper, fighting on a prepared defensive line ought to have accrued significant advantages for the Wehrmacht, and indeed German propaganda relentlessly trumpeted the idea of the Reich's impenetrable western border, defended as it was by both the West Wall and the Rhine.

However, notwithstanding the obvious anachronism of an "impenetrable defensive line", and even ignoring the obviously stark warning from Germany's own experience in 1918, when they had lost the war despite having both the Hindenburg Line and the Rhine to defend behind, it turned out that the mighty West Wall was not all it was cracked up to be. In particular, the West Wall had several specific defects:

  1. Much of the original line had been built in 1938 and 1939, designed to withstand the ordnance of the day - consequentially, many of the emplacements were simply not built to survive the much more powerful weaponry in use by 1944.

  2. Many of the West Wall's heavy weapons (particularly artillery) and equipment (like radios) had been stripped down throughout the war for use elsewhere, and in particular to equip the Atlantic Wall in France.

  3. An emergency construction program designed to get the wall back into fighting shape was entrusted to domestic Nazi party officials (Gauleiter) and civilian construction crews who had no real understanding of military engineering; consequentially, the new portions of the line tended to be haphazard tangles of bunkers, pillboxes, trenches, barbed wire, and tank obstacles which were not arranged in a systematic way - for example, there was relatively little thought given to lines of sight or fields of fire.

Thus, despite the ostensible impregnability of the West Wall, German troops found a disappointing mixture of sloppily built new fortifications and outdated prewar bunkers that would be pulverized by modern allied munitions - and underlying it all, an endemic shortage of heavy weapons, communications equipment, ammunition, mines, and men. Probably the best thing that can be said for the West Wall is that it did at least have plenty of obstacles to complicate the allied assault, and the presence of the belt helped give confidence to inexperienced Volksgrenadier units who did not know any better - green troops always feel and fight better in fixed defenses. But certainly, no German soldier with even a modicum of realism believed that they could hold the line in the west indefinitely.

Antitank barriers on the West Wall

In the short term, however, a lack of allied fuel and logistical capacity - combined with Eisenhower's decision to keep up the pressure across the entire front - meant that there was nothing to be done for the allies except to attack the German position head on. This became an ignominious and inglorious period of the war - the allies continued to churn their legs and grind forward, but their advance was slow and characterized by general carnage.

The allies would launch a series of limited offensives - virtually unremembered today - which generated enormous casualties on both sides as they bashed their way through static German defenses. General Bradley would orchestrate Operation Queen - intended to drive over the Ruhr River up to the Rhine to establish a launching pad for a future offensive into Germany proper, but the assault devolved into an agonizingly slow and bloody fight, with the Germans defending effectively in the dense confines of the Hürtgen Forest. Operation Queen failed to reach the Rhine - in fact, it did not even cross the Rhur - and cost US 1st and 9th Armies some 40,000 casualties.

Meanwhile, farther to the south, General Patton' 3rd Army had a damnably difficult slog trying to clear the Germans out of the Loraine Region. In particular, the Germans put up a fierce resistance at the fortress complex around Metz, and Patton's attack - which began on September 27 - could not clear out the last pockets of resistance until December 13.

American Offensive Operations: September to December, 1944

The Lorraine Campaign became a topic of notoriety and great criticism against Patton (though today most people have never heard of it). Like the rest of the allied operations in the autumn of 1944, Patton's assault towards Metz was nothing more than a frontal assault which generated huge casualties, with the American advance greatly complicated by both incessant rain and logistical difficulties. Patton became somewhat obsessed with Metz, which he grandly (and incorrectly) proclaimed had not been captured in centuries. However, Patton the cavalryman was completely out of his element in a grinding positional slog, and really did very little to direct the battle - he communicated only infrequently with his subordinates, rarely intervened in battle management, and generally spent most of his time griping at his command post and in his diary. He speculated that his army was being deliberately starved of fuel as a sop to Montgomery, and that the supply difficulties were somehow being manufactured to influence the presidential election back home in the USA. Meanwhile, he wrote to his wife asking her to send him Pepto-Bismol - what he called "pink medicin" - claiming that the rain and the slogging attack were giving him an excess of bile.

