Was the Wehrmacht a mechanized army?

Was the Wehrmacht a mechanized army?

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I read random descriptions of Germany's attack on the Soviet Union, and I got the impression that besides tanks, the armies carried with them millions of horses and that the bulk of the soldiers were planned to reach Moscow and Caucasus on foot (which is really a feat even for a tourist).

Is my impression correct?

You are correct. Parts of the Wehrmacht were mechanized, but the vast majority was foot infantry with horse drawn logistics. Most soldiers walked towards Moscow, and back.

When the Wehrmacht arrived in Prague in March 1939, it was a bicycle army. The same role as USA trucks played for the Russian army in 1941-45 was played by the Czech Skoda and Tatra cars and trucks for the German army.

After the Allied invasion in Normandy the Wehrmacht had moved all motorized groups to the West and only usual infantry remained in the East. That made the huge encirclements of 1944 on the Eastern Front possible. Whole regions and republics occupied by non-mobile German troops were cut off one after another. With these troops, they couldn't even escape in time.

(It was after the Soviets reached the German lands themselves when the point of German power was turned back to the East.)

So, we can't say if the German army was motorized or not without asking what time and place we mean exactly. One of the strengths of the German and Soviet generals in WWII was that they could change not only the size and concentration of troops dynamically, but also their level of modernity. There were places where the maximally modernized and mobilized troops fought, and tens of kilometers away there were troops that looked like their WWI counterparts. Continental countries did not get the fantastical amount of technological equipment that the US army had, and they concentrated that equipment in important locations only. And as the Ardennes showed, it was more than enough.

There is another problem - motorized HOW? For example, while Stalin was preparing to the WWII in Europe in 1940-41, USSR was building "highway tanks" - with great speed, but for good roads only. But in the USSR itself there were no good roads. Even in 1989 my German far relative, a roads specialist, when he visited us in Moscow and looked around the capital, said: I haven't seen roads here, but there are places where I can drive a car. One of my acquaintances - an old Soviet officer who went by foot from Russia to Germany during WWII, had said, that along their way in all the USSR they crossed only one paved road and one asphalted. I do not remember the latitude of his way, but the main thought remains - cars in the USSR had limited use.

And in some seasons they were of no use at all. The asphalted road to Astrakhan - a regional center on Southern Volga - was built in year 1981. And before that every autumn and spring the usual ground road became unpassable. The only transport that could be used was special trucks for strategic rockets, with an engine in every wheel. And they had to travel in pairs, to help each other in harder places. (The ground is so sticky there, when wet.) In 1945 the car that could pass any Russian road simply didn't exist anywhere in the world. Even in the 90ies they said in Russia: Jeep is a car that will stuck where no other car can reach it. Another Russian proverb: Russia has two problems: fools and roads.

So, on the Eastern front it was different - tanks could run, but not too far, and with cars and trucks sometimes you had lesser speed than without them. The railway theme, raised by Michael Kay, was of extreme importance then. But the railroad mobility was not defined by the modernity of the army, but by the number of roads on the land and their defense from the air and partisan attacks.

Very important and heavily underestimated by both sides was also the river transport. Dnepr, Bug, Dnestr, were much more powerful than any rockade way.

No-one has mentioned trains. While there was a lot of walking, there was also a lot of bulk movement of troops (and supplies) by train.

Just barely. Only 20 (out of about 190) divisions were Panzers, with a slightly smaller number of motorized infantry divisions. So the Wehrmacht was only about 20% mechanized and motorized. That's less than either the American or British armies and even the Soviet armies (after Lend Lease kicked in during late 1942 and later).

"Most" German soldiers marched on foot, with their supplies being drawn by horses. That caused problems around Moscow during the first winter, and contributed to the shortage food (lack of accumulated surpluses before the encirclement) at Stalingrad.

It also contributed to problems on the Russian front. Around Smolensk, and in certain parts of the Ukraine, a portion of the Soviet armies escaped encirclements because the infantry could not move up quickly enough to fill gaps left behind by fast moving armored divisions. When they were on the retreat, the Germans were at a clear disadvantage. During Operation Bagration in 1944, for instance, the Germans inflicted physical casualties (killed and wounded) on the Russians at the rate of 2 to 1, but the Russians captured enough Germans to reduce to total casualty rate to 3 to 2, because the Russians had trucks (from Lend Lease),the Germans didn't, and stranded a large number of prisoners.

You're right. Wehrmacht was mechanized. Wehrmacht in 1941 was an ideal military machine. He had fast tanks and tractors. Tank and motorized divisions were all "with a motor". The motorized division could have only one company on Hanomag, but both regiments of infantry were necessarily transported by trucks. All transport provided a high speed of movement along the highway. Armored cars and radio communications allowed to react quickly to tank fists. This is also the speed of the division! A large number of sappers made it possible to quickly build bridges (see the encirclement of Kiev). This is the same speed division! Each German tank company had a repair truck, supply trucks and scout motorcyclists. This is the same speed division! The advanced German forces were supplied by air. This is the same speed and strength of the division!

Horses. This is the basis for the supply of infantry divisions. They were slow. And the infantry did move on foot. For example, in the German infantry company there was a horse for transportation of ammunition. Just like in the Soviet company. But even here there is a brilliant moment. German generals formed mobile groups in the infantry division. The mobile group is reconnaissance armored vehicles, self-propelled units, an infantry battalion on trucks and a battalion of howitzers. As a result, the advance of the infantry division moved like a tank division. Moreover, self-propelled units fought no worse than tanks and confused Soviet commanders. Soviet commanders did not understand, "if an infantry division is near, where did the tanks come from?"

At a strategic level, tank groups were stronger than Soviet mechanized corps. The Soviet mechanized corps had many tanks, but could not fill them. The German tank group (actually the tank army) had artillery and infantry. And this artillery easily destroyed mechanized corps.

The problem of the Wehrmacht in Russia was expensive: there were few roads, roads were bad. Plus the terrible weather.

The Western military machine is special forces + specialization + supply. Supply = big logistics. And this was the Achilles' heel of the Wehrmacht. The Wehrmacht received supplies problems already near Moscow. If the Wehrmacht retreated, the roads turned into a crowd of stuck trucks. When the trucks were destroyed, the Wehrmacht became very weak.

A little joke. How did the Soviet fighters fight the German Tigers? Very simple! A column of trucks and gasoline tankers supplies one Tiger. One Soviet fighter turns this column into a big fire. As a result, the invincible Tiger stands with empty fuel tanks and without shells. Checkmate.

Where was the Wehrmacht stronger than the Red Army? In the Soviet divisions there were fewer trucks. Moreover, they were less than the regular number (10-50%). In the Soviet motorized division very often the infantry moved on foot… Soviet artillery moved slowly (tractor speed - 10 km/h). Soviet trucks were not all-wheel drive. Soviet industry produced very few heavy trucks. Bad communication: many divisions had only telephone communication with the headquarters of the front. As a result, the Soviet command reacted "slowly." In the Soviet tank brigade, the radio was only for commanders of battalions. Even reconnaissance of tank brigades was often without radio. There was never a truck in the Soviet tank company. The tank was repaired by the crew of the tank. The tank was in repairs of the tank crew. It takes time. The repair truck was only at the level of the tank brigade. Soviet tank units in 1941 had 4-5 types of tanks (different spare parts) and required 3-4 types of fuel. This is the suicide of logistics and the death of a mechanized corps.

Where was the Wehrmacht weaker than the Red Army? German troops demanded a lot of good roads. During the retreat, trucks blocked roads-a supply collapse. The Wehrmacht could not act autonomously when the supply was destroyed. German quartermasters often made mistakes: winter clothes were sent to Africa, condoms to Stalingrad.

Was the Wehrmacht a mechanized army? - History

The Wehrmacht existed from 1935 to 1945 and consisted of the unified armed forces of Germany, including the Heer (army), Kriegsmarine (navy), and Luftwaffe (air force). The Luftwaffe actually had their own ground forces which included tank divisions. Although many people use the word “Wehrmacht” to specifically refer to the German army, originally, the word “Wehrmacht” meant to defend (wehren) and power or force (macht).

This German military force was used to launch offenses against enemy military targets, and to defend Germany when the country was attacked. The Wehrmacht officially began in 1935, and ended in 1945, with the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) holding supreme command. When Germany surrendered after WWI, the Treaty of Versailles effectively disbanded their armed forces.

Schutzstaffel and Waffen-SS

Many high-ranking military members were members of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Waffen-SS, which were the armed units of the SS. Waffen-SS field troops were under control of either the Oberkommando des Heeres (Army Supreme High Commander) or the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Armed Forces Supreme High Command).

The Waffen-SS was considered to be the Wehrmacht’s fourth branch, since it rapidly grew from three regiments to thirty-eight divisions by the end of World War II. Even though the Waffen-SS was independent and considered to be Adolf Hitler’s elite force, it did work concurrently with the Wehrmacht.

History of the Wehrmacht

World War I officially ended November 11, 1918, with the signing of the armistice. In March of 1919, the German national assembly approved a law that would build a 420,000 preliminary army called the Vorläufige Reichswehr. In May of the same year, the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles had been released, and one month later Germany had to sign the treaty that imposed very severe constraints on the size of armed forces they were allowed. Another requirement of the Treaty of Versailles was the abolishment of general conscription or compulsory military service.

The Reichswehr

Germany’s army was restricted to only one hundred thousand soldiers while the navy was permitted an additional fifteen thousand men. The fleet was limited to six cruisers, six battleships, and twelve destroyers. The air force was eliminated and heavy artillery, tanks, and submarines were strictly forbidden.

On March 23, 1921, Germany instated the Reichswehr, their new post-war military. However, by the early 1920s, Germany began to secretly circumvent the restrictions of the treaty.

General Hans von Seeckt

The various limitations required by Versailles ended up being an advantage for Germany’s military. Since the Reichswehr was restricted to 100,000 men, the new commander of the armed forces, Hans von Seeckt, made sure that the military only kept the most desirable officers and soldiers. Seeckt selected only the best to be the new leaders for his general staff and ignored other constituencies, which included the nobility and many others.

