Prokhorovka Melee I

Soviet and German deployments near Prokhorovka on the eve of the engagement of 12 July. The blue dashed line shows the frontline positions of the divisions of the II SS-Panzer Corps in the evening of 11 July, and the red dashed line shows the position of Soviet forces directly opposing the II SS-Panzer Corps. The black dashed line shows the railway running from Prokhorovka southwest through the Psel corridor (the strip of land between the Psel River and a tributary of the Northern Donets River).

Observing the artillery’s work from his observation post, the army commander, Lieutenant General P. A. Rotmistrov, could easily envision the conditions in the corps. A professional tanker with great combat experience, he understood better than anyone else the situation of the corps and brigade commanders in the situation that was taking shape. They were forced, as they say, to attack from scratch against an adversary that was plainly strong, judging from the course of combat operations over the preceding days.

Even Lieutenant General P. A. Rotmistrov himself was not in an enviable position. He had no possibility (because of terrain conditions) to employ the full potential of his combat equipment. He had been deprived of a reserve (Trufanov’s detachment), a unit of the first echelon, and half the second echelon (two mechanized brigades of the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps and one tank brigade of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps). He had also not received the necessary support from the front’s artillery and aviation (having at his disposal only one howitzer regiment). In spite of all this, the commander was supposed to strike the strongest formation of the Fourth Panzer Army (which was fully-prepared to receive the attack), split it, and drive 30 kilometers deep into enemyheld territory. All this, while periodically repelling attacks from his own air force (about this, a little later).

A significant number of problems arose within the corps themselves. For example, the 29th Tank Corps commander Major General I. F. Kirichenko was not a novice in military affairs; as a brigade commander he had taken part in the fighting for Moscow, demonstrating not only personal courage, but also professionalism in a difficult situation. However, Kirichenko had never commanded such a major formation as a corps before, and the battle at Prokhorovka would be his first in his role as corps commander. In addition, the headquarters of the 29th Tank Corps had just been organized. While the staff had passed through an intensive four-month training course, the main test of the quality of combat training remained genuine battle itself. It is precisely combat that developed the professionalism of commanders and staff, initiated and honed the work routines in headquarters, and forged the ability to work together smoothly in the midst of battle.

The 18th Tank Corps had been added to the 5th Guards Tank Army just before the march to Prokhorovka. P. A. Rotmistrov had been previously acquainted with the 18th Tank Corps commander, General B. S. Bakharov, but this would be the first time they would be working together in a combat situation. The army commander had been dissatisfied with how Boris Sergeevich Bakharov had handled the corps march from Ostrogozhsk. His formation had lost a lot of vehicles en route; the corps commander and headquarters staff had plainly underestimated the difficulty of the assignment. Although by the morning of 12 July the brigades’ repair teams and crews had managed to restore most of the disabled vehicles to good working order and the corps was fully combat ready, Rotmistrov decided to send his chief of staff Major General V. N. Baskakov to the 18th Tank Corps, in order to assess the corps commander, to prevent mistakes on his part in the extremely complex situation, and to assist him in coordinating the work of his staff with the army units.

Tank combat is characterized by its highly dynamic nature and by sharp changes in the situation. Therefore, strict control over the tank formations, stable and efficient communications with the brigades, and the rapid processing of orders and instructions are extremely important. However, there were no conditions for fulfilling these demands, and problems arose in securing communications between the corps and the brigades, and especially between the brigades and their subordinate battalions. Furthermore, the command and control in several of the brigades were as yet untested by combat.

In short, the 5th Guards Tank Army was entering its first battle. Therefore, the army commander and the subordinate commanders at all levels strove to spend time in the forward units before the start of the battle. On the evening of 11 July General I. F. Kirichenko, leaving behind his chief of staff Colonel E. I. Fominykh at the command post, journeyed to Colonel S. F. Moiseev’s 31st Tank Brigade; his deputy Colonel A. V. Egorov went to A. A. Linev’s 32nd Tank Brigade.

At 0830, the Katiushas of the 76th Guards Mortar Regiment fired its final volley from their position southwest of Prokhorovka. At the instant the explosions died away, a relative calm fell over the field. As eyewitnesses later recalled, for the next several minutes, a rustling wave passed across the field, like a heavy, but short summer squall. The dust raised by the explosions settled to the earth. For a few brief moments, everything fell silent. They were only seconds, followed immediately by the sound of a powerful, rising rumble. The tanks of the 5th Guards Tank Army were moving out of their jumping-off positions and accelerating into the attack.

The army commander attentively watched the departure of the tank brigades. He had been waiting for this moment for several months. Pavel Alekseevich Rotmistrov had been appointed to command an army that did not yet exist at the time. He had spent four months forming it, equipping it, and organizing the training of its staff and combat troops. Now the moment of its first trial by fire had arrived. For us, who did not travel that hard path, it is difficult today to understand the thoughts and feelings of a man, who was witnessing the combat baptism of his progeny.

Rotmistrov recalled after the war:

Our artillery’s squall of fire had not yet subsided, when the volleys of our Guards mortar regiments rang out. This signified the start of the attack, which my radio set duplicated. ‘Steel,’ ‘Steel,’ ‘Steel’ – the chief of my radio apparatus Junior Technician-Lieutenant V. P. Konstantinov sent out over the radio. Immediately there followed the signals to attack from the commanders of the tank corps, the brigades, the battalions, the companies and the platoons.

I look through my binoculars and watch, as our glorious ‘Thirty-fours’ move out from under their cover and, accelerating, rush ahead. At the same instant, I spot a mass of enemy armor. It turned out that both we and the Germans went on the attack simultaneously. I’m surprised by how quickly our tanks and the hostile tanks are closing the distance to each other. Two enormous avalanches of tanks were moving towards a collision. The morning sun rising in the east blinded the eyes of the German tankers and brightly illuminated the contours of the fascist tanks for us.

Within several minutes, the tanks of the first echelon of our 29th and 18th Tank Corps, firing on the move, sliced head-on into the combat formations of the German fascist forces, having literally pierced the enemy’s formation with an impetuous, penetrating attack. The Hitlerites, apparently, had not expected to encounter such a large mass of our combat vehicles and such a decisive attack by them.

Unfortunately, Rotmistrov’s account is highly misleading. The actual course of the battle, as set forth in the documents of the brigades of the tank army’s first echelon, does not correspond with the army commander’s words. Incidentally, the sunrise on 12 July was at 0502. Therefore at 0830 it could not have blinded the eyes of the German tankers. However, the morning sun’s rays might have illuminated the contours of their tanks – if they had moved out on the attack, and were not staying concealed behind the positions of their anti-tank guns. At 0920, N. F. Vatutin reported to I. V. Stalin:

After a 30-minute artillery preparation, at 0830 the forces of Voronezh Front’s center (6th Guards Army, 1st Tank Army, 5th Guards Army, 5th Guards Tank Army) went on the offensive according to plan. The forces of the 7th Guards Army are completing preparations to go over onto the offensive – the artillery preparation from 0900, the offensive at 0940.