By any measure, the Loraine Campaign was not Patton's finest moment. He was essentially missing in action, exerting little control over the operation, preferring to gripe and pout in his headquarters. Meanwhile, his Third Army created a meatgrinder in its assault, suffering 55,000 casualties in addition to some 42,000 "nonbattle" casualties - frostbite, sickness, trench foot, and the like. The latter in particular had become an epidemic among American troops, who found that the army regulation footwear was simply inadequate for cold or wet weather. The American quartermaster in Europe, General Robert Littlejohn, admitted that in snow the standard issue boots were "nothing but a sponge tied around the soldier's foot." But boots or no boots, the attack went on. When Bradley urged Patton to break off the attack on Metz - "For God's sake, lay off it", he said, "You are taking too many casualties for what you are accomplishing" - Patton ignored him and railed about Bradley's timidity in his diary.

But Bradley had a point - Lorraine was remarkably costly to Patton's Army. According to a 1985 US Army study of the campaign (which emphasized Patton's indifference to overstraining his logistics) fully a third of all the casualties suffered by Patton's 3rd Army in the entire war were incurred in Lorraine during only a three month period. Probably the most poignant summary of the autumn fighting came from a war reporter embedded with Patton's 5th Infantry Division, which took tremendous losses reducing one of the Metz forts. He wrote, simply: "We were attempting to assault a medieval fortress in a medieval manner." But perhaps we are being too hard on Patton - Bradley's Operation Queen fared no better, nor were the British going anywhere fast up in the Netherlands.

The 1944 campaign around Metz was characterized by slow and costly positional fighting

It was by any reckoning a miserable autumn, one which has been largely forgotten in the historiography simply because it seems to be such an aberration - an archaic throwback to the last war. Instead of sweeping mechanized operations, the war had devolved into ugly frontal assaults that burned through entire infantry battalions to advance 200 yards through the forest and the mud. Losses were severe enough that American units became chronically understrength, and casualties routinely outstripped replacements. Patton, in an effort to keep his frontline units as strong as possible, began rounding up rear area personnel - clerks, administrative personnel, drivers, and so forth - to be added to his rifle units after a cursory infantry training. By December, fully 10% of Patton's rear area personnel had been thus "drafted" into the infantry. We are of course used to the idea that the Germans had to increasingly resort to emergency stopgap measures to fight the war, but the idea that the powerful American Army would have to do likewise is more troubling.

Of course, the brutal and firepower-intensive frontal allied advance generated plenty of German casualties as well, and the Wehrmacht indeed frequently got the worst of it due to their lack of artillery and other heavy weapons. In the long arc, this sort of casualty trading remained a terrible game for the Wehrmacht, but that did not make it any more pleasant for the Anglo-Americans, who were universally frustrated with the slow pace and exorbitant cost of this phase of the war. Bradley would at one point confide that he now feared that the Germans could continue fighting "bitter delaying actions" until 1946. Few could doubt that the allies were winning, but victory seemed to be much farther off and much more costly in lives than they had reckoned.

But the Wehrmacht was not particularly interested in delaying actions. The entire arrangement of the war had become abhorrent to them, with the allies holding all the initiative and slowly grinding the Germans to dust. This was no way for a German army to die - it ought to die as it lived, which is to say attacking, moving, operating - not fighting a reactive defense out of static positions. The Wehrmacht was not a rodent, to die cowering in a burrow, but a wolf that lived and died by the hunt. It was time for the last hunt.

Watch on the Rhine

The Germans had been looking for an opportunity to counterattack almost from the first moment that the battle began to go wrong for them in Normandy, and they never really stopped. No sooner had Bradley breached the German line with Operation Cobra than the Wehrmacht jumped to put together an ill-fated counterattack (Operation Luttich) which led directly to the catastrophic firebag at Falaise. Undeterred by this debacle, the Wehrmacht continued to seek opportunities to regain the initiative, but found this to be very difficult given the pace of the American explosion into France. A plan to have 5th Panzer Army counterattack from the Dijon area (southeast of Paris) proved futile when Patton overran the staging area in a fury, and by late August it was clear that no proactive occupations could be launched in the near term, given the state of the German forces fleeing from France. Indeed, it was all Model could do to get them sorted out into a coherent front, as we have seen.

Given the beating the Wehrmacht had taken in France, it is perhaps surprising that they even dreamed of attacking, but Hitler and the OKW (Wehrmacht High Command) talked themselves into an optimist scenario in which the Germans would have a strategic window during the winter to go on the offensive. Specifically, a winter offensive was viewed as not only possible but even advantageous for four reasons:

  1. Poor winter weather could be expected to intermittently ground allied aircraft, neutralizing the enemy's advantage in the air.