Seeckt was determined that the Reichswehr would end up being an elite force that would function as the nucleus of Germany’s expanded armed forces once the opportunity for reestablishing conscription occurred. During the 1920s, Seeckt designed new doctrines that emphasized aggression, speed, and combined initiative and arms for lower ranking officers so they could benefit from the new training. Basically, this led to the development of a whole new army that was somewhat based upon the old army, but would be run very differently. In 1926, Seeckt retired but, the armed forces that went on to fight in 1939, had been mostly his creation.

Although Germany was not allowed to have a military air force, Seeckt, who understood the many advantages of having an air force, developed a clandestine elite group of air force military officers during the early part of the 1920s. Seeckt’s elite group of air force officers learned that the important role of the air force was to win air superiority, conduct strategic and precise bombing, and to provide any needed ground support. That the Luftwaffe failed to produce a strong strategic bombing force during the 1930s was not due to disinterest, but economic limitations.

Admiral Erich Raeder, who was a very close protégé of Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, was in charge of developing a new navy fleet. The naval officers that supported submarine warfare under Admiral Karl Dönitz’s leadership were mostly in the minority before 1939. However, after 1939, the submarine warfare program had become an important part of the navy.

Germany and Soviet Union Collaboration

After the Rapallo treaty was signed in 1922, Germany started a covert collaboration with the Soviet Union. Major-General Otto Hasse went to Moscow in 1923, in order to negotiate the collaboration terms. Germany assisted them with their industrialization plans, while Soviet officers were sent to Germany to receive training.

Many German air force and tank specialists were able to train in the Soviet Union. Germany’s chemical weapons manufacturing and research were also conducted there along with other military projects. Approximately, three-hundred German pilots received their training at Lipetsk, while tank training occurred near Kazan and different types of toxic gas had been developed at Saratov for Germany’s military forces.

Reinstatement of Conscription and Führer Adolf Hitler

Following President Paul von Hindenburg’s death on August 2, 1934, Adolf Hitler became the commander-in-chief of Germany. All of the officers and soldiers for Germany’s military were required to pledge their loyalty to the New Führer.

By 1935, Germany started to openly disregard most of the military restrictions established by the Treaty of Versailles, and reinstated conscription on March 16, 1935. The new conscription law was introduced with the name Wehrmacht. Therefore, March 16, 1935, is regarded as the Wehrmacht’s founding date. The official announcement of the Wehrmacht existence was announced on October 15, 1935.

Even though the scale of Germany’s standing army was required to be around 100,000 men, new groups of conscripts that were almost equal to that size started to receive military training every year after 1935. The authority and the organization of the Wehrmacht is viewed by many to be Nazi creations, in spite of the various political affiliations of the high command. The Wehrmacht’s insignia was based on the famous Iron Cross which had been widely used for tank and aircraft marking during the latter part of the First World War.

The Mongol Army

The Mongols, who numbered at most one million men when they started their conquests in 1206, managed to conquer and subjugate most of Eurasia in a hundred years, defeating armies and nations that had tens or even hundreds of times the manpower of the Mongols. The Mongols were basically an unstoppable force that emerged seemingly out of nowhere to dominate the Middle East, China, and Russia.

Mongol success boiled down to the many strategies and tactics employed by Genghis Khan, who founded the Mongol Empire. Most important was the mobility of the Mongols and their endurance. To begin with, the nomadic Mongol way of life enabled them to move large armies across amazing distances in short times, as the Mongols could live off of their herds or the blood of their horses.

Siege of Baghdad by the Mongols, 1258. Persian manuscript illumination, 14th century.

Indeed, the Mongols’ mobility was enhanced by their heavy reliance on horses. Mongol Cavalrymen each maintained three or four horses to keep them all fresh. Cavalrymen, who had bows they could shoot while riding, gave Mongols distinct advantages over the infantry during the fight. The mobility generated by the horses, as while as their strict discipline, also allowed the Mongols to utilize innovative tactics including hit and run attacks and a primitive form of blitzkrieg.

The Mongols also relied heavily on terror, deliberately inflicting major damages and casualties on their defeated enemies to break the morale of future ones.

Horses in Twilight as World War II Dawns

Although Army Air Corps officers were required to wear spurs until the late 1930s, the U.S. Army had absorbed the concepts of mechanization by then. There had not been sufficient progress and many vestigial remnants were still embedded in place, but that would quickly change under the stress of total mobilization for total war.

After the opening of World War II in Europe, with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the huge expansion of the U.S. Army began in earnest. The experimental mechanization ideas were integrated into practice and large scale procurement of vehicles was underway. News from the war zones was grim. The Blitzkreig in Europe made a mockery of outdated concepts from prior wars. The slaughter of Polish Cavalry, facing the Wehrmacht tanks and Luftwaffe dive bombing planes, eliminated any thought of a continuing role for the horse in modern combat. Counterexamples were few and fully mechanized units quickly grew in number at the expense of horse units. In 1941, field manuals were revised to focus on mechanized units with most of the old horse cavalry material minimized or eliminated.

The 1st Cavalry Regiment, as a member of the 7th Mechanized Brigade, was the showpiece of American Armor. The German use of massed armor finally shook loose the blocks to the expansion of American Armor. As a result, on 15 July 1940, they were reorganized and re-designated as 1st Armored Regiment, an element of 1st Armored Division. Reconnaissance was the only mission remaining for mechanized cavalry after the creation of the Armored Force in 1940.

Portee cavalry in use during the 1940 General Headquarters Maneuvers. The special built tractor-trailers were capable of rapidly transporting eight fully equipped Troopers with their horses to any staging point. The Cavalry Journal, September-October 1940.

Still, the horse had its defenders, especially Major General John K. Herr, the last Chief of Cavalry. One aspect of this defense was continued testing of portee Cavalry, the use of trucks to move fresh horses to the battle where Troopers would mount up and operate as traditional horse cavalry. Even when successful in maneuvers, such efforts were a last gasp. The resistance of the Cavalry to full mechanization and corresponding doctrinal changes left Cavalry weaker than necessary for actual combat as encountered in North Africa and Sicily.

Mechanized units ultimately did take over all of Cavalry Branch's traditional missions, including both combat and reconnaissance, but it took the experience of World War II for mechanized doctrine and organization to fully restore Cavalry Branch's identity as a combat arm. But the horses were gone for good as horseflesh gave way to iron steeds. Cavalry Branch was eventually renamed Armor Branch in 1950.

Portions of this page adapted from Men on 'Iron Ponies,' The Death and Rebirth of the Modern U. S. Cavalry, by Matthew Darlington Morton, Ph.D. Thesis, 2004, History Department, Florida State University. Also available in book form from Amazon.

PICTURES FROM HISTORY: Rare Images Of War, History , WW2, Nazi Germany

The term Schwerer Panzerspähwagen (Heavy armored reconnaissance vehicle), covers the 6 and 8 wheeled armoured cars Germany used during the Second World War.

In the German Army, armoured cars were intended for the traditional cavalry missions of reconnaissance and screening. They scouted ahead of mechanized units to assess enemy strength and location. Their primary role was to observe rather than fight enemy units, although they were expected to fight enemy reconnaissance elements when required.

The heavy Panzerspähwagen was a large and ungainly but very fast addition to the German mobile arsenal of the early war years. The original 6-rad (6 wheeled) versions were based on a 6x4 truck with armoured body, but by 1937 they were being replaced by the 8-rad versions. During the replacement, the Sd.Kfz numbers were carried directly over differentiation is made by the addition of 6-Rad or 8-Rad (Ger: "6 wheel" or "8 wheel") in the vehicle name.

These vehicles first saw combat with the campaign against Poland and in the Battle of France. The radio communication cars proved their ability in infantry support, especially during street fighting. Later they saw use in both the USSR and North Africa. Extreme climatic conditions in both these areas proved too severe for the vehicle. In the USSR, adverse ground conditions immobilized 150 Sd.Kfz 232s during the first wet season of the campaign.In the desert, heat and sand created some maintenance problems. Still, the eight-wheeled cars turned out to be the best vehicles that Rommel had for long range reconnaissance across the wide desert territory.

The Austrian army was using the ADGZ armored car at the time of Anschluss. 12 were used by the army and 15 were used by the police. The Germans used them for police work and some were taken on by the SS and used on the Eastern front and in the Balkans.

The SS ordered an additional 25 ADGZ which were delivered in 1942. An interesting feature of this vehicle was that there was no "rear:" either end was capable of driving the unit.

SS Heimwehr Danzig used ADGZ armored cars during the defense of the Polish Post Office in Danzig on September 1, 1939.

After the invasion of the USSR a few ADGZ armored cars were rearmed with turrets from the Soviet T-26 model 1933 light tank.

The Leichter Panzerspähwagen (German: roughly "Light Armoured Reconnaissance Vehicle") were a series of light four-wheel drive armoured cars produced by Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1944.

They were developed by Eisenwerk Weserhütte of Bad Oeynhausen. Chassis were built by Auto Union in Zwickau and assembled by F. Schichau of Elbing and Maschinenfabrik Niedersachsen in Hanover-Linden.

It used the standard sPkw I Horch 801 (heavy car) chassis with an angled armoured body and turret.

The rear mounted engine was a 67 kW (90 hp) Horch 3.5 petrol engine, giving it a road speed of 80 km/h (50 mph) and a cross-country speed of 40 km/h (25 mph). It had a maximum range of 300 km (186 mi).

Used by the reconnaissance battalions (Aufklärungs-Abteilung) of the Panzer divisions, the type performed well enough in countries with good road networks, like those in Western Europe. However, on the Eastern Front and North Africa, this class of vehicle was hampered by its relatively poor off-road performance. In those theaters, it gradually found itself replaced in the reconnaissance role by the Sdkfz 250 half-track. The Sdkfz 250/9 was the Sdkfz 250 with the same turret as the Sdfkz 222.

The Sdkfz 222 was examined by Soviet designers before they created the similar BA-64 light armoured car.

Front and sides were made of 8 mm (0.3 in) steel thinner 5 mm (0.2 in) plates protected the top, rear, and bottom. Cast vision ports later replaced ports cut into the armour. The open topped turret was fitted with wire mesh anti-grenade screens.