The 5th Guards Tank Army command rested its plans on an impetuous lunge into the depth of the enemy’s from the first minutes of the attack. The area of Oktiabr’skii State Farm – the main fulcrum of the German positions, which indeed Zhadov’s Guardsmen proved unable to crack in the morning – was supposed to be enveloped on two sides: on one side, by the 18th Tank Corps’ 181st Tank Brigade, 170th Tank Brigade and the 36th Guards Separate Heavy Tank Regiment; on the other side, by the 29th Tank Corps’ 32nd Tank Brigade with three batteries of the 1446th Self-propelled Artillery Regiment. Infantry of the 5th Guards Army’s 33rd Guards Rifle Corps would follow behind the armor. It was assumed that the 181st Tank Brigade, attacking through the villages along the river would not encounter any heavy enemy resistance, since they (Andreevka and Vasil’evka) had only been abandoned by the tankers of the 2nd Tank Corps that morning; thus, its advance would be more rapid. Along the railway, the shock 32nd Tank Brigade was to clear a path for the main forces of the 29th Tank Corps. The 9th Guards Airborne Division and two regiments of the 42nd Guards Rifle Division were to consolidate the success of the 32nd, 170th and 181st Tank Brigades by mopping up the areas of Hill 252.2 and the villages along the river of any remaining enemy.

The second echelon of Kirichenko’s 29th and Bakharov’s 18th Tank Corps (the 31st Tank Brigade and the 32nd Motorized Rifle Brigade with an artillery group) had the assignment to bolster the strength of the assault and to replenish the tank losses of the first echelon, suffered during the breakthrough of the defenses on Oktiabr’skii State Farm and Hill 252.2. However, this plan collapsed in the first minutes of the attack.

The 29th Tank Corps went on the offensive in the sector Oktiabr’skii State Farm (incl.) – Iamki – Sazhinskii ravine (1.5 kilometers south of Iamki). Its attack formation had the 32nd Tank Brigade (63 tanks) and the 25th Tank Brigade (69 tanks) in the first echelon, and the 31st Tank Brigade (67 tanks) in the second echelon. To the right, between Oktiabr’skii State Farm and the Psel River, the 18th Tank Corps was to advance. Its combat formation was arranged in three echelons: in the first – the 181st Tank Brigade (44 tanks) and the 170th Tank Brigade (39 tanks), supported by the 36th Guards Separate Heavy Tank Regiment (19 Churchill tanks); in the second – the 32nd Motorized Rifle Brigade (which had no tanks); in the third – the tank brigade of the corps’ forward detachment (38 tanks). Thus, in the first attacking echelon of the two corps in a sector approximately 7 kilometers wide, four tank brigades and one tank regiment were attacking with a total of 234 tanks.

Immediately after the attack start, the field was covered by dozens of mushroom clouds of erupting earth from exploding bombs and shells, and dozens of tanks blazed up like torches. The battlefield became enveloped in a bluish-gray shroud of smoke and the exhaust gases of hundreds of armored vehicles, lit up by the fiery discharges from tank guns. The guide brigade in the 29th Tank Corps was Colonel A. A. Linev’s 32nd Tank Brigade. Colonel S. F. Moiseev’s 31st Tank Brigade was supposed to follow it, but Moiseev’s battalions were slow in moving into their jumping-off positions, so Linev’s tanks in the first minutes of the attack were greeted by a hurricane of anti-tank fire from Oktiabr’skii State Farm and Hill 252.2. Quickly, more than twenty tanks (almost one third of the brigade’s complement) blazed up like torches or began to emit thick plumes of dark smoke. The brigade’s combat formation was shattered, and the surviving tanks began to maneuver on the battlefield and to crawl away in different directions, trying to use any folds in the terrain in order to escape the ruinous fire. However, the sector was narrow, and approximately 100 armored vehicles had crowded into it, not including the self-propelled artillery, the artillery and the infantry of the 42nd Guards Rifle Division.

The commander of Leibstandarte’s 1st SS Panzer Regiment’s 6th Company, Obersturmführer R. von Ribbentrop, described the scene from the German lines:

… I spotted the section leader of the company headquarters personnel, whom I had left at the infantry battalion’s command post. Shrouded in a gigantic cloud of dust, he was racing down the slope on his motorcycle, all the while extending his fist into the air: Move out at once!”

With that the company set itself in motion and deployed on the slope as if on the exercise field. It deployed with a precision that made my twenty-two-year-old heart beat faster. It was an especially uplifting feeling for me to lead these young but experienced soldiers into battle.

On reaching the crest of the slope we saw another low rise about 200 meters away on the other side of a small valley, on which our infantry positions were obviously located.

By radio I ordered my company to move into position on the slope ahead of us and take up the battle from there.

The small valley extended to our left and, as we moved down the forward slope, we spotted the first T-34s. They were attempting to outflank us from the left.

We halted on the slope and opened fire, hitting several of the enemy. A number of Russian tanks were left burning. For a good gunner, 800 meters was the ideal range.

As we waited to see if further enemy tanks were going to appear, I looked all around, as was my habit. What I saw left me speechless. From beyond the shallow rise about 150 to 200 meters in front of me appeared fifteen, then thirty, then forty tanks. Finally there was too many to count. The T-34s were rolling toward us at high speed, carrying mounted infantry.

My driver, Schueler, called over the intercom: ‘Sir, to the right, right! They’re coming! Do you see them?’

I saw them only too well. At that second I said to myself: ‘It’s all over now!’ My driver thought I had said ‘Get out!’ and began to open his hatch. I grabbed him rather roughly and hauled him back into the tank. Meanwhile, I had poked the gunner in the right side with my foot. This was the signal for him to traverse right.

Soon the first round was on its way and, with its impact the T-34 began to burn. It was only fifty to seventy meters from us. At the same instant the tank next to me took a direct hit and went up in flames. I saw SS Sergeant Papke jump clear, but that was the last we ever saw of him. His neighbor to the right was also hit and soon it was also in flames.

The avalanche of enemy tanks rolled straight towards us: Tank after tank! Wave after wave! It was a simply unimaginable assembly, and it was moving at very high speed.

We had no time to take up defensive positions. All we could do was fire. From this range every round was a hit, but when would a direct hit end it for us? Somewhere in my subconscious I realized that there was no chance to escape. As always in such hopeless situations, all we could do was take care of what was at hand. So we knocked out a third, then a fourth T-34, from distances of less than thirty meters.

