Hitler Was a Control-Freak

Monday, August 1st, 2011

The German army had a proud history of giving only high-level orders and allowing its junior officers to exercise their creativity — but Hitler was a control-freak, as von Mellenthin (Panzer Battles) explains:

Hitler’s method of direct command hastened Germany’s defeat. Orders to “fight for every foot” had disastrous effects. But apart from strategy, his methods of control affected the whole war machine. In democratic states the branches of the armed forces and the various aspects of war economy and industry were firmly coordinated, but in Germany there was a strange separation into independent powers. The army, the navy, the air force, the SS, the Organization Todt, the NSDAP, the commissariats, the numerous branches of economy, all worked separately, but all received their orders directly from Hitler.

At home and on the front these branches ceased to function together and began to work on their own, the one regardless of the needs of the other. The reason for this strange and sinister phenomenon was undoubtedly Hitler’s craving for power and his distrust of any independent force. The old motto, “divide and rule,” was carried to its logical absurdity. To keep the army in its place the Waffen-SS was created.

Dazzled by Earlier Successes

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

To glorify Hitler as an infallible genius, whose gigantic designs were frustrated by treachery, or to condemn him as the greatest criminal of all time, would be equally irresponsible and superficial, von Mellenthin (Panzer Battles) says:

It is an undeniable fact that Hitler was an incredibly clever man, with a memory far beyond the average. He had terrific will power and was utterly ruthless; he was an orator of outstanding quality, able to exercise an hypnotic influence on those in his immediate surroundings. In politics and diplomacy he had an extraordinary flair for sensing the weakness of his adversaries, and for exploiting their failings to the full. He used to be a healthy man, a vegetarian who neither smoked nor drank, but he undermined his constitution by taking sleeping powders and pep pills, chiefly during the later years of the war. Although his health deteriorated, his mind remained amazingly alert an active until the very end. It is beyond the scope of this book to discuss the reasons for his political triumphs in the prewar period; his success was made possible by the misguided and wrongful policy adopted by the Allies after World War I; they committed every possible blunder from the Versailles Treaty and the occupation of the Ruhr to the incomprehensible weakness and lack of foresight in the Munich period. Extraordinary political victories completely upset Hitler’s balance and judgment; he never remembered Bismarck’s maxim: “History teaches how far one may safely go.”

In 1939 Hitler decided on war with Poland because he was convinced that the conflict could be localized. The guarantee given by Great Britain to Polands was underestimated; indeed it was never taken seriously. Dr. Paul Schmidt has described Hitler’s reaction to the British declaration of war: “Hiterl was petrified and utterly disconcerted. After a while he turned to Ribbentrop and asked ‘What now?’” Before the declaration of war there were no serious conversations with our one and only ally. Dr. Schmidt quotes a letter from Mussolini to Hitler written on 25 August 1939, in which the Duce pointed out that Italy was not ready for war. The Italian Air Force only had fuel for three months.

Thus the war was started, conceived, and born by the decision of a moment; Hitler had been dazzled by earlier successes and was given a misleading picture of the external situation by his amateur diplomatists. From every point of view — military, naval and economic — Germany was far from ready for total war.

Army without Baggage

Saturday, July 30th, 2011

The Russians were, from a German perspective, an army without baggage:

It is characteristic of the Russians that even their armored divisions have far fewer vehicles than those of Western Powers. It would be wrong to attribute this to lack of productivity in the Russian motor industry, for even infantry division with horse-drawn transport have a low complement of animals and wagons. Moreover, the strength returns of any Russian regiment or division are much lower than those of Western armies. But in any Russian formation the strength returns of the actual fighting troops are relatively the same as in the West, for they have far fewer men in their supply columns and administrative units.
Similarly the supply columns of the Red Army do not have to worry about clothing, thents, blankets and many other itesm regarded as essential in the WEst; during an advacne they can afford to forget about rations, for the troops “live on the country.” the chief task of teh supply columns is the movement of gasoline and ammunition, and even these items are frequently packed on what a Western army calls “fighting vehicles.” In a Russian motorized division, the soldier has no luggage apart from what he carries on his person. Somehow or other he squeezes on to a vehicle packed with gasoline or ammunition.