Base model and first production series of light armoured car built on a standardized chassis for military use. The Sdkfz. 221 was armed with a single 7.92 mm Maschinengewehr 34 (MG34) machine gun, manned by a two man crew, and had 4-wheel drive. Armour protection was originally 8 mm thick, but increased to 14.5 mm later in production.

A 28 mm sPzB41 in a modified turret.

This version of the vehicle was armed with a 2 cm KwK 30 L/55 autocannon and a 7.92 mm MG34 machine gun. The third crew member was the gunner, relieving the commander of that task. Some versions included a 28 mm armored piercing cannon. A prototype version included a 50 mm cannon. Two armored prototype versions were completed.

SdKfz. 223
Deutscher Panzerspähwagen

A radio car version, armed like the 221 with a 7.92 mm MG34 machine gun. Included additional radio equipment, and had a large "bed-frame" antenna over the vehicle. Over 500 of the SdKfz 223 were produced.

Forgotten Battles of the Great Patriotic War

The Soviet-German war was the fiercest, most brutal and most costly chapter in World War II. Since this conflict ended with the destruction of both Germany’s Wehrmacht and Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, it was also the war’s most decisive theater. It is unfortunate, therefore, that until very recently— for largely political, ideological and military reasons— the historical record of this struggle has remained woefully incomplete.

Newly released Russian and German archival sources now indicate that Soviet histories of the war overlooked or obscured as much as 40 percent of the Red Army’s wartime military operations, primarily its failed offensives, in a deliberate attempt to conceal those defeats or to protect the reputations of defeated wartime commanders. Resurrecting many of these “ forgotten battles” enables us to recognize the contributions of the thousands of Red Army soldiers who fought, perished or simply endured for the sake of their Motherland, only to see history forget their sacrifices.

German Operations Barbarossa in 1941 and Blue in 1942— interrupted by the Red Army’s successful defense of Leningrad, Moscow and Rostov in late 1941 and its partially successful counteroffensive during the winter of 1941-42— dominated the first 18 months of war on the Eastern Front. Although the Wehrmacht retained the strategic initiative throughout much of this period, the Red Army managed to deny Hitler victory at Moscow, ensuring he could no longer win the war.

Histories have portrayed Barbarossa, which began on June 22, 1941, and ended on December 5, 1941, as a virtually seamless German advance from the Soviet Union’s western frontiers to the gates of Leningrad, Moscow and Rostov, punctuated by occasional heavy fighting but unfaltering until German forces reached Moscow. From late June through September 1941, however,Josef Stalin and his Stavka (High Command) deliberately and repeatedly tried to halt the German juggernaut by launching incessant counterstrokes and, in at least one case, a full-fledged counteroffensive.

As early as late June, the Red Army attempted to blunt the German advance with its large tank and mechanized force. In Lithuania the Northwestern Front’s 3rd and 12th Mechanized corps struck back at German Army Group North at Kelme and Raseiniai in Belorussia the Western Front’s 6th, 11th and 14th Mechanized corps counterattacked against Army Group Center near Grodno and Brest and in the Ukraine the Southwestern Front’s 4th, 6th, 8th, 9th, 15th, 19th and 22nd Mechanized corps launched massive counterstrokes against Army Group South near Brody and Dubno. Poorly coordinated and supported, those assaults proved utterly futile and often suicidal, and they ultimately resulted in the destruction of most of the Red Army’s tank and mechanized force. Only the massive attacks in the south, personally directed by army General Georgi K. Zhukov, the chief of the Red Army General Staff, had any appreciable effect on the overwhelming German advance.

In July the Red Army launched yet another series of heavy counterstrokes. The Northwestern Front struck the vanguard of Army Group North near Sol’tsy, delaying the German advance toward Leningrad for a full week. And in the center, the Western and Central fronts launched multiple unsuccessful counterstrokes to contain Army Group Center’s forces along the Dnepr River. These futile struggles included the spectacular destruction of the Western Front’s 5th and 7th Mechanized corps near Lepel’, Marshal Semyon Timoshenko’s notorious but also pathetically weak “ Timoshenko offensive” against General Heinz Guderian’s Second Panzer Group along the Sozh River, and a counterstroke near Bobruisk, all of which were unable to stop Army Group Center’s advance toward Smolensk. In the south, multiple counterattacks by the Southwestern Front near Korosten’ slowed but failed to halt Army Group South’s advance toward Kiev.

Undeterred by its July failures, the Red Army continued striking back against the advancing Germans in August. In the north, the Northern and Northwestern fronts assaulted Army Group North’s vanguard near Staraia Russa, again delaying the German advance for a week. In the center , the Western Front assaulted Army Group Center east of Smolensk with five ad hoc shock groups to rescue its forces surrounded in the city. Although all of these Red Army attacks ended in failure, their ferocity persuaded Hitler to delay his advance on Moscow and instead engage “softer” targets around Kiev.

Finally, in late August, the Western, Reserve and Briansk fronts launched a massive counteroffensive in the Smolensk, El’nia and Roslavl’ regions to prevent the Germans from continuing their advance on Moscow and Kiev. The ensuing bloody failure weakened the Red Army’s defenses along the Moscow axis, contributed to its disastrous defeats at Viaz’ma and Briansk in early October, and led to the Wehrmachts subsequent spectacular advance on Moscow during Operation Typhoon. Finally, during the initial stages of Operation Typhoon in late October, the Northwestern Front employed a special operational group (Group Vatutin) near Kalinin to halt the German Ninth Army’s advance to the vital Leningrad-Moscow railroad line and ultimately prevent that army from participating in the final Wehrmacht drive on Moscow. These forgotten battles also explain why the Wehrmacht ultimately suffered defeat at the gates of Moscow in early December 1941.

Accounts of the Battle of Moscow and the Red Army’s winter offensive of 1941-42 ignore Soviet counteroffensives in the Leningrad region, near Viaz’ma west of Moscow, near Bolkhov and Oboian’ south of Moscow, and in the Crimea. In the north, the Leningrad and Volkhov fronts launched a massive Leningrad-Novgorod (Liuban’) offensive in January 1942 to defeat Army Group North’s Eighteenth Army and raise the siege of Leningrad. Although the Volkhov Front’s forces managed to pierce German defenses, Army Group North struck back, encircling and destroying the Soviet 2nd Shock Army and 13th Cavalry Corps by early July 1942.

In the wake of the Red Army’s successful January counteroffensive at Moscow, in February 1942 the Kalinin and Western fronts launched their Rzhev-Viaz’ma offensive to encircle and destroy Army Group Center. Spearheaded by cavalry and airborne forces, the two fronts penetrated German defenses northwest and southeast of Moscow and almost linked up in the Viaz’ma region. Although it created havoc in Army Group Center’s rear area, this offensive also failed after months of fighting, leaving large Red Army forces isolated in Army Group Center’s rear area until German forces liquidated them in midsummer.

Coincident with its January and February offensives, the Red Army’s Briansk and Southwestern fronts also conducted a largescale offensive to eliminate a massive German salient jutting eastward from Kursk toward the Bolkhov and Oboian’ regions. However, the so-called Orel-Bolkhov, Bolkhov and Oboian’- Kursk offensives also failed. Similarly, an unsuccessful Northwestern Front offensive in the Demiansk region and an offensive by the Crimean Front in the Crimea have also disappeared from the pages of history.

The Red Army also reacted far more aggressively while the Wehrmacht was conducting Operation Blue from June 28 through November 18, 1942. Rather than abandoning the strategic initiative to the Germans, in May 1942 the Soviets conducted major offensives at Khar’kov and in the Crimea. Even after those offensives failed and Operation Blue began, the Red Army struck back fiercely at the Wehrmacht as the Germans advanced toward Stalingrad.

During July and August 1942, the Red Army conducted numerous counterattacks against Wehrmacht forces advancing toward Stalingrad and against German defenses elsewhere along the front. Masked by the dramatic German advance, these forgotten battles include three major offensives near Voronezh, one in concert with an impressive counterstroke west of Stalingrad, and others near Siniavino, Demiansk, Rzhev, Zhizdra and Bolkhov.

The Red Army conducted its largest-scale attempt to defeat Operation Blue during July, August and September in the Voronezh region.Throughout July it employed its new 5th Tank Army and as many as seven tank corps numbering up to 1,500 tanks in this series of counterattacks. Moreover, Stavka coordinated the 5th Tank Army’s assault west of Voronezh with major counterstrokes by the Stalingrad Front’s 1st and 4th Tank armies along the approaches to the Don River west of Stalingrad.

The Red Army also timed its offensives in the Demiansk, Rzhev, Zhizdra and Bolkhov regions to coincide with operations near Voronezh and at Stalingrad. For example, the Western and Briansk fronts employed several tank corps and, later, the new 3rd Tank Army in their July and August offensives near Zhizdra and Bolkhov. On the other hand, the Western and Kalinin fronts’ August-September offensive near Rzhev, which was orchestrated by Zhukov and achieved modest success, became a virtual dress rehearsal for an even larger counteroffensive in the same region later in the year (Operation Mars).

Although the Leningrad and Volkhov fronts’ second offensive at Siniavino, east of Leningrad, in August and September 1942 failed disastrously, it prevented German forces from capturing Leningrad and tied down the German Eleventh Army In the process, however, the 2nd Shock Army, which the Germans had already destroyed at Miasnoi Bor by early July, was destroyed once again in September near Siniavino.

The Red Army again seized the strategic initiative in late November 1942 by virtue of its twin offensives in the Rzhev and Stalingrad regions (Operations Mars and Uranus) and held it during its ambitious but only partially successful offensive in the winter of 1942-43. Quite naturally, the Red Army’s victory at Stalingrad, its advance to Khar’kov and south to the Donbas region in early 1943, and Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s counterstroke in the south dominate accounts of the winter campaign. Those accounts, however, totally ignore three major Red Army offensives— Operation Mars, Operation Polar Star and the Orel-Briansk-Smolensk offensive — and severely understate the scope of its Donbas offensive, exaggerate its achievements at Demiansk and Rzhev, and distort Stavkas strategic intent in the late winter of 1942-43.