The Panzer IV we were using carried about eighteen to twenty rounds of ammunition within immediate reach of the loader, of which the majority was high explosive. The rest were armor-piercing.

Soon my loader shouted: ‘No AP left!’

All of our immediately available armor-piercing ammunition had been expended. Further ammunition had to be passed to the loader by the gunner, radio operator and driver. At this point remaining stationary was the surest means of being spotted and destroyed by the Russian tanks. Our only hope was to get back behind the slope again, even though the Russians had already crossed it. Our chances of escaping there were better than in our present exposed position.

We turned in the midst of a mass of Russian tanks, rolled back about fifty meters and reached the reverse slope of the first rise. There we turned to face the enemy again, now in somewhat better cover.

Just then a T-34 halted about thirty meters off to our right. I saw the tank rock slightly on its suspension and traverse its turret in our direction. I was looking right down the muzzle of its gun. We were unable to fire immediately, as the gunner had just passed the loader a fresh round.

‘Step on it, now!’ I shouted into the microphone. My driver Schueler was the best driver in the battalion. He had already put the tank in gear, and the lumbering Panzer IV set itself in motion. We moved past the T-34 at a distance of about five meters. The Russian tried to turn his turret to follow us, but was unable to do so. We halted ten meters behind the stationary T-34 and turned. My gunner scored a direct hit on the Russian’s turret. The T-34 exploded, and its turret flew about three meters through the air, almost striking my tank’s gun. While all this was going on, other T-34s with mounted infantry were rolling past us.

In the meantime, I tried to pull in the Swastika flag that was lying across the box on the rear of the tank. The flag’s purpose was to let our pilots know where we were. I only half succeeded in this, with the result that the flag then fluttered in the wind. One of the Russian commanders or gunners would have to notice it sometime. It was only a question of time until we received the fatal hit.

We had only slim chance: We had to remain constantly in motion. A stationary tank would immediately be recognized by the foe as an enemy and fired upon, because all the Russian tanks were rolling at high speed across the terrain.

We then faced the additional challenge of being destroyed by one of our own tanks, which were sitting below at the anti-tank ditch by the railway embankment in a wide line. They had begun firing at the approaching enemy tanks. On the smoke- and dust-shrouded battlefield, looking into the sun, it would be impossible for our crews to distinguish us from a Russian tank. I repeatedly broadcast our code-name: ‘All stations: This is Kunibert! We are in the middle of the Russian tanks! Don’t fire at us!’

I received no answer. In the meantime, the Russians had set several vehicles on fire as they rolled through Peiper’s battalion and our artillery battalion. But by then the fire of our two remaining tank companies was beginning to have an effect. The artillery’s battalion of self-propelled guns and Peiper’s Panzergrenadiers – the latter with close-range weapons – were also taking a toll of the Russian tanks and pinning down the Russian infantry, which had jumped down from the T-34s and were attempting to advance on foot.

The entire battlefield lay under a thick pall of smoke and dust. Fresh groups of Russian tanks continued to roll out of this inferno. They were knocked out on the broad slope by our tanks.

It was an indescribable jumble of wrecked tanks and vehicles. This undoubtedly contributed to our salvation, in that the Russians did not recognize us.

The first to encounter the Germans’ anti-tank defenses on the outskirts of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm and on Hill 252.2 were two companies from the 32nd Tank Brigade’s 2nd Tank Battalion, commanded by Captain A. E. Vakulenko. Under their covering fire, the commander of this tank brigade’s 1st Tank Battalion, Major P. S. Ivanov, directed his tanks across the railway embankment, in order to bypass the State Farm. The 15 T-34s, concealed by a belt of woods, found a seam in the German line, dashed at full speed past the most dangerous points of Hills 242.5 and Hill 241.6, where German anti-tank gun batteries and self-propelled guns were positioned, and broke into the southern outskirts of the Komsomolets State Farm from the rear, some 5 kilometers into the depth of the enemy’s defenses. Motorized riflemen of the 53rd Motorized Rifle Brigade, which managed to slip through the enemy’s defenses in the wake of the tanks, reinforced the tankers’ sudden and unexpected advance. However, this local breakthrough had no effect on the tenacity of the defense at the Oktiabr’skii State Farm, which was SS Leibstandarte’s focal point of resistance. Even an hour after the start of the 5th Guards Army’s follow-on attack, the State Farm remained in the hands of Obersturmbannführer H. Krass’ 2nd Panzergrenadier Regiment, although individual T-34 tanks, having broken through to the crest of Hill 252.2, were already battling its anti-tank defenses and the tanks of SS Sturmbannführer M. Gross’ II/1st SS Panzer Regiment, positioned behind the anti-tank ditch.

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Prokhorovka Melee II

It was becoming clear that the offensive was not going according to plan. Observing the battlefield and listening over the radio to the transmissions and reports from the corps commanders, Rotmistrov understood that his army had collided with a strong, well-organized enemy anti-tank defense, bristling with a significant quantity of artillery.

It is impossible for one person to see the entire course of such a massive event as this clash between two powerful groupings, the Prokhorovka tank engagement. Each person views it as he saw it from the place where he was at that time. However, the recollections of eyewitnesses are invaluable, since this is a piece of the events, refracted through the consciousness and disposition of a real person. The greater the number of such pieces, the more clear and distinct is the resulting picture of what occurred. The excerpt of the army commander’s [Rotmistrov’s] memoirs, cited above, is the impression of a man who was standing on the pinnacle of an army’s pyramid and observing everything as if from this summit. But what was happening inside the battle? Here are the stories of two participants, who were directly located in the first ranks of the attackers. All the events that they describe occurred in the epicenter of the engagement – in the vicinity of Hill 252.2 –within the first hour of the attack.

Gunner-radio operator Sergeant Savelii Baase of the 29th Tank Corps’ 32nd Tank Brigade remembers:

I recall that from our jumping-off positions, which were in a shallow depression in the area of the brick factory, we drove onto a hillock, from which point a level field spread before us, covered with either ripened wheat or barley. On our left were a railroad and a planted forest; on the right, in the distance beyond the field, was a cluster of buildings. I was told that the Oktiabr’skii State Farm was over there. Soon shells exploded nearby, and in front of us there were flashes, tanks and dust. Even though our tank was not in the first line, we were also firing our main guns at clusters of tanks and individual targets, which were moving toward us. The range closed quickly. Soon tanks began to burn, both ours and the Germans’. I remember how we were firing at a Tiger, but our shells were ricocheting off its thick armor, until someone managed first to knock off a track, and then to plant a shell in its flank. But the tank didn’t blaze up, and its crew began to leap out of opened hatches. We shot them up with our machine gun. The combat formations of the two sides became intermingled …

Lieutenant I. M. Fomichev, the commander of the 1st Rifle Company’s 1st Rifle Platoon in the 23rd Guards Airborne Rifle Regiment’s 1st Battalion, remembers:

At dawn on 12 July, we rose and went into the attack without artillery preparation. My platoon and I were moving to the right of the railway. Two Messerschmitts appeared from the enemy’s direction, which flew along the combat formation of our regiment, strafing as they went, before disappearing in the distance. We emerged onto an open field, and the Germans immediately blanketed us with artillery fire. Killed and wounded appeared. Without much understanding of what was going on amid the continuous crash of explosions and the cries of the wounded, I crawled along the platoon’s line and bandaged the wounded. The fingers of my hands were sticky with blood.