  2. Allied logistics were (correctly) viewed as inadequate and fragile, such that allied frontline units were expected to be poorly supplied in the winter.

  3. Winter mud and snow were expected to further strain allied truck-borne logistics and the mobility of allied reserves.

  4. Finally, the interim period from October to December could be used to outfit a mechanized strike force with new equipment.

The general impression was that the winter months would present an opportunity to unleash a powerful new mechanized package, complete with brand new Panzer Divisions, against an allied army with overstretched logistics and an air force grounded by blizzardous conditions. All in all, this was an overly rosy assessment which required all manner of optimistic assumptions, but for a German army that was preternaturally conditioned to attack, it represented the only remotely reasonable hope. And so, the decision was predestined: the Germans would attack in the winter.

But where? And with what objective? These questions fell to the OKW planning staff.

Remarkably, despite nearly a full six years of war for Germany, by the autumn of 1944 the OKW had never planned a major operation. Here, we dovetail into the troublesome German organizational chart. Nazi Germany had two major military planning bodies: the OKW (Wehrmacht High Command), and the OKH (Army High Command). In theory, the OKH was subordinate to the OKW, with the Wehrmacht Command acting something like a Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, due to Hitler's own unique management style, a decision had been made years prior to instead divide operational jurisdiction, such that the Army (OKH) ran the war in the east against the Red Army, while all the remaining theaters (air defense, naval operations, the Mediterranean and North Africa, France, and so forth) were run by the OKW. In a more simplified sense, the Soviets fought German forces under the OKH, while the Anglo-Americans fought in the OKW's theaters.

The OKW Org-Chart from May 1945

The level of disharmony is notable. While the allies managed to coordinate military operations at the international level, with Britain, the United States, and Commonwealth forces operating in the field together and the USSR kept closely in the loop, Germany in effect fought two separate wars, with separate high commands managing the various theaters. Remarkably, Hitler himself was the only real point of coordination between the OKW and the OKH. In 1944, however, what mattered most was that all of the Wehrmacht's major ground operations had been planned by the OKH. The OKW had mostly been running a strategic defensive, with attacking actions planned by commanders in the field.

Thus (and this is a point of genuine importance) the great German winter counteroffensive, on which all their hopes rested, was to be planned by an OKW planning staff (under General Alfred Jodl) who had never planned a major ground operation before. The army staff, which had been fighting a vicious war with the Red Army for years, had plenty of experience, but this was not their theater. Unsurprisingly, their proposal bore all the hallmarks of amateurism and "by the book" planning.

The eventual OKW plan, named Wacht am Rhein - "Watch on the Rhine" after an old German patriotic song, somehow managed to be both unrealistic, audacious, and completely unoriginal and repetitive. The plan called for three German armies (5th Panzer, the newly created 6th SS Panzer, and 7th Army) to be concentrated in the region of the Ardennes forest south of Aachen. They were to assault the positions of the US 1st Army under General Courtney Hodges, and overrun them en-route to the Meuse River. 7th Army would break off its advance and take up a blocking position to the east of the Meuse, protecting the flank of the two Panzer armies, which were to cross the Meuse in the gap between Givet and Liege. From there, 6th SS Panzer would drive north to Antwerp while 5th Panzer covered the gap between Brussels and the river. If all of these objectives were met, the Germans would have retaken or at the very least blocked up Antwerp (the vital port feeding the ally war machine) and encircled no less than three allied armies on the northern bend the Meuse.

Watch on the Rhine: An Operational Sketch

Purely as a map exercise, there was nothing overly creative about Watch on the Rhine. In fact, it bore a clear resemblance to Manstein's famous "sickle cut", by which the Wehrmacht had defeated France four years previously. All in all, it was a fairly textbook operation for a German officer corps that had been thinking about (and fighting) wars in this region for generations. Yet the plan was also hilariously, naively optimistic - it relied on very tenuous assumptions that the allies had no reserves and would react slowly and weakly to the attack (as the French and British did in 1940). It also called for the panzers to cover ground outrageously fast - the lead elements were expected to reach the Meuse (more than 100 miles from their start lines) on the first day. Finally, the operation assumed - as if this were a trivial matter - that the Panzers could refuel themselves on the go from captured allied fuel depots, and that the allied air force would be grounded by bad weather. Indeed, in something approximating a mental cheat code (or delusion), Jodl and his staff simply did not consider allied air power as a factor, writing in the assumption that the weather would be bad.