During Operation Mars, the second Rzhev-Sychevka offensive in late November and December 1942, which was directed by Zhukov, the Western and Kalinin fronts sought to destroy the German Ninth Army and, if possible, all of Army Group Center. Although Mars ended in bloody failure, it weakened the Ninth Army and ultimately forced Army Group Center to abandon the salient in February 1943. At least in part, the offensive was forgotten to preserve Zhukov’s reputation.

The Western, Briansk and Central fronts conducted their massive Orel-Briansk-Smolensk offensive from early February through late March 1943 to collapse German defenses in central Russia and drive Werhmacht forces back across the Dnepr River. Although the Central Front’s forces reached the Desna River west of Kursk, the offensive faltered in early March when the Western and Briansk fronts failed to dent German defenses around Orel, and Manstein’s counterstroke recaptured Khar’kov and Belgorod. This offensive left the infamous bulge at Kursk.

The Northwestern, Leningrad and Volkhov fronts conducted Operation Polar Star in February and March 1943 to pierce Army Group North’s defenses near Staraia Russa, liquidate the Germans’ Demiansk salient, raise the siege of Leningrad, encircle and destroy the bulk of Army Group North, and commence the liberation of the Baltic region. This offensive faltered after the Germans voluntarily withdrew from their Demiansk salient, and Manstein’s counterstroke forced Stavka to shift its strategic reserves to the south. Although a clear failure, Operation Polar Star served as a virtual dress rehearsal for Stavkas January 1944 offensive, which ultimately liberated the Leningrad region.

Finally, existing accounts of the Red Army’s first Donbas offensive in February 1943 overlook a major portion of the Southwestern Front’s offensive and the major role the Southern Front played in the failed effort to expel German forces from the Donbas region. Specifically, these accounts ignore the full context of the 8th Cavalry Corps’ famous advance to Debal’tsevo by simply calling it a “ raid” rather than a failed advance by several mobile corps.

THE RED ARMY’S SIGNAL VICTORY AT KURSK in July 1943 and its subsequent dramatic exploitation to and across the Dnepr in the battles for Gomel’, Kiev and Kremenchug dominate existing histories of the summer-fall campaign of 1943. However, these accounts mask several bloody operational defeats spanning the entire front, from Siniavino in the north to the Taman’ Peninsula in the south, most of which took place when an overly optimistic Stavka tested the operational limits of its forces completing successful offensive operations. Furthermore, contrary to continuing claims that Stavka routinely focused its offensive efforts along a single strategic axis, specifically in the Ukraine, in reality it ordered the Red Army to conduct strategic offensives along multiple axes and across a broad front throughout the campaign.

The only major forgotten conflict during the summer of 1943 occurred within the context of the Battle of Kursk, when the Southwestern and Southern fronts jointly attacked along the northern Donets and Mius rivers. Although the motives for this second Donbas offensive remain unclear, as Soviet sources claim, the offensive was probably designed to collapse German defenses in the Donbas and attract vital German armored reserves away from the Kursk region.

The most dramatic forgotten battles during this campaign began in early October, when the Kalinin (1st Baltic), Western, Briansk and Central (Belorussian) fronts drove into eastern Belorussia to capture Minsk the Voronezh (1st Ukrainian) Front began operations to expand or seize new bridgeheads over the Dnepr north and south of Kiev and the Steppe (2nd Ukrainian), Southwestern (3rd) and Southern (4th) fronts struggled to clear German forces from the Dnepr River bend from Kremenchug south to Nikopol’.

The Red Army’s first Belorussian offensive, which began in early October and continued unabated through year’s end, involved intense and costly fighting on the approaches to Vitebsk, Orsha and Bobruisk and along the Dnepr. Although existing histories describe small fragments of this massive offensive, such as the Nevel’ and Gomel’-Rechitsa operations, they studiously ignore the offensive’s full scope and ambitious intentions.

The same accounts also routinely ignore the Voronezh Front’s bitter struggle in October 1943 to seize a strategic bridgehead across the Dnepr River in the Kiev region. During three weeks of bloody but futile fighting, the Voronezh Front’s 38th, 60th, 40th, 3rd Guards Tank, 27th and 47th armies, in conjunction with the Central Front’s 13th and 60th armies, failed to dislodge forces from Army Group South’s Fourth Panzer and Eighth armies, which contained Red Army bridgeheads in the Chernobyl’, Gornostaipol’ , Liutezh and Velikii Bukrin regions. In this instance, the Voronezh Front’s spectacular victory at Kiev in November erased these failed offensives from both memory and history. At the same time, existing accounts also largely ignore the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Ukrainian fronts’ equally frustrating failure to clear Army Group South’s forces from the lower Don region during their Krivoi Rog-Nikopol’ offensive from November 14 to December 31, 1943.

The North Caucasus Front conducted its Taman’ offensive from early April through August 1943 to clear German forces from the northern Caucasus region. Directed for a time by Zhukov, this offensive included a prolonged series of unsuccessful assaults against the German Seventeenth Army’s fortified defenses around the towns of Krymskaia and Moldavanskoe, which anchored Hitler’s bridgehead in the Taman’ region. Finally, the Leningrad Front’s sixth Siniavino offensive in mid-September 1943 was a furious, bloody, but ultimately successful attempt to overcome Army Group North’s defenses on Siniavino Heights, a target that had eluded Soviet capture for more than two years.

The Red Army retained the strategic initiative from January 1, 1944, until war’s end. During this period, the Soviets conducted simultaneous and successive offensives on an unprecedented scale, and often without pause, in the Baltic region, the Ukraine, Belorussia, Poland, the Balkans and finally Germany proper, culminating in the final victory at Berlin in May 1945.

Accounts of the winter campaign of 1944 focus exclusively on the Red Army’s successful offensives in the Leningrad region, the Ukraine and the Crimea. While doing so, however, they ignore frequent Red Army offensive failures, most of which took place during the waning stages of successful offensives in hopes of taking advantage of apparent German weakness. These forgotten battles include major failed Red Army offensives into the Baltic region, Belorussia and Romania.

The Leningrad Front, joined later by the 2nd and 1st Baltic fronts, conducted their Narva, Pskov-Ostrov and Pustoshka-Idritsa offensives along the eastern borders of the Baltic states during March and April 1944 to capitalize on Army Group North’s previous defeat south of Leningrad, penetrate the vaunted Panther Defense Line, and begin the liberation of the Baltic region. During this period, three Leningrad Front armies tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to destroy German forces defending Narva and thrust deep into Estonia, while three other Leningrad Front armies wedged into German defenses between Pskov and Ostrov on the northeast border of Latvia but were unable to seize either city despite six weeks of heavy fighting. To the south the massed forces of the 2nd and 1st Baltic fronts repeatedly battered the Sixteenth Army’s defenses from Pustoshka southwest of Demiansk to Idritsa, but they only were able to achieve limited success.

During the period from January 1 through the end of March, the 1st Baltic, Western and Belorussian fronts continued their first Belorussian offensive to overcome Army Group Center’s defenses in eastern Belorussia, during which the fronts suffered more than 200,000 casualties in seven distinct offensives. Attacking north and east of Vitebsk, the 1st Baltic Front severed communications between German forces in Vitebsk and Polotsk and advanced into the western suburbs of the former.The Western Front assaulted German defenses southeast and south of the city, trying in vain to encircle it from the south. In southern Belorussia, the Belorussian Front captured Kalinkovichi north of the Pripiat’ River in January, drove German forces back to Rogachev and almost severed communications between Army Groups Center and South along the river.

At the southern extremity of the front, the 2nd and 3 rd Ukrainian fronts tried to capitalize on their successful March offensive in the Ukraine by mounting the first IasiKishinev offensive to breach German and Romanian defenses in northern Romania and capture those two vital cities in April and May 1944. The 3rd Ukrainian Front’s repeated failed attempts to breach German defenses along the Dnestr River in April and early May concluded with German counterstrokes that nearly destroyed many of the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s Dnestr bridgeheads. During the same period, the 2nd Ukrainian Front launched two major offensives, culminating on May 2 with an assault by almost 600 tanks from its 2nd, 5th Guards and 6th Tank armies. After four days of intense but totally forgotten fighting (called the Battle of Targul-Frumos by the Germans), counterattacking German panzer forces brought the offensive to an abrupt halt with heavy losses to the attackers.

Because they were so successful, the Red Army’s offensives during the summer and fall of 1944 in Belorussia, Poland and Romania sharply reduced the number of smaller battles in this campaign. However, although the Red Army achieved far more than it anticipated during those massive offensives, in at least two instances Stavka could not resist attempting to achieve even more, this time in failed offensives in eastern Prussia and eastern Hungary.

THE 3RD BELORUSSIAN FRONT INVADED EASTERN Prussia immediately after the 1st Baltic and 3rd Belorussian fronts completed their successful Memel’ offensive in mid October 1944. By this time, attacking Red Army forces reached the Baltic Sea, separating Army Group North’s forces in Courland from Army Group Center’s in East Prussia. Capitalizing on this situation, the 3rd Belorussian Front launched its first East Prussian offensive on October 16 by attacking westward toward Konigsberg with its 5th and 11th Guards armies and, later, its 31st, 39th and 28th armies and 2nd Guards Tank Corps. However, this offensive faltered with heavy losses after nearly a week of intense fighting when Red Army forces encountered deeply fortified defenses and intense counterattacks by hastily regrouped panzer reserves.

During the East Carpathian offensive, which took place in the Carpathian Mountain region and eastern Hungary, elements of the 1st, 4th and 2nd Ukrainian fronts attempted to envelop the First Panzer Army’s mountain defenses, disrupt communications between Army Groups Center and South, and encircle German and Hungarian forces defending eastern Hungary.The 1st Ukrainian Front’s 38th Army and 4th Ukrainian Front’s 1st Guards and 18th armies attacked through the mountains into eastern Slovakia to link up with the 2nd Ukrainian Front’s 6th Guards Tank and 27th armies and 1st Guards cavalry-mechanized group attacking northward through eastern Hungary. This offensive failed to achieve its ambitious aims when the 38th Army’s attack bogged down in the Dukla Pass, the 4th Ukrainian Front’s attack ground to a halt in the mountains, and the 2nd Ukrainian Front’s cavalry-mechanized group was itself encircled and badly damaged at Nyiregyhaza north of Debrecen by counterattacking German panzer forces.

