World War II
A. The Battle of Kursk
The Battle of Kursk is the largest confrontation between tanks and aircraft in the history of the world. Nearly 3500 Russian and German tanks clashed over a two week period. What began as a valiant effort by the Wehrmacht to recover lost honor after the Stalingrad fiasco turned into a staggering defeat. Hence, forth the Nazis would never regain the initiative and the would be consistently forced back until their inevitable defeat. The Battle of Kursk is an excellent example of World War II-era warfare was conducted.
In the previous World War territory was captured for prestige value in order to scare the enemy and force him to negotiate from a position of weakness. For example the Kaiser’s armies ultimately wanted to capture Paris to force France and the Allies to sue for peace. Military strategy in World War II was about holding key strategic locations which would cripple the enemy’s ability to wage war. Operation Blau (Blue), the German overall strategy in the East for 1942, was centered around Army Group South’s drive to capture the Caucasus oilfields and the tractor factories of Stalingrad. The loss of the oilfields would cripple Russia’s ability to fuel its tanks while the destruction of Stalingrad would severely reduce the tank production of the USSR. Another form of military strategy involved pocketing and destroying enemy armies. The goal of the German Operation Zitadel was to pocket and eliminate the armies in the Kursk pocket.
Military tactics in World War II centered around effective use combined arms. Thanks to the radio it was relatively easier to coordinate Air and Artillery strikes with armored spearheads and infantry assaults. The German General Staff had also developed the tactic known as Blitzkrieg or lightning war. This revolved on the use of infantry and artillery to achieve a breakthrough then using tanks and mechanized infantry to knife deep in enemy territory demoralizing and encircling his forces. The tactic worked in the beginning because the Russians tactics had not yet evolved to counter the Blizkrieg. By the Battle of Kursk the Germans and Russians enjoyed relative parity in terms of quality of their fighting men and leadership. The German’s best tanks the Tiger and Panther were superior to their Russian counterparts the KV-1 and T-34. But were too few to make a serious difference. Most of the thousands of tanks and assault guns used in the battle were older models
Logistics was an important aspect to both armies. The German’s pride was stung when they lost a whole army to encirclement in Stalingrad. Experience taught them to stockpile significant supplies before starting the battle but this also doomed them because too much tarrying had cost them the element of surprise. The Russians were also cautious about their supply situation because their previous offensives were hampered by poor logistics forcing them to underachieve their goals.
Combined-Arms tactics pioneered by Alexander of Macedon and revisited by Napoleon Bonaparte were the bread and butter of World War II armies. Aircraft, Artillery, Tanks and Infantry were all vital organs of a good offensive. The Germans were particularly good at coordinating their forces. Aircraft and Artillery were used to terrify and demoralize the enemy. Combined Infantry and Panzer attacks shattered the lines while the Panzers knifed forward from the point of breakthrough. Because each arm had strengths and weaknesses they were used to support each other.
The German movie Stalingrad and the American filmed Movie Enemy at the Gates are good examples of the brutality of the war in Russia. Nazis brainwashed the German people in to thinking that the campaign in Russia was some holy quest to rid the world of Bolshevism. Communist commissars taught their soldiers that they were fighting to defend the motherland from the Nazis. Right or wrong both sides presented the war as some ennobling enterprise for honor and glory. Nothing could be further from the truth atrocities and barbarism. The German blitzkreig was initially successful but the Russians wised up and ground the offensive to a halt before eventually counter-attacking and ultimately winning the war.
In 1941 the Russians were unprepared to face the German Blitzkrieg. Their armies were demoralized by the purges of their officer corps and their supreme leader (Stalin) refused to believe that Hitler would attack. As a result the Red Army was no match for the Panzer onslaught of operation Barbarossa. Hundreds of thousands of Russian troops were killed, wounded or captured within months of the campaign.