The scarcity of vehicles has a dual effect, tactical, and psychological. Because the number of vehicles in a motorized division is much lower than in the West, the division is far more mobile; it is easier to handle, to camouflage, or to move by rail. the psychological aspect is also interesting. Every Western soldier is linked somehow or other with his rearward services; they bring him the sustenance and comforts which make his hard life bearable. When a unit is “rubbed out” in battle, the survivors usually cluster around the field kitchen or baggage train to seek refuge and solace. Even the shirker or the shell-shocked usually reappears at this focus on one pretext or another. There is nothing like that for a Russian. He has only his weapons, and there are no attractions for him in the rear. There is no field kitchen and no baggage train; his refuge is his gun, his tank, or his machine gun. If he loses them he has lost his home; if he wanders into the rear he will be rounded up sooner or later by the patrols of the MVD.

(From Panzer Battles.)

The Extraordinary Development of the Russian Tank Arm

Friday, July 29th, 2011

The extraordinary development of the Russian tank arm, von Mellenthin says, deserves the very careful attention of students of war:

Nobody doubts that Russia can produce a Seidlitz, a Murat, or a Rommel — several of their generals in 1941–45 were certainly on that level. But this was more than the development of a few gifted individuals. In this case an apathetic and ignorant crowd, without training or natural aptitude, was endowed with brain and nerves. In the fiery furnace of war the tank crews of the Red Army were elevated far above their original level. Such a development must have required organization and planning of the highest order; it may be repeated in other spheres — for instance in their air force or submarine fleet, whose progress is furthered by the Russian High Command by every available means.

From the days of Peter the Great to the revolution of 1917, the armies of the Tsar were massive, cumbersome, and slow. In the campaign in Finland, and during the operations of 1941–42, the same criticisms could be made of the Red Army. The rise of the Russian tank arm has changed all that. Today, any realistic plan for European defense must visualize that the air fleets and tank armies of the Soviet Union will throw themselves upon us with a velocity and fury far eclipsing any Blitzkrieg of World War II. Europe is threatened by a torrent of steel, controlled by men whose spiritual outlook is not far removed from that of Attila or Genghiz Khan.

That’s from Panzer Battles, published in 1956 — and written from the safety of South Africa.

So Close to Nature

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Despite their uninspired tactics, von Mellenthin says, the Russian infantry fully maintained the great traditions of Suworov and Skobeleff:

In spite of tremendous technical changes in warfare the Russian infantryman is still one of the most important military factors in the world; he is so formidable because he is so close to nature. Natural obstacles simple do not exist for him; he is at home in the densest forest, in swamps and marshes as much as the roadless steppe. He crosses broad rivers by the most primitive means; he can make roads anywhere. In a few days he will lay miles of corduroy road across impenetrable marshland; in winter, columns ten men abreast and a hundred deep will be sent into forest deeply covered in snow; in half an hour these thousand men will stamp out a path, and another thousand will take their place; within a few hours a road will exist across ground deemed inaccessible by any Western standard. Unlimited numbers of men are available to haul heavy guns and weapons across any sort of terrain; moreover, Russian equipment is admirably adapted to their needs. Their motor vehicles are of the lightest pattern and are reduced to the indispensable minimum; their horses are tough and need very little care. They are not encumbered with the impedimenta which clogs the movements of all Western armies.

Despite the fact that they’re born scouts, von Mellenthin says, Russian soldiers lack the inquisitive nature and initiative for proper reconnaissance.

Russian Tactics

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

In Panzer Battles, von Mellenthin describes the Russian tactics he faced on the Eastern Front:

The Russian form of fighting — particularly in the attack — is characterized by the employment of masses of men and material, often thrown in unintelligently and without variations, but been so frequently effective. Russians have always been renowned for their contempt for death; the Communist regime has exploited this quality and Russian mass attacks are now more effective than ever before. An attack delivered twice will be repeated a third and a fourth time irrespective of losses, and the third or fourth attack will come in with the same stolid coolness as the first or second. Such ruthless methods represent the most inhuman and at the same time the most expensive way of fighting.

Right up to the end of the war the Russians did not bother to loosen up their attacking waves and sent them forward almost shoulder to shoulder. The herd instinct and the inability of lower commanders to act for themselves always resulted in densely packed attacks. Thanks to superiority in numbers, many great and important successes were achieved by this method. However, experience shows that it is quite possible to smash these massed attacks if they are faced by adequate weapons handled by trained men under determined commanders.