After some time (I wasn’t wearing a watch), I watched as a wave of our tanks passed through the regiment’s positions. I prepared to move out after them, but the order ‘Forward!’ never came. A second wave of our tanks passed through our lines, and still there was no order to advance. A third wave of tanks passed through, carrying mounted submachine gunners, and only after this did they give the order: ‘Forward!’

Later I learned that before our tank attack, there had been an artillery barrage and a salvo of Guards’ mortars [Katiusha rockets] on the enemy positions, but I didn’t see or hear them. Perhaps they coincided with an enemy artillery barrage on our forces.

My platoon and I were running behind the tanks. We reached a trench and leaped into it. At the entrance to a bunker, I saw the body of a senior lieutenant, whose uniform had been mostly burned off (only the collar with three bars on the shoulder boards remained), lying on top of an anti-tank rifle. I glanced into the bunker and spotted an ammunition drum for a PPSh submachine gun, so I grabbed it. It was fully loaded with cartridges.

We ran on ahead. In the dense smoke and dust, we could not see our neighbors on the right or the left … As they had trained us in the specialist school, we tried to take cover from enemy fire behind the hulls of the tanks. Moving along the platoon’s line, I took cover behind one of the knocked-out tanks, and when I raised my head to take a look around, I saw crosses on the armor. I realized that my platoon and I were in the thick of a tank battle. This was between the railroad and the Oktiabr’skii State Farm.

Moving on, we ran up to another trench. I hopped into it and almost collided with a German. His hand were upraised. I was stunned by the surprise and lost my head, because this was the first living German soldier I’d ever seen. One of the men from my platoon, who leaped into the trench right behind me, shouted: ‘Lieutenant, shoot him, what are you looking at!’ At that moment, a burning tank nearby suddenly exploded; the German flinched and turned his head, and in my fright I squeezed my trigger and fired a long burst into the back of his head.

Just beyond the trench, I met a colonel who had been wounded in the shoulder. He said he was the deputy commander of our division, Grachev, and ordered me to escort him to the nearest aid station. While we moved toward an aid station, Messerschmitts dove on us three times and strafed us with their machine guns. On the third pass, the plane flew so low that I couldn’t stand it and I fired at it with my submachine gun; of course, I didn’t do it any damage. Colonel Grachev, apparently from the loss of blood, seemed indifferent to what was happening all around him, and leaned on me heavily. I supported him with difficulty.

My platoon was accompanying us. We crossed the rail line in the area of Hill 252.2, and found ourselves in the middle of the 26th Regiment’s offensive.

Here, to the left of the railway, we spotted a group of soldiers lying in the field, apparently without any commanding officers. Grachev told me he could reach the aid station by himself, and ordered me to take command of these soldiers and get them moving forward. The soldiers responded to my order and started moving, but once we had passed through a wheat field and emerged into an open area, I saw that a few of the soldiers had lagged behind. Apparently, they didn’t want to follow an unknown commander.

Reaching the trench line where I had bumped into the colonel, I first saw a senior lieutenant, who said he was the commander of a machine gun company. He had nine Maxim heavy machine guns. I decided to reinforce the machine gun company’s defensive position. Here in the trench I ran into Junior Lieutenant Gerasimenko, with whom I had trained together back at the specialist school. We exchanged impressions. The Germans began to outflank our position on both sides. The company commander made the decision to fall back through the wheat field. My platoon and I pulled back together with him. While retreating, my messenger Private Odintsov was wounded. The bullet entered his shoulder from behind and buried itself there. We pulled back beyond the wheat field and occupied the first trench line we had passed, where we dug-in again.

The combat that took place on Hill 252.2 had no equal in its drama and intensity. Immediately after 1000, at the moment when the second echelon of Kirichenko’s 29th Tank Corps (the 31st Tank Brigade) entered the battle, the Germans began an intensified bombardment of the assault wedges of both our tank corps east of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm. The VIII Air Corps headquarters sent the following message to the II SS Panzer Corps: “Two gruppen of dive bombers have been assigned to operate against the enemy group, [and are] moving from Petrovka to the southwest.”

The situation in the 31st Tank Brigade at the start of the attack received only a brief description in combat documents: “The pace of the offensive has slackened; the brigade has begun to mark time in place.” The tankers didn’t succeed in giving fresh impetus to the attack. Chronologically, the start of the attack began as follows.

The movement of the 32nd Tank Brigade from its line of deployment (in the area of the brick factory) began at approximately 0840-0845; approximately an hour later, the battalions of the 31st Tank Brigade moved out, and tanks from both brigades neared the borders of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm at approximately 1030. I repeat: they didn’t break into the State Farm at that time – this didn’t occur until 1300 – but they closed to within firing range of the State Farm, approximately 500 meters from its outskirts, where antitank guns of Leibstandarte’s 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Regiment were dug-in. Moreover, this division’s panzer regiment had already deployed at a distance approximately 0.5 to 1 kilometer from the State Farm, and behind it – east of Hill 241.6 – its artillery regiment, consisting of 105mm and 155mm howitzers, Nebelwerfers, and Hummel, Wespe and Brummbär self-propelled artillery vehicles. Thus, the first echelon of the 18th and 29th Tank Corps ran into a wall of fire. For the next two hours of the attack, the 31st and 32nd Tank Brigades advanced approximately 1.2 to 1.5 kilometers. How can one speak of any “pace of the offensive” here!

The foe’s artillerymen took advantage of the moment, and fired their guns both intensively and with deadly accuracy. This beaten zone east of Hill 252.2 and Oktiabr’skii State Farm, bordered on the north and east with gullies, and on the south by the railroad embankment, became a genuine graveyard for the tank battalions of these brigades. They suffered their greatest losses here, at the start of the attack.

