November 1942 provides us with one of those events in military history where we can say in retrospect, that it was from this particular point in time that everything started to unravel, in this case, go bust for Nazi Germany in World War II. While I would argue (and I think FD Chief agrees) the actual or "strategic" turning point was probably the June invasion of the USSR and then on December 11, 1941, the declaration of war against the US, Stalingrad provides us with the "operational" turning point. Since we have learned from our own (American since 2001) experience that in war the operational outcome can lag significantly behind the strategic outcome, this only proves the importance of this operational level and how hanging on operationally can influence to some extent the final result, although not to the point of reversing the strategic reality. Rather what seems to be the case is that the losing side loses only more, but at a greater cost to the victor.
My intent here is not to examine the Stalingrad campaign or analyze the operational decisions, but rather to put it within the strategic context of what Germany - or rather Hitler since he was calling all the shots - had to deal with seventy years ago.
On 19 November the Red Army launched an attack
against the northern flank of German Army Group B (the German 6th Army, most of 4th Panzer Army and the Romanian 4th Army) that was engaged at Stalingrad and occupying almost all of the city and blocking river traffic along the Volga river. The next day Marshall Zhukov launched the southern wing of his double envelopment from the southern flank. On 23 November (the Germans say the afternoon of 22 November) the two spearheads met at Kalach trapping about 250,000 Axis troops. The Soviets staged a repeat of the meeting for a propaganda film
Reading the German Oberkommando der Wehrmacht war diaries
one gets something of the overwhelming character that Hitler's leadership/decisions had put the Germans in strategically. Besides the Eastern Front with its various Army Groups engaged, there were the Eastern Mediterrain, Libya, Tunisia, the Balkans, southern France (the occupation of Vichy), Finland, and the various air and naval operations to contend with.
One gets the impression that the Russian Front was not seen as a single theater, but rather as five separate fronts: Finland, Army Group North facing Leningrad, Army Group Center facing Moscow, Army Group B at Stalingrad, and Army Group A in the Caucasus. Thus each individual front competed individually with those in the West and keeping Italy in the war was Hitler's priority towards the end of 1942. This possible perspective regards only the operational decisions, not those involving logistics, production, genocides, and other matters that Hitler reserved for himself. That the situation with Army Group B was dangerous was recognized relatively early on with the 20 November order to establish Army Group Don from the staff of the 11th Army under the command of Field Marshall von Manstein to take command of Army Group B and other forces coming in. This headquarters was to be tasked with reestablishing the front on the Don/Volga. This distinction is important, it was not first to reestablish contact with Stalingrad, but to re-establish the front as it had existed prior to the Soviet offensive, it was assumed that those forces in Stalingrad would remain in place. A withdrawal from Stalingrad and the Volga was never seriously considered until it was too late. Manstein and his staff were at Vitebsk and due to the weather and rail conditions were unable to arrive in theater until 24 November.
It is also important to remember that the Germans were in the middle of a major troop movement regarding Tunisia. There the 5th Panzer Army was in the midst of being established with significant air assets having been earlier withdrawn from Russia. Movement of the 10th Panzer Division, the Hermann Göring Divison
and other formations were underway. In fact on the 20th of November the 22nd Luftlande (Airborne) Division, another capable formation, finished its deployment to the island of Crete which was under no threat at all.
At this point it is important to consider what had led to the summer offensive in the East in the first place. First, the Germans considered the Russians to be on their last legs. The situation of the civilian population in the unoccupied areas of European Russia was known to be catastrophic (based on captured letters to Red Army soldiers). Much of the industrial potential had been seemingly neutralized, and finally the Red Army had suffered tremendous losses up to that point. It seemed from the German perspective unlikely that the Red Army would be able to reconstitute an effective fighting force under the stress of war given what remained. Second, while Moscow was the political center, the Caucasus and the Don/Volga area provided necessary resources. Seizing these resource centers would both considerably weaken the Red Army and strengthen the Wehrmacht at the same time, or so it was assumed.
And then there was the city of Stalingrad itself. On 9 November 1942 in Munich, Hitler had given a speech
. . . I should say that for my enemies, not for our soldiers. For the speed with which our soldiers have now traversed territory is gigantic. Also what was traversed this year is vast and historically unique. Now I do not always do things just as the others want them done. I consider what the others probably believe, and then do the opposite on principle. So if Mr. Stalin expected that we would attack in the center, I did not want to attack in the center, not only because Mr. Stalin probably believed I would, but because I didn't care about it any more at all. But I wanted to come to the Volga, to a definite place, to a definite city. It accidentally bears the name of Stalin himself, but do not think that I went after it on that account.
Indeed, it could have an altogether different name. But only because it is an important point, that is, there 30 million tons of traffic can be cut off, including about 9 million of oil shipments. There all the wheat pours in from those enormous territories of the Ukraine, of the Kuban territory, then to be transported to the North. There the manganese ore was forwarded. A gigantic terminal was there; I wanted to take it. And do you know, we're modest: that is, we have it; there are only a couple of very small places left there.
Now the others say: Why aren't you fighting there? Because I don't want to make a second Verdun but would rather do it with very small shock units. Time plays no part here. No ships come up the Volga any more-that is the decisive thing. They have also reproached us, asking why it took us so long at Sevastopol? Because there, too, we did not want to cause an enormous mass murder. Blood is flowing as it is-more than enough. But Sevastopol fell into our hands, and the Crimea fell into our hands. We have reached goal after goal, stubbornly, persistently.