The Russians attacked with divisions, very strong numerically and on very narrow sectors. In no time the terrain in front of the defenders was teeming with Russians; they appeared to spring from the soil, it seemed impossible to stem the oncoming tide, and huge gaps made by our fire were closed automatically.

It sounds a lot like the Red Chinese storming American positions in the Korean War.

Once Russian industry ramped up, the Russians added masses of tanks to their masses of infantry:

Such onslaughts were of course far more difficult to stop, and nervous strain was proportionally increased.

The way the Russians could replace whole units simply by conscripting another whole town amazed von Mellenthin. Less backhanded are his compliments for their genius for infiltration and their passion for bridgeheads. He ends though with a tactical error they never gave up:

I mean their almost religious belief in the importance of high ground. They made for any height and fought for it with the utmost stubbornness, quite regardless of it tactical importance. It frequently happens that the occupation of high ground is not tactically desirable, but the Russians never understood this and suffered accordingly.

Psychology of the Russian Soldier

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

In Panzer Battles, von Mellenthin has plenty to say about the psychology of the Russian soldier:

No one belonging to the cultural circle of the West is ever likely to fathom the character and soul of these Asiatics, born and bred on the other side of the European frontiers.

(I am of course aware that the Slavs migrated into Russia from the west, and were originally a European people. But the Mongol invasion of 1241, and the two centuries of domination which followed, gave an Asiatic twist in the Russian outlook and character, a development accentuated by the policy of the Tsars.)

Yet the Russian character must contain the key to an understanding of their soldierly qualities, their achievements, and their way of fighting. The human heart, and the psychology of the individual fighting man, have always been the ruling factors in warfare, transcending the importance of numbers and equipment. This old maxim held good during World War II, and I think it will always to so.

Of course, he also cites Russian numbers — of men and tanks — as the key to their victory, and later he cites the Americans’ overwhelming advantages in air power and artillery as the key to their victory, not superior fighting spirit.

Anyway, he continues his description of the Russian soldier as very, very foreign:

There is no way of telling what the Russian will do next; he will tumble from one extreme to the other. With experience it is quite easy to foretell what a soldier from any other country will do, but never with a Russian. His qualities are as unusual and many-sided as those of his vast and rambling country. He is patient and enduring beyond imagination, incredibly brave and courageous — yet at times he can be a contemptible coward. There were occasions when Russian units, which had driven back German attacks with ferocious courage, suddenly fled in panic before a small assault group. Battalions lost their nerve when the first shot was fired, and yet the same battalions fought with fanatical stubbornness on the following day. The Russian is quite unpredictable; today he does not care whether his flanks or threatened or not, tomorrow he trembles at the idea of having his flanks exposed. He disregards accepted tactical principles but sticks to the letter of his field manuals. Perhaps the key to this attitude lies in the fact that the Russian is not a conscious soldier, thinking on independent lines, but is the victim of moods which a Westerner cannot analyze. He is essentially a primitive being, innately courageous, and dominated by certain emotions and instincts. His individuality is easily swallowed up in the mass, while his powers of endurance are derived from long centuries of suffering and privation. Thanks to the innate strength of these qualities, the Russian is superior in many way to the more conscious soldier of the West, who can only make good his deficiencies by superior mental and moral training.

He reiterates their contempt for life or death, their fondness for “Little Mother Russia,” but not for the Communist regime, their indifference to seasons, and their independence from food supplies — which are offset by dullness, mental rigidity, and indolence.

Placating Stalin

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Germany’s only real hope in WWII was for a rift to form between the Soviets and the Anglo-Americans, von Mellenthin (Panzer Battles) notes — which they more-or-less expected, because it was perfectly obvious that annihilating Germany would destroy the balance of power in Europe:

In his way, however, Roosevelt was as single-minded as Hitler, and was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths in order to placate Stalin. The political consequences of his policy lie beyond the scope of this book, but the military aid he extended to Russia had an effect on operations on the Eastern Front which even now is insufficiently appreciated.