Most accounts of the offensive operations the Red Army conducted during the winter and spring of 1945 focus on its massive offensives in East Prussia and Poland and, to a lesser extent, in Hungary. In so doing they ignore two other forgotten battles: the Berlin offensive, which was planned but not conducted until April and the Western Carpathian offensive, which failed to achieve its ambitious goals.

After the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian fronts reached the Oder River, 60 kilometers east of Berlin, in late January 1945, Stavka ordered their forces to mount a final assault to capture Berlin by the end of February or early March. Within days after both fronts began this new offensive, however, on February 10 Stalin ordered them to stop.The most probable explanation for his change of heart was his desire to shift the axis of the Red Army’s main advance from Berlin to western Hungary and Austria so that it could occupy the Danube basin before hostilities ended. Stalin reached this decision while Allied leaders were meeting at Yalta, shortly after Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill assured him that the Red Army could capture Berlin and advance to the Elbe River. Ultimately, the Soviets began their Berlin offensive on April 16, the day after Vienna fell to the Red Army.

During the same period, the 1st, 4th and 2nd Ukrainian fronts launched the West Carpathian offensive to overcome stiff German resistance in the western Carpathians in northwestern Slovakia. The 1st Ukrainian Front’s 60th and 38th armies attacked southward through Moravska-Ostrava toward Brno in conjunction with the 4th Ukrainian Front’s 1st Guards and 18th armies to link up with mobile forces from the 2nd Ukrainian Front, which were attacking northward toward Brno. The 1st Guards cavalry mechanized group and 6th Guards Tank Army, which spearheaded the 2nd Ukrainian Front’s northward thrust, suffered heavy losses when this offensive failed.

The Red Army’s climactic offensives against Berlin and Prague in April and May 1945 crushed the remnants of the Wehmtacht and shrank the theater of military operations to such an extent that Soviet intentions were quite obvious. The only exceptions to this rule were a series of Red Army offensives in Courland that were obscured by the dramatic fighting in Poland and at Berlin.

After isolating Army Group North in the Courland Peninsula in mid-October 1944, the 1st and 2nd Baltic fronts besieged this German force until it surrendered on May 9, 1945. Although existing histories accurately describe the Courland siege in general, they obscure the heavy fighting that occurred when Red Army forces attempted to reduce the pocket: for example, the concerted offensives the fronts conducted in late October 1944 from November 20-24 and December 21-22, 1944 and in late February and mid-March 1945.

This brief survey identifies many but not all forgotten battles of the Great Patriotic War. An accurate history will emerge only after those battles have been returned to their proper place in the vast mosaic of wartime operations. Only then will we completely comprehend the military strategies and operational techniques of the participating armies. Only then will we be able to fully appreciate the contributions of the Red Army’s soldiers.

Originally published in the August 2004 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

Death of the Wehrmacht

That 1942 was the turning point of World War II is one of those “facts” that everyone knows. Like much of the received wisdom on the war, however, the concept of its “turning point” requires a certain amount of nuance. This conflict, more than any other before it, was a vast and sprawling set of interlocking campaigns on land, sea, and air. It involved hundreds of millions of human beings, from the freezing cold of the Arctic to the sweltering heat of the Burmese jungle, and the notion that there was a single discrete moment that “turned” it is problematic, to say the least.

Still, it is clear that something important happened in 1942. It was, after all, the year of El Alamein in the African theater, and of Midway and Guadalcanal in the Pacific. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, before 1942 the Allies never won a victory, and after 1942 they never suffered a defeat. But for that year to live up to its billing as the “hinge of fate,” in Churchill’s memorable phrase, a fatal blow had to be dealt to the German armed forces, the Wehrmacht. Could the Allies, even with their sheer superiority in materiel and men, pull it off?

The Reich had been locked in a conflict with Great Britain since September 1939, one that it tried half-heartedly to end in the summer and fall of 1940. Since mid-1941, it had done nothing but add enemies. On June 22, with Britain still unconquered, the German führer, Adolf Hitler, had launched an invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. In its early weeks, the Wehrmacht had smashed one Soviet army after another: at Bialystok, at Minsk, at Smolensk, and especially at Kiev. As summer turned to fall, Barbarossa evolved into Operation Typhoon, a drive on Moscow. The Germans were within sight of the Soviet capital by December 6, when the Red Army launched a great counteroffensive that drove them back in confusion, inflicting punishing losses on an army that had been largely untouched by the first two years of the war. The very next day, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and five days later Hitler declared war on the United States.

Earlier in the year, Germany had been at war with Britain alone. Six short months later, it was at war with an immense and wealthy enemy coalition, which Churchill, with a nod to his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, dubbed the “Grand Alliance.” The alliance controlled the vast majority of the world’s resources. It included the preeminent naval and colonial power (Britain), the largest land power (the Soviet Union), and the globe’s financial and industrial giant (the United States): more than enough potential power to smash Germany. But Germany’s situation, being ringed and vastly outnumbered by an alliance of powerful enemies, was nothing particularly new in Prusso-German military history.

In fact, the Reich’s next, and what was to be its last, major campaign—drives to capture Stalingrad and the oil fields of the Caucasus—seemed to offer another textbook opportunity for the Germans to demonstrate that sound maneuver tactics and strategy grounded in more than a century of experience—and including the modern mechanized variant, blitzkrieg—could best even the massive forces arrayed against them.

Until the war’s end, on the eastern front and elsewhere, Germany sought to land a resounding blow against one of its enemies, one hard enough to shatter the enemy coalition, or at least to demonstrate the high price that the Allies would have to pay for victory. The strategy certainly did its share of damage in those last four years, and the Allies and most historians play down how frighteningly close it came to succeeding.

While the German strategy for winning the war failed—and did so spectacularly in 1942—no one at the time or since has been able to come up with a better solution to Germany’s strategic conundrum. Was it a war-winning gambit? Not in this case, obviously. Was it the best strategy under the circumstances? Perhaps, perhaps not. Was it an operational posture in complete continuity with German military history and tradition as it had unfolded over the centuries? Absolutely.

In 1942 the Wehrmacht provided a characteristic answer to the question, “What do you do when the Blitzkrieg fails?” It launched another— indeed, a whole series of them. The centerpiece of 1942 would be another grand offensive in the east. Operation Blue (Unternehmen Blau) objectives would include a lunge over the mighty Don River to the Volga, the seizure of the great industrial city of Stalingrad, and, finally, a wheel south into the Soviet Caucasus, home to some of the world’s richest oil fields. With the final Operation Blue objectives more than a thousand miles from the start line, no one can accuse Hitler and the high command of thinking small.

Yet what might have seemed a reach for another country’s army appeared achievable by the Wehrmacht, steeped as it was in a winner-takes-all tradition. Since the earliest days of the German state, a unique military culture had evolved, one that we can call a “Ger man way of war.” Its birthplace was the kingdom of Prussia. Starting in the 17th century with Friedrich Wilhelm, the Great Elector, Prussia’s rulers recognized that their small, impoverished state on the European periphery had to fight wars that were kurz und vives (short and lively). Crammed into a tight spot in the middle of Europe, surrounded by states that vastly outweighed it in both manpower and resources, Prussia could not win long, drawn-out wars of attrition. Instead, it had to fight short, sharp wars that ended in rapid, decisive battlefield victories. Its conflicts had to be front-loaded, unleashing a storm against the enemy, pounding him fast and hard, and making him see reason as soon as possible.

This solution to Prussia’s strategic problem was something the Germans called Bewegungskrieg— the war of movement. It was a way of war that stressed maneuver on the operational level. It was not simply tactical maneuverability or a faster march rate but the rapid movement of large units—divisions, corps, and armies. Prussian commanders sought to maneuver their formations in such a way that they could strike the mass of the enemy army a sharp, even annihilating, blow as rapidly as possible. It might involve a surprise assault against an unprotected flank, or against both flanks. On several notable occasions, as in the Great Elector’s winter campaign against the Swedes in 1678–79 and Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke’s signal triumph over the French at Sedan in 1870, it even resulted in entire Prussian or German armies getting into their enemy’s rear, the dream scenario of any general.

The desired end was something called the Kesselschlacht: literally, a “cauldron battle,” but more specifically a battle of encirclement, one that hemmed in the enemy on all sides before destroying him through a series of “concentric operations.” This vibrant operational posture imposed certain requirements on German armies: an extremely high level of battlefield aggression and an officer corps that tended to launch attacks no matter what the odds, to give just two examples.

The Germans also found over the years that conducting an operational-level war of movement required a flexible system of command, one that left a great deal of initiative in the hands of lower-ranking commanders. It is customary today to refer to this command system as Auftragstaktik (mission tactics): the higher commander devised a general mission (Auftrag) and then left the means of achieving it to the officer on the spot. It is more accurate, however, to speak, as the Germans themselves did, of the “independence of the lower commander” (Selbständigkeit der Unterführer). A commander’s ability to size up a situation and act on his own was an equalizer for a numerically weaker army, allowing it to grasp opportunities that might be lost if it had to wait for reports and orders to climb up and down the chain of command.

While this way of war had served Germany well up to 1941, it had clearly come up short during Operation Barbarossa, and it would be easy to view Operation Blue as doomed from the start. The near-collapse of the previous winter had left scars that had not yet healed, and there is for the connoisseur a smorgasbord of unhappy statistics from which to choose.

For some, it might be the 1,073,066 casualties that the Wehrmacht suffered in its first nine months in the Soviet Union. For others, it might be the General Staff’s estimated replacement deficit of 280,000 men by October 1942, a minimum figure that was valid only if things went well and operations succeeded with relatively light casualties. The one hundred seventy-nine thousand horses lost in the Soviet Union in the first year were not going to be replaced anytime soon, and the loss figures for motor transport were equally dismal. An Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) report in May found the figure at only 85 percent of the trucks required for the army’s mobile divisions of the spearhead. A report from the Army Organization Section warned that it was closer to 80 percent and those at the sharp end thought the situation was a great deal worse.

