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A Must Read for all serious students of the Russo-German War
on 1 June 2011
David Stahel, a contrarian and advocate of Clausewitz theory has written a book that will probably be contested in the historian community. This book written partially using the findings of an exhaustive study by the Bundesarchiv-Militarachiv in Freiburg Germany claims the German momentum didn't first lose steam at Kursk or Stalingrad or even in front of Moscow in Dec 1941. The main theme of his book is not to present the tactical events of Barbarossa per say but to suggest that the Germans lost all chance of defeating Russia by mid August 1941, after the strenuous battle at Smolensk. The Smolensk campaign includes coverage of the nearby cities of Yartsevo, Dorogobuzh, Yelnya and Roslavl. The author does skimp on the coverage and ramifications of Guderian's drive to Kiev.
Mr Stahel is very deliberate and meticulous; he doesn't begin the battle action until page 153. In his introduction, he describes the major research project the Germans performed in reassessing the war and describes his manner of research. He moves on to discuss a number of current theories by authors, showing good points and bad points of each. He makes special note of Stolfi's "Hitler's Panzers East" as being flawed. I thought Stolfi's book an interesting read but he failed to convince me of his position. Mr Stahel on the other hand presents a convincing case of his position and backs up his position with hundreds of primary source statements. The planning stage is next and the author spends a lot of time here describing the faulty thinking that went into the planning. Marcks, Lossberg and Paulus play major roles in the plans but all three were influenced by the distorted thinking of Halder. (I thought Halder was a puppet of Hitler but in the beginning he had influence on the dictator and plans were constructed to Halder's expectations on how he wanted the war prosecuted and not on reality. All variations of the plans were for a short war and many things were ignored.)
The author doesn't discuss the entire Operation Barbarossa but restrains himself just to Army Group Center under von Bock. He also limits himself to just three battle campaigns: the Minsk pocket, the battle for the Dvina-Dnepr River line and the Smolensk pocket. His attention is primarily on the Panzer Corps that were the spearhead of the invasion and the biggest reason for German success but the author will involve the infantry on a secondary level when their support was needed but were many miles to the rear.
It would not be apparent to the combatants or the world but by mid August, the Germans would no longer have a fighting apparatus capable enough to compete with the Russians. The main reason for its early success was it panzer spearhead and attack technique but by August panzer attrition was so severe combined by low tank production that would prevent the German army from ever having sufficient strength to destroy the Russians. Also Germany didn't have the huge pool of reserves or resources that Russia processed.
The Minsk operation occurred within two weeks of the start of the war but it clearly shows several major shortcomings of the Germany Army. The panzers arrived first and created a pocket around the Russian forces but without infantry the panzers were at risk and not strong enough to hold the Russians. Not having nearly enough transportation, the infantry were days behind the front line. By the time Smolensk was under control, the German Army was a shell of itself. A summary of each of these campaigns would involve pages so a summary of the errors of commission or judgment will be listed (The author clearly shows numerous examples of these faults being committed.):
Insufficient panzer divisions
Insufficient motorized divisions to carry infantry with the panzer spearheads.
Insufficient production capacity. Throughout the war Germany would lag far behind the Russians in production.
Insufficient human reserves.
Insufficient natural resources, especially oil.
Lower technology than the enemy. Russia's new tanks, the KV1s and T34s were much better and more powerful than the German Mks.
The attitude by panzer commanders, like Guderian, that were obsessive on forward movement without clearing Russian resistance continued to produce disastrous results to rear area units, supply columns.
Extremely poor coordination between panzer and infantry divisions.
Hitler's obsessive and relentless drive to continually over extend his forces, putting them in jeopardy to counterattack.
No long term strategy. Hitler would shift directions with the wind.
Poor coordination with the commanding generals. Each general had his own style and agenda that often worked against the others. Kluge was cautious while Guderian was reckless. They were always fighting.
Complete underestimation of the Russian soldier.
Savage treatment of civilians produced a lethal partisan reaction that killed many German soldiers plus destroyed communications with the front.
The narrative is completely German-centric. The pros and cons of the Russian army in 1941 is not specifically included in the author's calculations when this turning point occurred. The level of resistance the Russian Army could exert as well as the quality of tanks surprised the Germans and is mentioned by the author. Through inference the author uses this condition in his calculations but the primary basis for his conclusions is based on Germany's insufficient ability to recognize and correct the deficiencies mentioned above. By mid to late August it would be too late for the Germans to make corrections in their war doctrine, improve the capacities of their panzer and mobile units and increase production to a point that could compete with the Russians on a long term basis.
There are few photos and 16 maps. The maps looked very familiar; upon checking it turns out the maps were made by David Glantz. The maps are good, showing detailed dispositions of the troops on almost a daily basis. The daily change in closing the Smolensk Pocket is intense, glaring. The fighting in the Yelnya Salient is also noteworthy. The book also has many footnotes and a impressive Bibliography if further research is wanted.
In addition to the author's logical presentation of facts, he inserts hundreds of communiques, and diary entries to help support his position and to give the reader a better understanding of what the German command was experiencing and the level of apprehension that had been generated as the battle moved into August. While Hitler and Halder continue to think of ways of expanding the war, the field commanders like Strauss, Schweppenburg, Hoth, Guderian and others feared their forces wouldn't be able to hold the Soviets back. They were also clamoring for more fuel, ammo, engines and reinforcements but little would arrive.
The Germans would continue to have victories like Kiev, Uman, Vyazma, Branysk and Rzhev but with each campaign the life blood of the German Army was being drained and it didn't have the capacity to replenish itself but because it did not experience a terrible defeat it was not apparent that Germany no longer had the capacity to defeat the Russian Army. This would be proven at Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, Vitebsk (1944).
In the area of tactical problems of the Wehrmacht when facing the Soviets, Mr Stahel concentrates much of his presentation on the AGC sector. By expanding his attention to the rest of the line, additional evidence could have been provided that would have bolstered his position but I believe the author presents sufficient evidence to prove his thesis but even if you're not convinced, he clearly shows the weaknesses of the German Army and presents critical reasons for their eventual failure and for this reason alone the book is worth reading. His discussions of the key German commanders and the friction generated from within were also interesting and it helps you understand the early war. The profiles of Hitler, Halder, Bock, Kluge and Guderian were of special interest. This book has much merit and I hope the author will treat us with coverage of another campaign. This book is highly recommended to all serious students of the war.