Reports from the corps headquarters and the brigades of the 29th Tank Corps speak to the nature and intensity of the fighting:

… Despite the heavy fire put up by the enemy, the 32nd Tank Brigade, maintaining the organization in its combat formations in cooperation with the 25th Tank Brigade, moved forward, while opening a concentrated fire from its tanks. Upon the approach to the borders of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm and the Stalinskoe Branch of the [Oktiabr’skii] State Farm, they came under artillery and mortar fire and were compelled to dig in on the line they had reached, gather strength for a resumption of the offensive, and prepare to repulse enemy attacks.

Separate elements, penetrating even as far as the Komsomolets State Farm and suffering heavy losses from artillery fire and fire from tanks in ambush positions, fell back to the line occupied by the fire support forces [author’s note: as stated in the text].

… a) The 32nd Tank Brigade: At 0830 12.07.43 without working over the enemy’s forward edge of defense with artillery and aviation [author’s emphasis], lacking accurate information about the enemy’s fire means, the brigade in two echelons attacked the enemy in the direction … along the railroad line in a sector up to 900 meters wide. On this (main) axis, the enemy concentrated a large number of Panzer VI tanks, Ferdinand self-propelled guns [there were no Ferdinands with the Fourth Panzer Army], and other anti-tank means.

… The attack of the 32nd Tank Brigade flowed at an exclusively rapid pace. All the tanks went into the attack, and there was not a single case of indecisiveness or refusal to fight. By 1200 12.07.43 the tank battalions reached the area of the enemy’s artillery positions. [Enemy] Infantry began to run away in panic. … The enemy hurled up to 150 aircraft at the forward edge of defense, which suppressed the infantry of the 53rd Motorized Rifle Brigade (following behind the tanks) and knocked out several tanks. The 32nd Tank Brigade began to falter …. The adversary noticed that the pace of the attack had slackened, and brought up fresh tank reserves and infantry. By this time the brigade had lost up to 40 tanks and 350 men and was compelled to stop.

  1. b) The 31st Tank Brigade: At 0830 following the signal (the rocket artillery salvo), the attack of the tanks and infantry began without artillery preparation or air cover [author’s emphasis]. Groups of 8 to 37 Me 110 and Ju 87 were conducting attacks.

The tanks suffered heavy losses from the enemy’s artillery fire and aviation. … At 1030 the tanks reached the border of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm. Further advance was stopped by the ceaseless influence [author: as in text] of the enemy’s aviation.

Air cover for the attacking tanks was absent until 1300. At 1300, cover was provided by groups of 2 to 10 fighters.

The 31st Tank Brigade’s chief of the political department Colonel Povolotsky reported:

The large losses, especially in equipment, and the insufficiently active advance of our brigade are explained by the strong influence of the enemy’s aviation given our aviation’s lack of support for the offensive, and the enemy’s strong artillery and mortar fire, in contrast to our very weak artillery preparation at the moment of attack. The long presence of the tanks and personnel in their starting positions (eight hours) allowed the enemy to reorganize his defense in order to repulse the attack [author’s emphasis].

As we see, there is little resemblance here to a meeting engagement involving hundreds of tanks. Moreover, there is also nothing that corroborates the assertion that “on 12 July of this year occurred the greatest tank battle in the history of the Great Patriotic War, in which up to 1500 tanks of both sides met in a head-on attack” (from the 5th Guards Tank Army’s summary of combat operations at Prokhorovka).

In the 29th Tank Corps, 199 tanks took part in the attack, in the 18th Tank Corps – 149 tanks; altogether 348 tanks, which moreover were echeloned in depth. On the enemy’s side (SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte’s 1st Panzer Regiment, and elements of Totenkopf ’s and Das Reich’s panzer regiments), approximately 140 to 150 tanks participated in this battle. Altogether on 12 July 1943, a combined maximum of up to 500 tanks from both sides could have participated in the battle southwest of Prokhorovka.

The battle of several hundred armored vehicles disintegrated into separate duels between groups of tanks, over which unified command and control was lost. The combat formations of the two sides became intermingled. Radio became the only possible means of communication in the companies and platoons. However, while all the German tanks were equipped with two-way radios, the Soviet T-34 tanks, not to mention the T-70 tanks, lacked radio communications in all but the commanders’ tanks.

According to the testimony of veteran tankers, the 5th Guards Tank Army, which from the beginning had been formed as a Guards army, was in a more advantageous situation in this respect than other formations. Down to the platoon level, commanders’ tanks were equipped with radios, while even some non-command tanks had radio receivers, in order to receive orders from the commander. In other formations, even these were entirely lacking. Only commanders at the company level and higher had full communications in their tanks. All other tanks operated following the example of the commander’s tank, according to the principle “Do whatever I’m doing.” Under the conditions of limited visibility and given the concentration of a large number of armored vehicles on a relatively narrow sector, this left the crews practically without any communications.

Knowing this detail, the Germans took advantage of it in full measure. German tanks, assault guns and anti-tank guns concentrated all their fire first of all on those Red Army tanks with antennas. In addition, our radio sets were not reliable. As M. Dovbysh, a veteran of the 18th Tank Corps told me that only one or two solid hits on a tank that failed to penetrate were enough to cause the radio to quit working due to the concussive impact. The summary report of the 29th Tank Corps command also testifies to this; in it there is a statement that radios on the Su-152 would stop operating after five to eight shots from its own gun. All of this prevented the company or platoon commander from smoothly directing the tanks under his command in battle, concentrating their fire or strength in a certain direction (or on specific targets).

In such circumstances, the training and experience of the crew commander and the driver-mechanic played a special role. In the battle on the fields of Prokhorovka, the “birth defect” of the T-34 manifested itself in full measure. In the years before the war, trying to decrease the size of the tank, designers had removed the position of the fifth crew member, the gun layer, and turned his functions over to the commander. This meant that with the start of a battle, the tank crew was practically left without a commander, since he could not physically carry out two duties at the same time. All his attention was concentrated on gunnery. That is why the actions of the crew were fettered, and its attention focused more on self-preservation than common action. These problems substantially increased tank losses.

The 5th Guards Tank Army’s summary of the battle points to the critical problems caused by the failures in intelligence, information and communication: “The enemy aviation reigned supreme in the sky – up to 200 individual sorties. The absence of reconnaissance, as well as the lack of fire direction, had an immediate effect on the process of the fighting, and choked the attack.”

Desert Generals I

Erwin Rommel

Rommel struggled with depression throughout his career and his diary and letters home at times depict a man racked by self-doubt. With the Afrika Korps position in North Africa deteriorating in 1942 he wrote home to his wife Lucie: “…this means the end. You can imagine what kind of mood I’m in… The dead are lucky, it’s all over for them.”