Gen. Walter Warlimont, deputy chief of operations for the high command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW), warned that the army’s mobility was going to be “considerably affected,” adding that “a measure of demotorization” was inevitable—dire words indeed for an army that lived and died by operational-level maneuver. Although historians often speak of the Germans scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel in 1944–45, they had already started that process in 1942. The class of 1923 had already been drafted in April 1941, eighteen months ahead of time, and raw 18- and 19-year-old recruits would play a key role in filling out the rosters of the new divisions being formed for Blue.

Perhaps the best indicator of Germany’s new military economy of scarcity is this: of the forty-one new divisions slated for Case Blue, fully twenty-one of them would be non-German: ten Hungarian, six Italian, and five Romanian. It was a sure sign that the Germans were having difficulty with the enormity of the front, which by now stretched some seventeen hundred miles from Murmansk in the north to Taganrog in the south.

There were other problems. The German emphasis on maneuver usually meant they devoted less time and effort to vital areas like logistics and intelligence. Like so many great German military operations, this one would be based on an abysmally inaccurate portrait of enemy strength. The Germans estimated available Soviet aircraft at 6,600 planes the reality was 21,681 they estimated they were facing 6,000 tanks the actual number was 24,446 the German estimate of Soviet artillery (7,800 guns) was also off by a factor of four (the actual number was 33,111). All in all, the intelligence failure of 1942 was one of the worst in German history, rivaled only by the failure of these same agencies during the run-up to Operation Barbarossa.

Yet this campaign did not appear to be at all hopeless to Hitler, to Josef Stalin, or to their respective staffs. Indeed, the preliminaries to Blue showed that the Wehrmacht still brought to the table some formidable operational skills: May 1942 saw Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s decisive victory at Kerch in the Crimea, an equally impressive win at Kharkov in the Ukraine, and finally Gen. Erwin Rommel’s decisive victory over the British at Gazala in the Western Desert. Kerch, Kharkov, and Gazala were all classic examples of the “war of movement,” operational-level battles of annihilation marked by high mobility, a freewheeling and aggressive officer corps, and successful attempts to surround and destroy the enemy.

Rommel would punctuate his victory by storming Tobruk in June, invading Egypt, and driving for Suez that same month, Manstein placed an exclamation point on his Crimean campaign by taking the great fortress of Sevastopol. In the course of these five big wins, the Wehrmacht smashed every enemy army it met and took six hundred thousand prisoners its own losses were almost nonexistent aside from Sevastopol, which had been a bloody affair. For all its manpower and equipment shortages, it is hard to disagree with historian Alan Clark when he described 1942 as “the Wehrmacht at high tide.”

Nor did the opening of Operation Blue disappoint. The Red Army had also been seriously blooded in the past year’s fighting, and its initial response to Blue was nothing less than a full speed, helter-skelter retreat. It seems to have been ordered by Stalin and Gen. Georgi K. Zhukov as a classic maneuver to trade space for time, traditional in Russian wars. On the lower levels, however, it was carried out ineptly, with huge stretches of territory abandoned without a fight, a great deal of equipment lost, and a conspicuous absence of command and control.

For the last time in this war, it was full steam ahead for the Wehrmacht. The Germans and their Hungarian allies rapidly closed up to the Don River, with Fourth Panzer Army (Colonel General Hermann Hoth) seizing the great city of Voronezh in the north on day ten of the offensive, and then wheeling south toward the Don bend, skirting the river on its left. To Hoth’s right, Sixth Army (Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus) crossed the starting line against sporadic Soviet opposition, lunged fifty miles ahead within the first forty-eight hours, and linked up with Fourth Panzer at Stary Oskol. No wonder Hitler actually looked at his situation map at the time and exulted that “the Russian is finished.”

Even as Hitler was speaking these happy words, however, the operational wheels were falling off of Blue. The initial operational plan (Directive 41) had called for a very complex set of maneuvers designed to produce small but airtight encirclements quite close to the start line. Such clearly defined plans were necessary, Hitler felt, in order to give the young soldiers in his army an early taste of victory. He and his chief of the general staff, Colonel General Franz Halder, were also anxious to avoid the kind of operational chaos that had manifested itself during the drive on Moscow in 1941, when it seemed as if every German commander was fighting his own private war. Modern historians have a love affair with Auftragstaktik, but clearly it has its dangers, and both Hitler and Halder were determined to run a tighter ship this time.

Unfortunately for them, the Soviet retreat, chaos and all, had knocked the air out of this idea from the start. The outcome of one army tethered to the tight plans of its high command and the other fleeing from the scene was a pair of what the Germans called Luftstossen—blows into the air—great German pincer movements that closed on nothing much in particular. It happened at Millerovo on July 15, and then again at Rostov on July 23. The amount of ground covered had been impressive Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, in particular, had driven from Voronezh all the way down to Rostov in a single month. In the end, however, the Wehrmacht had achieved little beyond eating through its already limited pile of supplies.

Hitler’s response turned this puzzling misfire into an absolute catastrophe. “Directive 45” was a fundamental reworking of Operation Blue. The original timetable had called for smashing all the Soviet armies in the Don bend, taking Stalingrad as a northern flank guard for the army’s drive into the Caucasus, and only then launching the drive into the oil fields. Now, less than a month into the operation, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht to secure Stalingrad and the Caucasus at the same time. Historians usually identify this decision to launch a “dual offensive” as the great blunder of the campaign, with an army already running low on manpower and equipment trying to do everything at once, and it is hard to argue with the common wisdom.

The problems were evident early. The German drive into the Caucasus (Operation Edelweiss) received priority in terms of supply and transport, and was thus able to explode out of the box, lunging forward hundreds of miles and seizing one of the USSR’s three great oil cities, Maikop but the drive on Stalingrad (Operation Fischreiher, or “Heron”) was a tough grind from the start. This imbalance led, within a week, to another reversal of priorities. Stalingrad was now the primary target. Edelweiss lost supply, air cover, and an entire panzer army, with Hoth motoring north to join Paulus. The entire Caucasus campaign was left in the hands of just two Ger – man armies, First Panzer on the left and Seventeenth on the right, with the Romanian Third Army holding the extreme right wing.

This was the moment that both halves of the dual campaign— the drive east to Stalingrad and the drive south to the Caucasus— came to a screeching halt. In German parlance, the freewheeling war of movement (Bewegungskrieg) suddenly turned into the static war of position (Stellungskrieg), just the sort of grinding attritional struggle that the Wehrmacht knew it could not win.

In the south, the Germans got stuck on the approaches to the high mountains, their two armies facing a solid wall of eight Soviet armies comprising the Transcaucasus Front (further divided into a “Black Sea Group” and a “North Group” of four armies apiece). In the north, Sixth Army reached Stalingrad at the end of September, its arrival punctuated by a Luftwaffe raid on the city that reduced much of it to rubble Fourth Panzer Army joined it on September 2, and the Luftwaffe announced the coming of Hoth by smashing the city a second time, churning up a great deal of rubble, killing thousands more civilians, and nearly bagging the Soviet commander in Stalingrad, General Vasili I. Chuikov of the Sixty-second Army.

The two German armies had met and reestablished a continuous front directly in front of Stalingrad. Now was a time for decisions. In front of the Germans lay a great city, with a population of some six hundred thousand and a large heavy-industry base. Just a few months earlier, the Wehrmacht had suffered some seventy-five thousand casualties reducing the much smaller city of Sevastopol, the bloodiest encounter of the spring by a considerable margin. Stalingrad, moreover, presented an unusual set of geographical problems. Rather than a collection of neighborhoods radiating out of some central point, the city was one long urbanized area stretching along the right bank of the Volga for nearly thirty miles, as straight as a railroad tie.

In operational terms, therefore, it was not so much a city as a long, fortified bridgehead on the western bank of the river. The Germans could never put it under siege. Behind it flowed a great river, behind the river a huge mass of artillery that could intervene in the battle at will, and behind the artillery a vast, secure, and rapidly industrializing Soviet hinterland.

Not for the first time in this war, the Wehrmacht had conquered its way into an impasse. It could not go forward without sinking into a morass of urban fighting. Every German officer knew what a city fight would mean. The preferred way of war, Bewegungskrieg, would inevitably degenerate into Stellungskrieg. Indeed, Hitler and the General Staff had designed the entire convoluted operational sequence in 1942 for the very purpose of avoiding this prospect. At the same time, however, it could not simply go around Stalingrad, and there was no possibility of staying put, not with Paulus and Hoth both sitting out on the end of a very long and vulnerable limb.

Given a choice of three unpalatable alternatives, the Ger man army made the only decision consonant with its history and traditions, dating back to Frederick the Great, Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, and Moltke. On September 5, the big guns roared, the panzers stormed forward, and the Stukas screamed overhead. The assault on Stalingrad had begun.

Every student of the war knows what happened next—how the fighting broke down into battles for the crumbling buildings and rubble-strewn streets of the dying city. Both sides incurred huge losses. The Germans, as usual, kept attacking, driving ever closer to the Volga riverbank that was their operational objective. Their last shot (Operation Hubertus, in November) would take them just a few hundred yards away from it. The Soviets were managing to hold on, just barely, to an ever-narrowing strip along the river.

In operational terms, the “dual offensive” was now firmly stuck in neutral, and this at a moment when Rommel, too, had come to a dead stop in the desert. His own last shot—the offensive at Alam Halfa, August 30 to September 7—had also broken down against a revived British Eighth Army. The Wehrmacht was in deep trouble, shorn of its own ability to maneuver and seemingly helpless against enemy strength that was waxing on all fronts.