And if the enemy, on his part, makes preparations to attack, don't think I want to forestall him there, but at the same moment we let him attack also. Because then defense still is less expensive. Then just let him attack; he'll bleed to death that way, and thus far we have always taken care of the situation anyhow. At any rate, the Russians are not at the Pyrenees or before Seville; that, you see, is the same distance as for us to be in Stalingrad today, or on the Terek, let us say;-but we are there; that can really not be disputed. That is a fact, after all.
Naturally, when nothing else will do any more, they also say it's a mistake. Then they suddenly turn around and say: "It is absolutely a mistake for the Germans to have gone to Kirkenes, or to have gone to Narvik, or now perhaps to Stalingrad-what do they expect to do in Stalingrad? For Stalingrad is a capital mistake, a strategic mistake." We will just wait and see whether that was a strategic mistake.
I have a Wehrmacht city map of Stalingrad, dating from June 1942. On it, the city is long, but narrow, hugging the Volga. From the map it looks like it would be so easy to simply punch through to the river. The reality was otherwise, but even as the Red Army encircled the Germans at Stalingrad, they continued operations to capture the last Russian positions in the ruined city, that according to the war diaries . . .
This has been an interesting thread. I would like to thank all who commented, it is the sign of a capable audience when they are able to interact with the initial argument and expand on it considerably, adding many additional pieces to the vast mosaic. I think we are able to consistently achieve that on MilPub as shown by the many posts by various authors and corresponding dialectical commentary on this blog . . . we should keep on keeping on . . .
Four points to close with. First, we are talking about perhaps the most terrible military campaign in history. The geographical and human dimensions are almost beyond our comprehension; the scale of destruction, loss and tragedy are impossible to measure in numbers since the ripples are still touching Eastern Europe in various ways today.
Second, and this a repeat of an earlier argument, that being that we have an adequate description of the totalitarian nature (both specific to the Nazis and general regarding other totalitarian systems) of political movements. My post
on Hermann Rauschning's The Revolution of Nihilism
introduces the basic ideas. I blended in some of Hannah Arendt's ideas from her classic The Origins of Totalitarianism
, but did not begin to do Arendt's thesis justice. It would take much more study, and probably a better mind than mine to achieve that. I consider this very important since following the basic concepts, I would argue that we see a resurgence of totalitarian thinking today in the US. This is particularly evident in our predilection to see violence as the preferred method of dealing with foreign policy issues.
Third, I mentioned a Clausewitzian connection. This is the concept of the Feldherr
which influenced not only German, but Soviet, French and JFC Fuller as well. Professor Hew Strachan (who else?) has a great lecture
which covers this topic:
So the Feldherr was a military genius who, because he was distinguished by more than his "will, brains, understanding, self-confidence, by something still higher than a longing for fame and honour," became a statesman. For Hesse, the role model was Frederick the Great. The challenge of the 1920s, after the Kaiser's abdication not least because of his failure to fulfil that role, was how to meet its demands in future. The German army had failed to understand Clausewitz before 1914 because it had read him in a narrowly military way, focusing on battle, not on war as a whole. Because Clausewitz saw war as a continuation of policy by other means, he also understood war, according to Adolf Leinveber, writing in 1926, as "an organic whole, from which the individual parts are not separable." Leinveber accepted that politicians had to give unity to war through policy and through the war plans that flowed from that policy. But what therefore followed-not only for Leinveber but also for many others-was that war required "a magnificent distinguished head, a strong character." The Feldherr would unite the conduct of war and policy, so that he became a statesman without at the same time giving up the capacity to conduct war: "he embraces with a glance on the one hand all state issues, while on the other he is sufficiendy confident in his knowledge of what the means which lie in his control can do." p 389
The need for a Feldherr
was seen by those representing the entire political spectrum in Germany, from liberals to monarchists. The French used Clausewitz after the war to further develop their concept of the Generalissimo and Fuller's approach to Grand Strategy is much more difficult to achieve without this position. In the USSR, Trotsky, Frunze and Svechin argued for the subordination of specialized and conventional (as opposed to partisan
) military command to the political leadership residing in the leader of the Communist Party. Thus we see the position of both Hitler and Stalin - along with the totalitarian elements which in this case are separate but still obviously important - as being influenced by the experience of the First World War and this being common to both democratic and totalitarian governments.
Finally, there is something of the Liddell Hart notion of the "indirect approach" to Fall Blau
, the German campaign in the summer of 1942
. Hitler wished to bypass the political center of Moscow and instead seize the southern resources/stop movement along the Volga as a way to cripple the USSR. I don't think he actually expected to come to terms with Stalin, but rather to so weaken the Soviet government that they could be held off indefinitely.
It was not a question of time or strategy, but simply a "fact" as Hitler mentions in the linked speech. The Germans were on the Volga and the Terek and they would remain there, and the Feldherr
as maker and shaper, "history's actor" had made it so. As I think the readers of this blog are aware, we have seen similar notions of arrogance and self-absorption, of ideologically-tainted wishes replacing strategic thought, of the conceit of violent and limited minds attempting to remake political existence in line with their own whims . . . let's hope this extreme example from the past acts as a caution to temper our own future.
Very interesting German soldiers's film from the times
. . . Towards the end . . . Stalingrad and Fall Blau . . .