We have noted that Napoleon called for lucky generals. He would have been more than happy with Montgomery, whose luck knew no bounds. Montgomery was lucky to get command of 8th Army in the first place. Churchill, supreme arbiter of such matters, wanted someone else – Gott – and only Gott’s death in an aeroplane crash gave Montgomery his chance against Rommel. He was lucky that Rommel was at the end of his tether – emotionally, physically, and above all logistically. He was lucky to take command at a time when the pendulum of supplies and reinforcements had swung so completely in favour of the British. During August 1942 Rommel’s Panzerarmee consumed twice the amount of supplies he received. He was short of 1,500 trucks, 200 tanks, several hundred troop-carriers and 16,000 men. In the same month the British received 400 tanks, 500 guns, 7,000 vehicles and 75,000 tons of stores. During the six months ending in August their reinforcements in all services totalled a quarter of a million men, roughly two and a half times the size of Rommel’s army and five times the number of his German soldiers.

Nor was Montgomery’s luck confined merely to material and numbers. The Desert Air Force was at the peak of its strength and skill. Ultra – the cipher-breaking device which enabled the British to read the German High Command signals – gave Montgomery complete and continuous information about Rommel’s supply position and his intentions. As if this were not enough, Montgomery enjoyed immense freedom – freedom to choose his own subordinates, freedom to plan the nature and timing of the battle, freedom from interference. Alexander backed him absolutely and left him alone: even Churchill let him have his own way. And Montgomery’s knowledge that the great Allied armada, Operation Torch, was to land in North-west Africa about two weeks after his own planned attack on the El Alamein line must have been a comfort.

  1. G. Macdonnell described Wellington’s task in the Peninsula as the easiest that has ever faced a general. Whilst we may demur, we might say that he would perhaps have revised this judgement had he written about the North African campaign. Incomparably good intelligence of what the enemy was up to, overwhelming strength, an imminent landing by an Allied army to his opponent’s rear, this opponent’s critical lack of supplies and mobility, meant that short of some cardinal error of disposition or deployment – and Montgomery was far too cautious and calculating for that – he was practically bound to win.

Yet in spite of all this, there came a point in the battle when it seemed that the master plan – Montgomery was very fond of referring to the need to have a master plan and deploring other generals’ failure to have one – met with a snag, and it is speculation as to what might have happened if this snag had been tackled differently that will present us with this particular chance. But first we must set the scene more fully. It must be conceded that Montgomery made good use of all his luck. With his victory, a legend was born. The nation, indeed the whole Western world, was avid for a victory, any victory, and Montgomery made sure that the need was satisfied. He thereupon made the best of it. He was the finest public relations officer in the whole British army, and soon the country had a new name to play with, a hero, a battle-winner, and justifiably so, for as Fred Majdalany put it: ‘At a moment when the future of the Western world was in the balance and history held its breath, he [Montgomery] rallied his country’s soldiers as Churchill had rallied his people.’ This, we may conclude, was Montgomery’s greatest achievement; he made the ‘brave but baffled’ 8th Army, and thereafter the other armies and Army Group he commanded, believe in their capacity to win and go on winning.

Shortly after his arrival in Cairo on 4 August 1942, Churchill decided on ‘drastic and immediate’ changes in the Middle East command arrangements. Alexander would replace Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief and Gott would take over 8th Army. Gott’s death resulted in Montgomery’s appointment, and he arrived on 12 August and almost at once took over command of 8th Army. Alexander was just the man to exercise high command while leaving it to Montgomery both to plan and fight the forthcoming battle, and to bask in public esteem. Whereas Montgomery courted and relished adulation, Alexander shunned it. Besides, 8th Army should identify itself with its own commander. So, as Nigel Nicolson put it, ‘Alexander gave Montgomery his chance, never countermanding his orders, rarely suggesting an element in his plan, and supporting him by every possible means, political, administrative and psychological, to achieve their common object, the defeat of Rommel.’

It was to Alexander that on 10 August 1942 Churchill gave a directive notable for its clarity and simplicity: ‘Your prime and main duty will be to take or destroy at the earliest opportunity the German-Italian Army commanded by Field-Marshal Rommel, together with all its supplies and establishments in Egypt and Libya.’ The earliest possible moment turned out to be some nine months later, for it was not until May 1943 that Alexander was able to report that he had fully discharged this prime and main duty.

In preparing for this great task, Montgomery was highly successful in restoring high morale in 8th Army. That eminent historian, Ronald Lewin, recorded how quickly Montgomery imposed his will on his officer corps and his personality on the troops. He created the impression that it was his army and that under his command things would go well. This injection of a new sense of purpose and confidence was so striking that when Churchill paid another visit to the desert on 19 August and listened to Montgomery’s analysis of the situation and plans to deal with it, he found

a complete change of atmosphere . . . the highest alacrity and activity prevail . . . it seems probable that Rommel will attack during the moon period before the end of August . . . The ensuing battle will be hard and critical, but I have the greatest confidence in Alexander and Montgomery, and I feel sure the Army will fight at its best.

We may perhaps look more closely at the two principal actors in what was to be a curtain-raiser for the final phases of the Desert War: the one more or less at the end of his tether, the other at the outset of a career which was to take him to unimagined heights of public popularity and self-stimulated aggrandizement. In the forthcoming duel between them, we see once more how character determines incident and how incident illustrates character. David Irving’s assessment of the two men touches on their similarities and differences alike. Both Rommel and Montgomery had more enemies than friends among their fellow generals; both could be high-handed and arrogant, awkward, even insubordinate, when subjected to what they regarded as incompetent direction, yet in sole command they shone; they had no intellectual interests, but enjoyed winter sports; both had a flair for public relations. Yet in their style and exercise of command they differed absolutely. Rommel’s whole attitude to war was chivalrous; Montgomery simply wanted to kill Germans. Rommel led from the front; Montgomery retired to his caravan. Rommel relied on his Fingerspitzengefühl to outmanoeuvre and confound his enemy; Montgomery used other people’s brains and in the end won by sheer weight of numbers.

As the days of August 1942 advanced, the shadows were lengthening for Rommel and the Afrika Korps. They still had not received the fuel and ammunition necessary for a successful operation, while Montgomery’s force was daily growing stronger and more confident. On the eve of the coming battle, the last time that he would attack 8th Army, except for a half-hearted affair at Mededine in March 1943, Rommel confided to his doctor that this decision was the hardest he had yet taken: ‘Either we manage to reach the Suez Canal, and the army in Russia succeeds in reaching the Caucasus, or . . .’ He indicated with a gesture that the alternative could mean only defeat.