And yet, modern war—and the peculiar Ger- man variant of it, Bewegungskrieg, remained unpredictable. Even in extremis, with a balance of forces that had gone bad and a logistical situation that edged ever closer to disaster, the Wehrmacht could still show occasional flashes of the old fire. Take the Caucasus. As the summer turned into fall, with the Black Sea front frozen in place, the focus of the campaign shifted to the east, along the Terek. The last of the major rivers in the region, it was deep and swiftly flowing, with steep, rocky banks that sheltered a number of key targets: the cities of Grozny and Ordzhoni kidze (modern Vladi kavkaz), as well as the Ossetian and Georgian military roads. These roads were the only two routes through the mountains capable of bearing motor traffic, and taking them would give the Wehrmacht effective control of the Caucasus. The Georgian Road was the key. Running from Ordzhoni kidze down to Tbilisi, it would give the Germans the potential for a high-speed drive through the mountains to the Caspian Sea and the rich oil fields around Baku, the greatest potential prize of the entire campaign.

By October, First Panzer Army had concentrated what was left of its fighting strength along the Terek. Col. Gen. Eberhard von Mackensen’s III Panzer Corps was on the right, LII Corps in the center, and XXXX Panzer Corps on the left, at Mozdok. On October 25, Mackensen’s corps staged the last great set-piece assault of the Caucasus campaign, aiming for an envelopment of the Soviet Thirty-seventh Army near Nalchik. Mackensen had the Romanian 2nd Mountain Division on his right, and much of his corps’ muscle (13th and 23rd Panzer Divisions) on his left. The Romanians would lead off and punch a hole in the Soviet defenses, fixing the Thirty-seventh Army’s attention to its front. The next day, two panzer divisions would blast into the Soviet right, encircling the defenders and ripping open a hole in the front. Once that was done, the entire corps would wheel to the left (east), heading toward Ordzhonikidze.

It went off like clockwork. The Romanians opened the attack on October 25th, along with a German battalion (the 1st of the 99th Alpenjäger Regiment). Together they smashed into Soviet forces along the Baksan River and penetrated the front of the Thirty-seventh Army, driving toward Nalchik across three swiftly flowing rivers, the Baksan, Chegem, and Urvan.

Ju 87 Stukas supported the attack, achieving one of the war’s great victories by destroying the Thirty-seventh Army’s headquarters near Nalchik, a blow that left the Soviet army leaderless in the first few crucial hours of the attack.

The next evening, the two panzer divisions attacked by moonlight, crossing the Terek and achieving complete surprise. Soon they had blocked the roads out of Nalchik, and the Wehrmacht had achieved one of its few Kesselschlachts in the entire Caucasus campaign. Some survivors of the Thirty-seventh Army limped back toward Ordzhonikidze others apparently threw off discipline and fled to the mountains directly to the south.

Now the Panzer divisions wheeled left, heading due east, with the mountains forming a wall directly on their right. With 23rd Panzer on the right and 13th on the left, it was an operational spearhead reminiscent of the glory days of 1941. On October 27 and 28, the panzers crossed one river after the other, the Lesken, the Urukh, the Chikola, with the Soviets either unwilling or unable to form a cohesive defense in front of them. By October 29, they had reached the Ardon River, at the head of the Ossetian Military Road on November 1, the 23rd Panzer Division took Alagir, closing the Ossetian road and offering the Wehrmacht the possibility of access to the southwestern Caucasus through Kutais to Batum. At the same time, the 13th Panzer Division was driving toward the corps’ main objectives: Ordzhonikidze and the Georgian Military Road.

Kleist now ordered the division to take the city on the run. That evening, 13th Panzer’s advance guard was less than ten miles from Ordzhonikidze. It had been through some tough fighting, and just the day before, its commander (Lt. Gen. Traugott Herr) had suffered a severe head wound. Under a new commander, Lt. Gen. Helmut von der Chevallerie, it ground forward over the next week against increasingly stiff Soviet opposition indeed, so heavy was Soviet fire that the new general had to use a tank to reach his new command post.

On November 2, 13th Panzer took Gizel, just five miles away from Ordzhonikidze. The defenders, elements of the Thirty-seventh Army, heavily reinforced with a Guards rifle corps, two tank brigades, and five antitank regiments, knew what was at stake here and were stalwart in the defense. Mackensen rode his panzer divisions like a jockey, first deploying the 23rd Panzer Division on the right of the 13th, then shifting it to the left, constantly looking for an opening. Closer and closer to Ordzhonikidze they came. There was severe resistance every step of the way, with the 13th Panzer Division’s supply roads under direct fire from Soviet artillery positions in the mountains, heavy losses in the rear as well as the front.

The image of two punch-drunk fighters is one of the oldest clichés in military history, but perfectly de- scribes what was happening. It was a question of re- serves, physical and mental: Who would better stand the strain in one of the century’s great mano a mano engagements? It had it all: bitter cold, swirling snowstorms, and a majestic wall of mountains and glaciers standing watch in the background. The road network failed both sides, so columns had to crowd onto branch roads where they were easy prey for enemy fighter-bombers. Rarely have Stukas and Sturmoviks had a more productive set of targets, and the losses on both sides were terrible.

By November 3, the 13th Panzer Division had fought its way over the highlands and was a mere two kilometers from Ordzhonikidze. By now, a handful of battalions was carrying the fight to the enemy, bearing the entire weight of the German campaign in the Caucasus. For the record, they were the 2nd of the 66th Regiment (II/66th) on the left, II/93rd on the right, with I/66th echeloned to the left rear. Deployed behind the assault elements were the I/99th Alpenjäger, the 203rd Assault Gun Battalion, and the 627th Engineer Battalion. The engineers’ mission was crucial: to rush forward and open the Georgian Military Road the moment Ordzhonikidze fell.

Over the next few days, German gains were measured in hundreds of meters: six hundred on November 4, a few hundred more on November 5. By now, it had become a battle of bunker-busting, with the German assault formations having to chew their way through dense lines of fortifications, bunkers, and pillboxes. Progress was slow, excruciatingly so, but then again the attackers didn’t have all that far to go. Overhead the Luftwaffe thundered, waves of aircraft wreaking havoc on the Soviet front line and rear, and pounding the city itself. Mackensen’s reserves were spent, used up a week earlier, in fact. It must have been inconceivable to him that the Soviets were not suffering as badly or worse.

But Mackensen was wrong. On November 6, the Soviets launched a counterattack, their first real concentrated blow of the entire Terek campaign, against the 13th Panzer’s overextended spearhead. Mixed groups of infantry and T-34 tanks easily smashed through the paper-thin German flank guards and began to close in behind the mass of the division itself, in the process scattering much of its transport and cutting off its combat elements from their supply lines. Supporting attacks against the German left tied up the 23rd Panzer Division and the Romanian 2nd Mountain Division just long enough to keep them from coming to 13th Panzer’s assistance. There were no German reserves, and for the next three days, heavy snowstorms kept the Luftwaffe on the ground. Indeed, the 13th Panzer only had the strength for one last blow—to the west, as it turned out—to break out of the threatened encirclement. After some shifting of units, including the deployment of the 5th SS-Panzer Division Wiking in support, the order went out on November 9. The first convoy out of the pocket used tanks to punch a hole, followed by a convoy of trucks filled with the wounded. Within two days, a badly mauled 13th Panzer was back on the German side of the lines. The drive on Ordzhonikidze had failed, as had the drive on the oil fields of Grozny, and, indeed, the Caucasus campaign itself.

But how close it had been! Consider the numbers. Take a German army group of five armies and reduce it to three, and then to two. Give it an absurd assignment, say a 700-mile drive at the end of a 1,200-mile supply chain, against a force of eight enemy armies, in the worst terrain in the world. Wear down its divisions to less than 50 percent of their strength, both in men and tanks. Then make it 33 percent. Feed them a hot meal perhaps once a week. Remove them from the control of their professional officer corps and put them into the hands of a lone amateur strategist. Throw them into sub-zero temperatures and two feet of snow.

Add it all up, and what do you get? Not, surprisingly, an inevitable defeat, but a hard-driving panzer corps, stopped but still churning its legs, less than two kilometers from its strategic objective. Karl von Clausewitz was right about one thing: war is, indeed, “the realm of uncertainty.”

Dramatically, in May 1942 the Wehrmacht began the campaigning season with some of the greatest operational victories in the entire history of German arms: Kerch, Kharkov, and Gazala. All of them took place within weeks of one another. Then, in the summer, the Wehrmacht brought down the curtain on this very successful season with the reduction of Tobruk and Sevastopol. After providing all the participants with enough terrifying moments to last several lifetimes, the year’s fighting ended improbably but with equal drama just six months later, with the Germans suffering two of the most decisive reversals of all time: El Alamein and Stalingrad.

Again, these two signal events took place within weeks of one another. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika was still streaming across North Africa in some disarray—ignoring Hitler’s last-second order to stand fast—at the very moment that the Soviets were launching Operation Uranus, which encircled the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad.

In those brief six months, an entire way of war that dated back centuries had come to an end. The German tradition of maneuver-based Bewegungskrieg, the notion that “war is an art, a free and creative activity,” the belief in the independence of the subordinate commander: each of these bedrock beliefs had taken a pounding in the past six months, and in fact had revealed themselves as no longer valid. The war of movement as practiced by the German army had failed in the wide-open spaces of the Soviet Union the southern front especially presented challenges that it was not designed to handle.

The notion of war as an art was difficult to maintain in the face of what had happened in North Africa and on the Volga. Here, enemy armies looked on calmly as the Wehrmacht went through its ornate repertoire of maneuver, then smashed it with overwhelming materiel superiority: hordes of tanks, skies filled with aircraft, seventy artillery gun tubes per kilometer. German defeat in both theaters looked far less like an art than an exercise in a butcher’s shop: helpless raw materials being torn to shreds in a meat grinder.

The German pattern of making war, grounded in handiwork and tradition and old-world craftsmanship, had met a new pattern, one that had emerged from a matrix of industrial mass production and boundless confidence in technology. At El Alamein and Stalingrad, the German way of war found itself trapped in the grip of the machine.

Another aspect of Bewegungskrieg, independent command, also died in 1942. The new communications technology, an essential ingredient in the Wehrmacht’s earlier victories, now showed its dark side. Radio gave the high command a precise, real-time picture of even the most rapid and far-flung operations. It also allowed staff and political leaders alike to intervene in the most detailed and, from the perspective of field commanders, the most obnoxious way possible. The new face of German command, 1942-style, was evident in the absurd Haltbefehl to Rommel in the desert and the incessant debates between Hitler and Field Marshal Wilhelm List about how to seize the relatively minor Black Sea port of Tuapse.

