A Miracle of the Donetz

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

The German military writer, Ritter von Schramm, called the successful extrication of the Caucasus armies and the subsequent riposte to Kharkov a miracle, but von Mellenthin (Panzer Battles) considered it a victory gained through Manstein’s masterly judgment and calculation, particularly these four points:

  1. High level commanders did not restrict the moves of armored formations, but gave them “long range tasks.”
  2. Armored formations had no worries about their flanks, because the High Command had a moderate infantry force available to take care of flanks.
  3. All commanders of armored formations, including panzer corps, conducted operation not from the rear, but from the front.
  4. The attack came as a surprise regarding time and place.

Later in the war Manstein clashed with Hitler, as the master of maneuver wanted an “elastic” line that gave ground to draw the Soviets into vulnerable positions ripe for counter-attack, while the Führer demanded that they give no ground and fight to the last man.

The Lee of the Eastern Front

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

I suppose von Mellenthin was aware that he was writing Panzer Battles for a largely American audience when he described one of his heroes, Manstein:

Manstein was faced with strategic problems of a magnitude and complexity seldom paralleled in history. He handled the situation with masterly coolness and judgment, shrewdly assessing the risks, and moving his slender reserves from point to point as the situation demanded. To find another example of defensive strategy of this caliber we must go back to Lee’s campaign in Virginia in the summer of 1864.

He prefers to go to Moscow

Friday, July 15th, 2011

At Stalingrad, Germany’s Sixth Army followed Hitler’s orders not to break out but to fight to the bitter end, and, so, they slowly died, frozen and starved. The German Supreme Command announced the news as follows:

The battle for Stalingrad has ended. Faithful to its oath to fight to the last breath, the Sixth Army under the exemplary leadership of Field Marshal Paulus has been overcome by the enemy’s superior force and by adverse circumstances.

Apparently Hitler expected more of his new field marshal. He expected Paulus to commit suicide, as he told his staff:

What hurts me most, personally, is that I still promoted him to field marshal. I wanted to give him this final satisfaction… a man like that besmirches the heroism of so many others at the last moment. He could have freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow.

(From von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles.)

Gasoline meant everything to us

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

Colonel Dingler of the German Sixth Army describes the dwindling supply by air they received outside Stalingrad:

Night after night we sat in our holes listening to the droning of the aircraft engines and trying to guess how many German machines were coming over and what supplies they would bring us. The supply position was very poor from the beginning, but none of us thought that hunger would become a permanent thing.

We were short of all sorts of supplies. We were short of bread and, worse, of artillery ammunition, and worst of all, of gasoline. Gasoline meant everything to us. As long as we had gasoline our supply — little as it was — was assured. As long as we had gasoline we were able to keep warm. As there was no wood to be found anywhere in the steppe, firewood had to be fetched from the city of Stalingrad by lorry. As we had so little gasoline, trips to the city to fetch firewood had to be limited to the bare minimum.

Until Christmas, 1942, the daily bread ration issued to every man was 100 grammes. After Christmas the ration was reduced to 50 grammes per head. Later on only those in the forward line received 50 grammes per day. No bread was issued to men in regimental headquarters and upwards. The others were given watery soup which we tried to improve by making use of bones obtained from horses we dug up. As a Christmas treat the army allowed the slaughtering of four thousand of the available horses. My division, being a motorized formation, had no horses and was therefore particularly hard hit, as the horseflesh we received was strictly rationed. The infantry units were better off as they were able to do some “illegal” slaughtering.

German Hercules and Russian Hydra

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

Russian tactics were a queer mixture, Maj. Gen. F.W. von Mellenthin felt, but one of their strengths made fighting them feel like fighting a mythical beast:

Russian tactics are a queer mixture; in spite of their brilliance at infiltration and their exceptional mastery of field fortification, yet the rigidity of Russian attacks was almost proverbial. (Although in some cases Russian armored formations down to their lowest units were a conspicuous exception.) The foolish repetition of attacks on the same spot, the rigidity of Russian artillery fire, and the selection of the terrain for the attack, betrayed a total lack o imagination and mental mobility. Our Wireless Intercept Service heard many a time the frantic question: “What are we to do now?” Only a few commanders of lower formations showed independent judgment when faced with unforeseen situations. On many occasions a successful attack, a breakthrough, or an accomplished encirclement was not exploited, simply because nobody saw it.

But there was an exception to this general clumsiness: The rapid and frequent exhange of units in thefront line. Once a division was badly mauled, it disappeared overnight and re-appeared fresh and strong at some other place a few days afterwards.

That is why fighting with Russians resembles the classic contest between Hercules and the Hydra.

Russian Bridgeheads Everywhere

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

In addition to their artful use of infiltration tactics, Maj. Gen. F.W. von Mellenthin notes, the Russians made the most of bridgeheads:

Another characteristically Russian principle is the forming of bridgeheads everywhere and at any time, to serve as bases for later advances. Bridgeheads in the hands of the Russians are a grave danger indeed. It is quite wrong not to worry about bridgeheads, and to postpone their elimination. Russian bridgeheads, however small and harmless they may appear, are bound to grow into formidable danger-points in a very brief time and soon become insuperable strong-points. A Russian bridgehead, occupied by a company in the evening, is sure to be occupied by at least a regiment the following morning and during the night will become a formidable fortress, well-equipped with heavy weapons and everything necessary to make it almost impregnable. No artillery fire, however violent and well concentrated, will wipe out a Russian bridgehead which has grown overnight. Nothing less than a well-planned attack will avail. This Russian principle of “bridgeheads everywhere” constitutes a most serious danger and cannot be overrated.

There is again only one sure remedy which must become a principle: If a bridgehead is forming, or an advanced position is being established by the Russians, attack, attack at once, attack strongly. Hesitation will always be fatal. A delay of an hour may mean frustration, a delay of a few hours does mean frustration, a delay of a day may mean a major catastrophe. Even if there is no more than one infantry platoon and one single tank available, attack! Attack when the Russians are still above ground, when they can still be seen and tackled, when they have had no time as yet to organize their defense, when there are no heavy weapons available. A few hours later will be too late. Delay means disaster: resolute energetic and immediate action means success.

Russian Infiltration Tactics

Monday, July 11th, 2011

In Panzer Battles Maj. Gen. F.W. von Mellenthin gives his first impressions of Russian tactics, starting with their artful use of infiltration:

Practically every Russian attack was preceded by large-scale infiltrations, by an “oozing through” of small units and individual men. In this kind of warfare the Russians have not yet found their masters. However much the outlying areas were kept under observation, the Russian was suddenly there, in the very midst of our own positions, and nobody had seen him come, nor did anybody know whence he had come. In the least likely places, where the going was incredibly difficult, there he was, dug in and all, and in considerable strength.

True, it was not difficult for individual men to seep through, considering the our lines were but thinly manned and strong-points few and far between. An average divisional sector was usually more than twelve miles broad. But the amazing fact was that in spite of everybody being alert and wide awake during the whole night, the next morning entire Russian units were sure to be found far behind our front line, complete with equipment and ammunition, and well dug in. These infiltrations were carried out with incredible skill, almost noiselessly, and without a shot being fired. Such infiltration tactics were employed by the Russians in hundreds of cases, bringing them considerable successes.

There is only one remedy against them: strongly manned lines, well organized in depth and continuously patrolled by men wide awake and alert, and — most important of all — sufficient local reserves ready at a moment’s notice to go into action and throw the intruders out.