The irony of it all was that only two months earlier Rommel had been riding high, with the Afrika Korps exulting in its victory, its capture of Tobruk relieving immediate logistic needs, 8th Army reeling from the shock, still disorganized, still lacking reinforcements which were to arrive in the coming weeks, desperately trying under the firm leadership of Auchinleck to stabilize some sort of defensive barrier at El Alamein: if Rommel could have then persuaded Hitler to neutralize Malta and send him additional panzer and Stuka power and supplies, what might not have been achieved? There would have been no doubts then. Even Hitler’s fellow dictator, Benito Mussolini, not exactly famed for exploiting victory, strongly supported the idea of one more decisive push to the Suez Canal and beyond, picturing himself riding into Alexandria on a white horse at the head of his troops. That all this could have been done in July is clear enough when we remember that later that year, in order to counter the Anglo-American descent on French North-west Africa, Hitler acted with lightning speed and despatched to Tunisia sufficient strength to delay the Allied advance to Bizerta and Tunis for months.

The Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria had taken place on 8 November. By the end of that month there were 15,000 German soldiers in Tunisia, including Parachute and Glider Regiments, Panzer Grenadiers, reconnaissance companies, and several Panzer Regiments, some of which were equipped with the Tiger tank, mounting the famous and deadly 88-mm gun. Soon the whole of 10th Panzer Division would follow, plus two more German and two Italian divisions. That the Germans had been able to reinforce so strongly and rapidly was a tribute to Hitler’s prompt reaction and use of German transport aircraft and his ally’s shipping, all supported by a strengthened Fliegerkorps II with no fewer than eighty-one fighters and twenty-eight dive-bombers. What could Rommel not have done with even half this addition to his Panzerarmee? Indeed, had Rommel broken Auchinleck’s defences in late July or early August 1942, Operation Torch, the invasion of North-west Africa, might itself have been put in question. The whole strategic balance of the war against Germany might have been turned inside out.

But we cannot call back yesterday or bid time return. Rommel did not wait or demand instant, powerful reinforcement. Instead he pushed on with inadequate strength and was met at El Alamein by 8th Army, which under Auchinleck, well advised by his Chief of Staff, Dorman-Smith, was concentrated, fought in integrated battle groups, massed its artillery, husbanded its armour, formed a light armoured brigade for flank reconnaissance and wore down the Italian divisions. Rommel himself conceded that Auchinleck was handling his forces with great skill. He commanded with great coolness, was not going to be rushed, and had the huge advantage of a Desert Air Force which dominated the battlefield. In a word, Auchinleck was keeping balance, a requirement which Montgomery was later to make so much of. By maintaining this balance and by refusing to be thrown off it, Auchinleck was able to make decisive use of the advantage inherent to his position – important ground, assured supplies, superior fire-power, ready reinforcements. He beat the Afrika Korps at its own game, and succeeded in drawing its panzers on to his own armour and artillery fire posted firmly on ground of his own choosing.

If Auchinleck was able to check Rommel in July 1942, how infinitely more likely it was that Montgomery would be able to repeat the performance at the end of August when he enjoyed even greater strength. ‘The more one examines the record of the Alam Halfa battle,’ wrote Ronald Lewin, ‘which Rommel launched during the night of 30/31 August, the more clearly one sees that it was doomed from the start.’ The Afrika Korps was given an immensely difficult task – a night move through a major minefield whose depth and density were far greater than expected, and unfamiliar going over thirty miles to be accomplished by dawn the following day, in order to charge off to the north and the coast. Even at the height of its powers and confidence, with adequate supplies and an unsure enemy, the Afrika Korps might have found the task too much. But the Afrika Korps was no longer at the peak of its form; its supplies were niggardly; its two Panzer Divisions were down to less than 100 miles of petrol. Moreover, Rommel launched his attack against an adversary who not only knew what he was going to do, but how and when he was going to do it, an adversary who had sufficient strength in hand to defeat forces more powerful than those at Rommel’s disposal.

It was not therefore surprising that Montgomery’s 8th Army was able to win the battle of Alam el-Halfa. Nor was it surprising that Montgomery made the best possible copy out of his victory:

My first encounter with Rommel was of great interest. Luckily I had time to tidy up the mess and to get my plans laid, so there was no difficulty in seeing him off. I feel that I have won the first game, when it was his service. Next time it will be my service, the score being one-love.

Montgomery made much use of such sporting metaphors. He was less inclined to give credit to others, however, and made no mention of the point that fundamentally 8th Army’s plan for defence at Alam el-Halfa was the same as the one previously outlined by Auchinleck and his staff. Now would come the real test, the game when it was Montgomery’s service. He had spoken of hitting Rommel for six out of North Africa. How did he propose to do it?

There were three things that 8th Army had to do if it were successfully to carry out the task set by Churchill, to take or destroy the Panzerarmee: first, to punch a hole in the enemy position; second, to pass 10 Corps with all its armoured mobility through the hole; third, to develop operations so as to destroy Rommel’s forces. In the end this last requirement meant encircling the Panzerarmee, and to have done so with sufficient strength and speed was probably always beyond 8th Army’s powers. None the less Montgomery made plans to do so. His first idea was to launch his main attack with Leese’s 30 Corps in the north, break the enemy’s defences, cut two lanes in the minefields, and allow Lumsden’s 10 Corps – what Churchill called ‘the mass of manoeuvre’ – to pass through, position itself on ground which controlled the enemy’s supply routes and so oblige the Panzer Divisions to attack Lumsden’s armour under conditions favourable to the British, both in terms of ground and numbers. Then, with the enemy armour neutralized, his infantry would be rounded up. Meanwhile, Horrocks’s 13 Corps would attack in the south in order to prevent Axis concentration against 8th Army’s main northern thrust and also to crack about behind the enemy’s positions and advance towards El Daba.

Although in broad terms the plan remained the same – to break through in the north while making a secondary attack in the south – the method of doing so changed. As Montgomery himself explained, whereas his initial idea was to destroy Rommel’s armour first and then deal with the infantry, his revised plan reversed the process. He would hold off or contain the enemy armour while methodically destroying infantry holding the defensive system. Montgomery referred to this latter operation as a ‘crumbling’ process, arguing that as enemy armour would be unlikely to remain inactive while this crumbling was going on, and would launch counter-attacks, this very reaction would enable his own armour to take on the enemy’s from positions of advantage. The whole thing depended on 30 Corps’ ability to establish corridors through the minefields quickly so that 10 Corps could pass through, but if this did not happen, the armoured divisions would have to fight their own way through. This notion, as experienced armoured commanders knew to their previous cost, was a recipe for disaster when troops were up against the mixed panzer groups of the Afrika Korps. And in the end a second great infantry effort became necessary, after the first one faltered, before the mass of manoeuvre broke clear. It is with this faltering and the controversy which arose as to how it was to be overcome that our ‘if by chance’ of this particular battle has to do.

El Alamein and the Pursuit After… Part I

General Erwin Rommel and staff in North Africa.