At the height of the battle of Zorndorf in 1758, Frederick the Great ordered his cavalry commander, Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz, to launch an immediate counterstroke on the left of the hard-pressed Prussian infantry. When it seemed late in coming, the king sent a messenger to Seydlitz with orders to march immediately, and with threats if he did not do so.

Seydlitz, however, was a commander who only moved when he judged the moment ripe. His response was part of the mental lexicon of every Ger man commander in the field in 1942: “Tell the king that after the battle my head is at his disposal,” he told the king’s messenger, “but meantime, I hope he will permit me to exercise it in his service.”

Those days were evidently long gone by 1942. Hitler symbolically took a number of heads in this campaign while the fight was still raging: Bock, List, Halder, and many others were retired. The new dispensation was most evident in the attenuated struggle within the Stalingrad Kessel. Paulus may have been cut off from supply, but he certainly wasn’t cut off from communication. From Hitler’s first intervention (his orders of November 22 that “Sixth Army will hedgehog itself and await further orders”) to the last (the January 24 refusal of permission to surrender), the Führer had been the de facto commander of the Stalingrad pocket.

This is not to exculpate Paulus’s pedestrian leadership before the disaster and his curious mixture of fatalism and submission to the Führer once he had been encircled. Indeed, Paulus may have welcomed Hitler’s interventions as a way of evading his own responsibility for the disaster. But Hitler did not kill the concept of flexible command. Radio did.

Like any deep-rooted historical phenomenon, Bewegungskrieg died hard. It resisted both the foibles of Hitler’s personality and the more complex systemic factors working against it. Those haunting arrows on the situation maps will remain fixed permanently to our historical consciousness as a reminder of what a near-run thing it was: the 13th Panzer Division, operating under a brand new commander, just a mile outside Ordzhonikidze and still driving forward German pioneers in Operation Hubertus, bristling with flamethrowers and satchel charges, blasting one Soviet defensive position after another and driving grimly for the Volga riverbank just a few hundred yards away Rommel’s right wing at Alam Halfa, a mere half-hour’s ride by armored car from Alexandria. Rarely have the advance guards of a subsequently defeated army ever come so tantalizingly close to their strategic objectives.

In the end, the most shocking aspect of 1942 is how absurdly close the Wehrmacht came to taking not one but all of its objectives for 1942: splitting the British Empire in two at Suez and paving the way for a drive into the Middle East, while seizing the Soviet Union’s principal oil fields, its most productive farmland, and a major share of its industries.

Originally published in the Autumn 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.

PICTURES FROM HISTORY: Rare Images Of War, History , WW2, Nazi Germany

The ZB-53 was a machine gun used by the Czechoslovak army designated TK vz. 37 ("TK" means "těžký kulomet", heavy machine gun. "vz" means "vzor", Model) and later used by German forces during World War II as the MG 37(t).

It was an belt-fed, air-cooled weapon that served both the infantry support and vehicle weapons roles. The British adopted a version of the ZB-53 as the Besa machine gun for their armoured forces.

The Sd.Kfz. 251 (Sonderkraftfahrzeug 251) half-track was an armored fighting vehicle designed and first built by Nazi Germany's Hanomag company during World War II. The largest, most common, and best armored of the wartime half-tracks, the Sd.Kfz. 251 was designed to transport the panzergrenadiers of the German mechanized infantry corps into battle. Widely known simply as "Hanomags" by both German and Allied forces, they were widely produced throughout the war, with over 15,252 vehicles and variants produced in total by various manufacturers

The Battle of Narva was a military campaign between the German Army Detachment "Narwa" and the Soviet Leningrad Front fought for possession of the strategically important Narva Isthmus on 2 February – 10 August 1944 during World War II.

Gen. Rommel Awards Knight's Cross to Corporal Gunther Halma. North Africa, July 1942.

German soldiers in action during the Ardennes Offensive

A German paratrooper in action

Freshly minted paratroopers after the training

Michael Wittmann(April 22, 1914 – August 8, 1944) was a German Waffen-SS tank commander during the Second World War. Wittmann would rise to the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) and was a Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross holder.

He was credited with the destruction of 138 tanks and 132 anti-tank guns, along with an unknown number of other armoured vehicles, making him one of Germany's top scoring panzer aces, together with Johannes Bölter, Ernst Barkmann, Otto Carius and Kurt Knispel who was the top scoring ace of the war with 168 tank kills.

Wittmann is most famous for his ambush of elements of the British 7th Armoured Division, during the Battle of Villers-Bocage on 13 June 1944. While in command of a single Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger he destroyed up to 14 tanks and 15 personnel carriers along with 2 anti-tank guns within the space of 15 minutes.

The circumstances behind Wittmann’s death have caused some debate and discussion over the years, but it has been historically accepted that Trooper Joe Ekins, the gunner in a Sherman Firefly, of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry was his killer. However, in recent years, some commentators have suggested that members of the Canadian Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment may have instead been responsible

Was the Wehrmacht a mechanized army? - History

By Paul Garson

Few weapons in any army’s arsenal are as terrifying as flamethrowers. Just the thought of being burned to death or hideously scarred for life is enough to send even the bravest, most battle-hardened troops fleeing in panic.

Modern flamethrowers, or Flammenwerfern, were invented in Germany in the early 20th century and effectively employed in World War I by German Strosstrüppen (shock troops) and Sturmpioniere (combat engineers).

However, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which placed severe limitations on German armaments, banned the German possession, importation, or manufacture of flamethrowers–strong testimony to their success on the battlefield due, in great part, to their psychological effect.

Flamethrowers Before World War II

After he became chancellor of Germany in 1933, Adolf Hitler made the decision to abrogate many of the provisions of the treaty. He quietly began adding aircraft, warships, and tanks to his nation’s arsenal. He also approved the resumption of the manufacture of flamethrowers.

The use of projected fire as a weapon goes back many centuries. The Greeks used it in naval engagements, and the Byzantines used it in their battles against Arab ships. The Chinese, too, employed flamethrowing devices as a weapon. In 1901, Richard Fiedler, a German inventor, created the first practical working model and sold it to the Kaiser’s army. It saw its first use in battle in February 1915 near Verdun. The weapon’s maximum range was only 20 yards, a drawback that limited its effectiveness, but the element of terror was still strong.

A modern flamethrower is a simple weapon. When the trigger is pulled, a quantity of flammable liquid under pressure is forced out of the nozzle and an igniter in the nozzle sets the liquid aflame as it shoots toward the target.

A mixture of pressurized nitrogene gas and Flammol, a volatile liquid, was ignited by a magnesium-triggering device spewing liquid flame that could easily gain entry into bunkers through their gun slits and incinerate the inhabitants. Soldiers equipped with the device, however, bore a double indemnity as easily identifiable targets for snipers, and were subject to summary execution if captured.

The range of the portable flamethrowers was approximately 20-25 yards, as shown in this training photograph.

With an effective range of 20 to 30 (later improved to 30-35) meters, surprise and speed in the employment of flamethrowers were necessary when attacking enemy positions. The thick, black smoke also served to produce a “screen,” enabling infantry to quickly follow and seize the tactical advantage. Small, 90-pound portable one-man canister units (Flammenwerfer 34 bez. 35) were introduced in 1934. These were first employed in 1940 to destroy French and Dutch fortifications, bunkers, and gun positions. They were later critical in house-to-house fighting and as a means to implement Germany’s “scorched earth” policy in the East, and for “reprisals.” Flamethrowers were also used extensively in destroying the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland.

The Wehrmacht’s Flamethrowers

The Wehrmacht saw a large role for the flamethrower conceived in several forms— portable, one-man systems medium mobile wheel-mounted units tank and armored vehicle versions and larger fixed weapons as part of defensive fortifications.

The principle testing facility for flamethrowers was located at Kummersdorf, an estate located 25 kilometers south of Berlin. An Army research group was established in Kummersdorf in 1932 under the direction of Walter Dornberger, a leader of Germany’s V2 rocket program and other projects at the Peenemünde Army Research Center. (After 1938, Kummersdorf was also a Third Reich center for nuclear research.)

It was Reichsmarschal Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, who placed the first orders for flamethrowers in that same year, and 1,000 were produced by the beginning of 1939.

A soldier helps a comrade strap on a flamethrower unit prior to a training exercise.

The simplified, lighter Fm. W. 41 dual-canister flamethrower, the final approved model, was introduced in 1941. Some 70,000 were produced, and the units dispersed to the regular Army, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, and police battalions, as well as some 1,300 allocated to Germany’s Axis allies.

The largest pieces of apparatus in the German arsenal required a three-man team—two to hold and direct the tube (up to 180 feet long) and a third to operate the tank’s controls.

Flamethrowers on the Eastern Front

The street-by-street, house-by-house, room-by-room fighting encountered in Stalingrad brought about a demand for mechanized flamethrower-equipped vehicles (Flammpanzer), although their effectiveness proved limited and only a relatively few were built, as the panzer bodies were needed for tank production.

After encountering very effective Russian “fixed flamethrowers” on the Eastern Front, the Germans developed their own versions as defensive barrage weapons— items very much in demand as the Soviet Army advanced toward Germany.

The Abwehrflammenwerfer 42, (Defensive Flamethrower 42), when arranged in clusters, could swathe large areas in flame, and some 50,000 of them were eventually placed in service by June 1944. This was a disposable, single-use weapon that could be buried alongside land mines and triggered by either a trip-wire or a command wire.

Germany had plans to use great numbers of these types of weapons at Normandy to forestall an Allied invasion but none were actually employed. American troops, on the other hand, brought their own flamethrowers ashore.

As the war ground to a close, the young boys and old men of the Volkssturm (People’s Army) were handed the Einstoss-flammenwerfer 46 (People’s Flamethrower 46), a compact, very lightweight (less than eight pounds) design. Some 15,000 of the cheaply and quickly producible “pipecartridge-trigger” devices were produced before the end of the war.


  1. Bridger

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