In 1941 and even in 1942 the flow of Anglo-American supplies to Russia was relatively small and cannot be said to have had a material effect on events. In 1943, however, great quantities of arms and equipment were poured into Russia, and in the last twelve months of the war the flow of war material became a veritable flood.
From the Russian point of view the most important items were the aircraft and motor vehicles. These greatly increased the striking power of the Red Army, and enabled the Russian to speed up the whole tempo of their operations.

One of the Great Problems of Defensive Warfare

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

One of the great problems of defensive warfare, von Mellenthin notes, is traffic congestion:

The difficulty was that the rear services of all front-line formations congregated at  the road junctions. During a Russian offensive these places became centers for people who were not keen to fight, and of masses of vehicles impossible to disentangle. If the Russians broke through, hundreds of thousands of vehicles were lost and had to be burnt; moreover, important movments of armor were drowned in this quagmire of men and vehicles. The root of the trouble was that life in the towns was easy and soft, and that the open country was dominated by guerrillas. It was perhaps the most effective, but least recognized consequence of guerrilla warfare, that all rear services crammed together in traffic centers.

The lesson of Zhitomir as afterwards applied by the 48th Panzer Corps in other towns; we simply declared such road junctions out of bounds to all troops and ruthlessly enforced this order. The rear services were spread out and accommodated in villages, a practice which automatically put an end to guerrilla warfare. Moreover, Russian air attacks on these traffic centers became relatively ineffective. The rear services had certainly to put up with a number of inconveniences so far unknown to them; in particular they had to find more guards and perform security duties.


Problems of Withdrawal

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Of all operations of war, von Mellenthin notes, a withdrawal under heavy enemy pressure is probably the most difficult and perilous:

Indeed it is recorded of the great Moltke, that when he was being praised for his generalship in the Franco-Prussian War, and was told by an admirer that his reputation would rank with such great captains as Napoleon, Frederick, or Turenne, he answered, “No, for I have never conducted a retreat.”

Turenne, by the way, became Marshal of France in 1643 and helped to bring an end to the Thirty Years’ War.

Scorched Earth

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

The Russians had certain logistical advantages, von Mellenthin (Panzer Battles) believed:

As is well known the Russians make very limited use of supply columns, and their troops live mainly on the country. Their method is not new; it is essentially similar to that of the Mongols of Genghiz Khan, or the armies of Napoleon. The only means of slowing down armies of this kind is to totally destroy everything that can be used to feed and house them.

I can see where this is going:

In th autumn of 1943 the German Army deliberately adopted this policy, and R.T. Paget remarks very appropriately:

Some five years lat, lawyers were to argue for hours as to the legality of the demolitions and requisitions carried out by the Germans during their retreat, but I am afraid that no law that conflicts with an army’s capacity to survive is ever likely to be effective.

We certainly did not relish the idea of destroying all food supplies and putting a zone of scorched earth between us and the pursuing Russians. But the existence of an entire army groups was at stake, and if we had not adopted such measures, many thousands of troops would never have succeeded in reaching the Dnieper and establishing an effective defense line under cover of the river.

Russian Reactions to Bombardment

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Russian reactions to bombardment puzzled von Mellenthin (Panzer Battles):

Experience shows that the Russian soldier has an almost incredible ability to stand up to the heaviest artillery fire and air-bombardment, while the Russian Command remains unmoved by the bloodiest losses caused by shelling and bombs, and ruthlessly adheres to it preconceived plans. Russian lack of reaction to even the heaviest shelling was proved though not explained during Operation Citadel. The question is worth considering, and the following factors may influence their attitude.

The stoicism of the majority of Russian soldiers and their mental sluggishness make them quite insensible to losses. The Russian soldier values his own life no more than those of his comrades. To step on walls of dead, composed of the bodies of his former friends and companions, makes not the slightest impression on him and does not upset his equanimity at all; without so much as twinkling an eyelid he stolidly continues the attack or stays put in the position he has been told to defend. Life is not precious to him. He is immune to the most incredible hardships, and does not even appear to notice them; he seem equally indifferent to bombs and shells.