When the OKW finally revealed its plan to the men who would have to implement it - Model and Rundstedt - the initial reaction was something less than enthusiastic. Rundstedt argued that Antwerp was simply too far - "If we had reached the Meuse, we should have got down on our knees and thanked God—let alone try to reach Antwerp" - he said. As an alternative, Rundstedt proposed (and eventually cajoled Model into cosigning) Operation Martin - it would start similarly to Watch on the Rhine, but instead of crossing the Meuse and trying to bag a whole slew of allied armies, it would curl up the inside of the Meuse and encircle a smaller grouping of American divisions (elements of 1st and 9th armies) around Aachen. This was more reasonable, they argued, and most importantly of all would keep all the German forces on the east side of the Meuse, to avoid the complication of operating over a major river.

But of course, Operation Martin was a nonstarter. This was a classic example of a "small solution", whereas Watch on the Rhine - which promised to encircle nearly half of the allied formations in Europe and capture their arterial port - was a "big solution." This was familiar language that German planners had used many times before, and both the aggressive culture of the German military caste and Hitler's own nature as an inveterate gambler forbade the small solution. Hitler and the Wehrmacht always went for broke, and in 1944 they did so again - and even Model and Rundstedt, whatever their reservations, gave full agreement to Watch on the Rhine and did their duties to implement it.

As was to be expected, of course, assembling the force for Watch on the Rhine was not a trivial task for a German army and state that had been pushed to the limits. Most readers are familiar with the fundamentals of late war German weakness - shortages of trained manpower, fuel, vehicles, and munitions - but there were other, more specific issues at play in the Ardennes region in 1944. The German assembly area was quite road-poor, and allied airpower meant that equipment largely had to be moved at night to avoid detection. Throw in a shortage of motor transport and you have a serious problem moving the requisite forces into their staging zones - a problem completely separate from the larger strategic quandary of building enough tanks and training enough men. The hilly forests of the Ardennes are not an easy place to congregate forces in ideal circumstances, let alone when the enemy is watching from the sky. It made for a great many night marches and laborious trips hauling ammunition and equipment in with teams of horses.

Military intelligence and deception had never been a strong suit for the German army - this was always a marked advantage for the allies, with the Anglo-Americans in particular specializing in cryptography and code breaking, and the Soviets having their particular form of military deception, famously called maskirovka. But with Watch on the Rhine the Germans gave it their best effort, seeking not only to hide their deployment with night approaches, but giving an overall impression that they did not intend to attack at all. They generated a stream of fake radio traffic referring to a "defensive battle in the west", and even the name of the operation - Watch on the Rhine - carried a defensive connotation. Most importantly, however, the Germans generated an elaborate scheme designed to hide the headquarters of their various armies. Even as Sixth SS Panzer Army congregated for the attack, a fake headquarters for the army remained operational almost eighty miles to the north, complete with radio and railroad traffic in and out, giving a realistic impression that the army was in the line around Cologne. Additionally, an entirely fictional army (the ""25th Army") was created in occupied Holland, with a facsimile army headquarters and the 10 fake divisions. Meanwhile, men and vehicles continued to trickle into the staging area in the east of the Ardennes.

Painstakingly, and with many delays, the Wehrmacht managed to assemble a genuinely impressive assault package for Watch on the Rhine - Nazi Germany's last great force accumulation. Model had his three armies in the line (under his overall command in Army Group B) containing no fewer than 200,000 men, 600 Panzers, and nearly 2,000 assault guns, tank destroyers, and armored vehicles. In the grand scope of the war, this was not a world-beating force, but for the battered Hitlerian Empire it was an impressive package - as good as it was going to get. The Luftwaffe was even ready to make a rare appearance. Bad weather was expected to ground the air forces, but in the event that the weather cleared, the Germans had assembled more than 60% of their remaining inventory of fighter craft - nearly 1,700 planes - to contest the skies. One last army for one last battle. The date was set: December 16. It was snowing.

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Big Serge Thoughts
26 Sep 2023 | 8:23 pm

4. 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

5. 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

6. 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

7. 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

8. 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

9. 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

10. 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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