The Russians were so starved for equipment that they often resorted to penal battalions such as the one shown in Enemy at the Gates. In that movie the protagonist is seen charging the Germans without a rifle and shouting at the top of his lungs. This exemplifies how little regard the Russians had for human life. They were hedging on the idea that the initial unarmed waves of soldiers would use up the German ammo and allow the real troops an easier time getting at the Germans. Despite their brutality the Russians were experts at using their own countryside against the Germans. The autumn rains turned the Russia into a sea of mud slowing the Germans. When the Russian winter froze the Germans in their tracks, the Russian army counter-attacked. Eventually the Russians wised up and used the same combined tank and infantry attacks supported by massive artillery bombardments that the Germans were apt to use against them.
In the movie Stalingrad, the Germans are shown to be well coordinated. The individual solider is merely part of the greater whole. This was true of infantry squads as well as the larger formations. German forces relied on the shock-effect of their army’s mobility. They moved quickly overwhelming parts of an enemy line and surrounding the rest.
In 1941 the Pz IV and Pz III were outmatched against the Soviet T-34 and KV-1. However, the Russians were unable to counter the German troops who were already experts in armored warfare. Most units lacked heavy weapons to fight off the Panzers, some had no weapons at all. It was only in the winter when the German tanks were frozen to a halt that the Russians could mount an effective counter-offensive. Their counter-attack in December of 1941 tore the Nazis from the gates of Moscow. Even then, the disciplined German fighting arm would recover and meet the Russians on even-terms for at least another two years before succumbing to overwhelming Russian superiority and the incompetence of their own top commander.
The German Campaign was doomed from the start. A failure of leadership at the very highest echelons ensured that no matter how excellent the subordinates were victory would elude the Germans. The Wehrmacht’s Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) was made up of professional career soldiers who spent their lives fighting for the fatherland and serving in the General Staff. The actual field commanders, men like Guderian, Von Manstien and Von Paulus were professionals who were fine examples of Prussian military tradition. By comparison Hitler was in the words of Von Paulus “A bohemian corporal”. Hitler’s experience in the army was limited to that of a runner during the trench warfare of World War I. His stubborn belief that his military knowledge was superior to his generals doomed what was one of the finest armies in the world.
Hitler had no clear objectives in launching the campaign in Russia. He wanted to destroy communism he said when Barbarossa was launched. The Wehrmacht went on an all out drive to wipe out the Red Army and take vast swaths of Russian Territory. After the setbacks in the Winter of 1941-42, he reduced his goals to merely the capture of strategic Russian resources. After the loss at Stalingrad his goals were further reduced to holding on to whatever gains his armies had already made. Lacking a clear overall strategy, the Wehrmacht plunged blindly into war.
Early in the War, Hitler understood the importance of manoeuvre. He allowed his generals freedom of movement to strike as deep as the could into the Russian heartland. Swift offensives that took advantage of the German’s superior mobility bought them easy victories. However, later in the war Hitler’s interests as a political leader took over he adamantly refused to allow his armies to retreat despite the obvious fact that they would be surrounded and destroyed. Instead he doggedly told them to fight to the death. An example of this was at Stalingrad. Faced with such unreasonable orders not even von Paulus, who previously obeyed Hitler, was willing to die to sate Hitler’s vanity.
Economy of Force was another factor Hitler failed to take into account. By 1942 his Panzers were outclassed by their Russian counterparts and his armies had to defend vast tracts of land. Yet he still ordered them to attack further thinning their lines.
Hitler, theoretically, had a unified command under him. His lack of practical experience as a military leader coupled with his tendency to dismiss those who dissented against him led to some of the worst disasters in military history. Time and time again he would ignore the practical advice of his professional General Staff and instead rely on the hearsay of his political generals. For example, when the 6th Army was surrounded at Stalingrad the generals were unanimous in advocating a breakout. Hitler chose to listen to Goering who promised that the air force could supply the trapped army. He also failed to recognize defeat when it came preferring to sacrifice the Wehrmacht in fruitless last-stands, which the professionals reluctantly obeyed, rather than admit defeat.
Vilsmaier, Joseph. Stalingrad (1993)
Annaud Jean-Jacques, Enemy at the Gates (2001)
Beevor, Antony (1998). Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943. New York: Penguin Books