Naturally there are Russian soldiers of a more tender physical and psychological structure, but they have been trained to execute orders to the letter and without hesitation. There is an iron discipline in the Russian army; punishment meted out by officers and political commissars is of a draconian character and unquestioned obedience to orders has become a feature of their military system.
Russian indifference to bombardment is not new; it was apparent during World War I and Caulaincourt comments on it in his description of the Battle of Borodino in 1812. He describes how the Russians “stood firm under the fire of a devastating bombardment,” and says that, “the enemy, smashed by the guns, and pressed simultaneously on all points, massed their troops and held firm despite the ravages made in their ranks by the guns.” He quotes Napoleon as saying that, “it was quite inexplicable to him that redoubts and positions so audaciously captured and so doggedly defended should yield us so few prisoners,” and he gives the Emperor’s comment, “these Russians let themselves be killed like automatons; they are not taken alive. This does not help us at all.”

Armored Tactics during Citadel

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

In Panzer Battles, von Mellenthin discusses the armored tactics put in to use during Operation Citadel, the swan song of the German armored forces:

The light and medium tanks used during the first three years of the war had done a splendid job during that period. However, as Russian antitank weapons had become more effective and Russian tanks bigger and stronger, the earlier models were now obsolete. Heavy and super-heavy tanks had come to the forefront, and armored tactics had to be changed accordingly. Panzer leaders were in the best position to watch these developments, as they had to adapt their tactics to the new weapons.

German antitank tactics of 1941 were no longer effective, for they did not provide for the massive Russian attacks with great numbers of tanks. It soon became apparent that a single antitank gun, or a cluster of them operating independently, was quickly discovered and knocked out. For this reason a new method was developed, which the German panzer troops called the Pakfront. Groups of guns up to a total of ten were put under the command of one man, who was responsible for concentrating their fire on a single target. Groups of antitank guns were thus welded into one unit, the groups were organized in depth and strewn all over the defended area. The idea was to draw the attacking armor into a web of enfilade fire. Fire discipline was of the first importance, and to open fire too early was the gravest mistake that could be made.

The Russians copied these tactics and soon became past master of them, as we learned to our cost in Citadel. It was a Russian specialty to fortify these Pakfronts with minefields or antitank ditches, and to scatter mines haphazard among the minebelts. The rapidity with which mines were laid by the Russians was truly remarkable. Two or three days and nights were quite sufficient for the Russians to lay more than thirty thousand mines and it was no rare thing to have to lift forty thousand mines a day in the sector of a German corps. During the Kursk offensive, and after penetrating to a depth of twelve miles, we still found ourselves in the midst of minefields and opposed by Pakfronts. In this connection mention should be made again of the masterly camouflage work of the Russians. Neither minefields nor Pakfronts could be detected until the first tank blew up, or the first Russian antitank gun opened fire.

How did the Germans make any progress? By shooting back:

During Citadel the German armor moved and fought in wedge formation, the Panzerkeil, which up to then had proved very effective indeed; the spearhead of the wedge was formed by the heaviest tanks, and the Tigers proved their worth against the Russian antitank fronts organized in depth. The Tiger’s 88-mm gun was superior to anything the Russians had, but as I have mentioned, the Panthers were still in their infancy and were a failure. Our Mark IV’s were not good enough to effect a breakthrough against a deep antitank front, and the capture of so many Russian positions was due to the perfect co-operation of all heavy weapons.

Citadel and other operations proved that the fire of the antitank front can be neutralized by the concentric and expertly conducted fire of the attacking armor. To put this theory into practice called for changes in armored formations and tactics. The tank-wedge was replaced by the Panzerglocke (tank bell). The Panzglocke, with super-heavy tanks in the center, medium tanks to the right and left rear in a widening arch, light tanks behind the center and held ready for pursuit, was the best formation to bring to bear against a wide fire front.

The Panzer commander, together with observers for all the heavy weapons, travel led in the Glocke immediately behind the leading medium tanks. He had to be in wireless communication with the commander f the fighter-bombers, and other aircraft supporting the ground-troops. Engineers in armored vehicles traveled just behind the forward tanks of the Glocke, ready to clear gaps through minefields. An attack along these lines was generally successful if the attacking formations practiced close co-operation of all weapons.

Night attacks also helped — but they needed a road or sand track to follow, because they had no compasses suitable for tanks. (Who knew?)

The success of armor against antitank fronts depends on the following conditions:

  1. Every opportunity must be taken for reconnaissance in the air and on the ground.
  2. The armored formation carrying out the attack must be made as strong as possible by super-heavy tanks, brought to bear in the Schwerpunkt.
  3. Fire concentration by tank guns must be rapid and effective; the armor must keep moving and tanks should only stop to fire their guns.
  4. Observers for all heavy weapons supporting the attack must travel with the armor. Wireless communication between the tank leader and the air is most essential.
  5. Engineers in armored vehicles must follow the armor.
  6. Light tanks must be at hand to exploit success.
  7. Fuel and ammunition supply for the armor must be assured during the battle by armored supply carriers. Much experience is needed to carry out this difficult operation.
  8. Thanks should be supplied with smoke gear to blind enemy antitank weapons, and with colored-smoke grenades for unit commanders to indicate direction.
  9. For night attacks tanks should be supplied with direction-finding equipment.

As Regards Partisans

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

From von Mellenthin’s description, the partisans (guerrillas) weren’t a problem everywhere on the eastern front

I deem myself lucky not to have had too intimate an acquaintance with the partisans, who rarely operated in the immediate vicinity of the front. Nor were the open plains of the Ukraine suitable for partisan operations, whereas the densely wooded areas of central and northern Russia were ideal for the purpose. As regards partisans, we soldiers adopted a principle which in my opinion is recognized by every army, namely, that no means are too hard if they serve their purpose in protecting the troops against partisans, guerrillas or franctireurs.

(See for example General Eisenhower’s draconian “Ordinance No. 1 of Military Government,” directed against potential partisan activity in Western Germany.)

The rules and conventions of warfare have been carefully built up since the seventeenth century; they cannot be applied to partisan activity, and a heavy responsibility rests with those governments who deliberately organzie and support thsi terrible form of war. In the Soviet Union the partisan forces had been thoroughly trained and organized in peacetime. They depended for their success, however, on the sympathy of the local population, which they certainly did not get in the Ukraine.

What’s it like to be rescued from the Communists by the Nazis?

During the spring of 1943 I saw with my own eyes that German soldiers were welcomed as friends by Ukrainians and White Russians. Churches were reopened. The peasants who had been degraded to kolkhoz workers were hoping to get their farms back. The population was relieved to have got rid of the Secret Police and to be free of the constant fear of being sent to forced-labor camps in Siberia.

Indeed, the peasants no longer feared being sent to forced-labor camps in Siberia:

Instead of being sent to Siberia, thousands of Russian men and women were sent to Germany and called Ostarbeiter (workers from the east). They were virtually slaves.

This was a terrible mistake on Hitler’s part, von Mellenthin says, and played right into Stalin’s hands, giving him powerful propaganda material and driving the people to join the partisans.

With some amusement, von Mellenthin notes that the Communists brought back all the old Tsarist military traditions in the struggle between “Little Mother Russia” and the “Fatherland”:

Soon we had to face Guards divisions and Guards brigades. Officers proudly displayed their shining epaulettes, which veteran Communists had branded as symbols of reaction. Terms were even made with the Church.

Temperamentally Unstable

Monday, July 18th, 2011

The Russians had their strengths, von Mellenthin notes in his Panzer Battles, but they did not respond well to surprise counterattacks:

The Russian soldier is temperamentally unstable; he is carried on by the herd instinct and is therefore not able to endure a sudden change from a triumphant advance to an enforced and precipitate withdrawal. During the counterattack we witnessed scenes of almost unparalleled panic among the Russians, to the astonishment of those who had experienced the stubborn, almost fanatical resistance the Russians put up in well-planned and efficiently organized defenses. It is true that the Russian can be superb in defense and reckless in mass attacks, but when faced by surprise and unforeseen situations he is an easy prey to panic. Field Marshal von Manstein proved in this operation that Russian mass attacks should be met by maneuver and not by rigid defense. The weakness of the Russian lies in his inability to face surprise; there he is most vulnerable. Manstein realized his weakness. He also realized that his own strength lay in the superior training of his junior commanders and their capacity for independent action and leadership. Thus he could afford to let his divisions withdraw for hundreds of miles, and then stage a smashing counterattack with the same divisions, which inflicted heavy blows on their startled and bewildered opponents.

I can definitely believe that was written by a German general.