On November 4, the time had come for Eighth Army to pursue a crippled and defeated Axis force. Montgomery was well aware that Rommel’s army was now gravely damaged and in retreat. He launched two armored divisions, the 1st and the 10th, and the New Zealand Division, with an attached armored brigade, in pursuit. The Panzerarmee’s withdrawal presented Montgomery with a priceless opportunity because, according to many German sources, it was poorly conducted. Afrika Korps’ War Diary reported:

Officers of all ranks had lost their heads and were making hasty and ill considered decisions, with the result that confidence had been lost, and in some places panic had broken out. Some vehicles were set on fire on or beside the road, and guns were abandoned or destroyed because there were no tractors for them. A large number of vehicles had left their units and were streaming back without orders.

The Diary also recorded with some surprise, “No contact with the enemy all day.”

The War Diary of the 90th Light Division chronicled similar conditions, admitting that there was “very little discipline during the withdrawal.” It also claimed German transport and supply units were “fleeing in wild panic.” As a result, its withdrawal from Alamein was “very difficult.”

The pursuit phase of the Alamein battle has been strongly criticized by many writers who believe that Montgomery acted with undue caution. The British official history made a perceptive observation that, “Whether they could have captured or destroyed more of the Panzerarmee than they did will be argued as long as military history is read.” This has certainly happened. Alexander McKee accurately stated, “There was no pursuit, merely a follow up.” Correlli Barnett has been one of Montgomery’s harshest critics, believing that Montgomery “signally fail[ed] to take advantage of this astonishing flow of precisely accurate intelligence, which removed all guesswork from generalship” and that his failure to destroy Panzerarmee at Alamein “calls in question Montgomery’s generalship at this stage of his career.” Johnston and Stanley wrote, “The pursuit was poorly planned and confused, a fact Montgomery never acknowledged.” As early as the evening of November 3, Freyberg had warned Lieutenant General Herbert Lumsden, 10 Corps commander, that Rommel “will slip away if they are not careful.” The cautious pursuit, including by Freyberg, ensured that this happened.

There was one overriding factor, however, that explains and perhaps excuses Montgomery’s caution. This was the state of his armored corps, his prized corps de chasse. So far in the Alamein battle, 10 Corps had failed in every task it had been allocated, had demonstrated excessive caution, and an inability to follow even the simplest directives. His trust in his armored commanders, especially in 10 Corps commander Lumsden, was “at an all time low.” As it was, this Corps that would be used during the pursuit, it was only natural that Montgomery wanted to keep it on as tight a leash as possible to ensure that it did in fact accomplish even the most limited of tasks assigned to it. John Harding, commanding 7 Armoured Division during the pursuit and “in favour of pressing on all-out, hard as I could go,” thought at the time that Montgomery was being “overcautious” in restraining his armored formations. Harding later changed his mind. “Montgomery was very conscious of the fact that we had already been twice up and twice back and he was determined not to be pushed back for a third time,” Harding said. A third defeat could have prolonged the war in North Africa. “Looking back on it all, I think he was right to be cautious,” was Harding’s conclusion.

And, as John Keegan has pointed out in his history of the Second World War, with the exception of the Soviets’ Operation Bagration, the Allies were never able to encircle and destroy retreating German armies. Montgomery cannot be judged too harshly for not achieving something other British or American commanders were also unable to do when given the opportunity.

Montgomery initially planned to use the New Zealand Division, augmented by an armored brigade, as the main pursuit force. He directed them to the Fuka escarpment some 45 miles to the west. As the New Zealanders set off for Fuka, the British armor of 10 Corps made a series of shorter wheels to the coast of some 10 to 15 miles. But there was a considerable delay before the New Zealanders could get moving. Freyberg recorded about the lull, “The congestion of vehicles in the forward area would have done credit to Piccadilly. Fortunately the RAF ruled the skies.” Montgomery’s fears about his armored formations soon proved justified as the armor “swanned” about the desert out of coordinated control in several fruitless encircling movements. Nor did the New Zealand Division, which de Guingand described as Montgomery’s “mobile shock troops,” demonstrate much dash or daring. Freyberg was especially concerned not to let his division get mauled by the Afrika Korps for the fourth time. He still erroneously estimated Rommel to have a powerful armored force under command. To his subordinate commanders, Freyberg had stated that “the policy is not to fight but to position our force to bottle him.” Freyberg, the commander of the three left hooks carried out by the New Zealand Division, was in no doubt as to the purpose of a left hook and tended to view it as a substitute for heavy fighting—a way of achieving a victory with minimal casualties. The New Zealanders made three attempts to entrap Panzerarmee using the wide encircling “left hook.” All three failed. Kippenberger informed the New Zealand official historian:

You have one or two tricky questions to deal with in this volume, particularly the conduct of the three “Left Hooks” which seem to me to have been clumsily and rather timidly executed. I thought so at the time and am inclined to the same opinion still.

Ironically, both Montgomery’s and Freyberg’s caution, though understandable, was to prove more costly in the long run. As Rommel pointed out, if Montgomery had abandoned his restraint after Alamein, it “would have cost him far fewer losses in the long run than his methodical insistence on overwhelming superiority in each tactical action, which he could only obtain at the cost of his speed.” The failure to prevent Panzerarmee from withdrawing, especially after the Alamein battle, meant much hard fighting ahead with the North African campaign dragging on for another six months.

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There were many reasons for the defeat of the Axis forces at Alamein, not the least important being their weakness in logistics and firepower. Rommel devoted nine pages of his papers analyzing “the decisive battle of the African campaign,” which he had lost. He did this primarily to counter accusations from the armchair strategists that the Axis troops and their commanders had performed poorly at Alamein. Rommel wrote that these accusations came from those whose military careers were “notable for a consistent absence from the front.” Rommel attributed his defeat at Alamein primarily to his weak logistics, especially in weapons, fuel, and ammunition and to British air supremacy. The “extreme concentrations” of Eighth Army’s artillery fire and “locally limited attacks” by infantry with an “extremely high state of training” was also important. He was especially impressed with the British infantry’s ability to attack at night, writing that “Night attacks continued to be a particular speciality of the British.” Rommel finished his analysis by stating that the bravery of all German and many Italian troops “was admirable.” Alamein had been a struggle and a defeat but it was still “a glorious page in the annals of the German and Italian peoples.” But in the end, the enemy was just too strong and their own material resources too small. In this imbalance “lay destruction.”

Other German accounts placed considerable stress on their material weakness at Alamein when compared to the resources available to Eighth Army and the DAF. They seldom gave credit to the performance of Eighth Army’s commanders or soldiers. The War Diary of 15 Panzer Division was especially critical:

The English did not win the battle of Alamein by superior leadership or dash. On the contrary, after their original plan of attack failed they worked their way systematically forward, always probing ahead with the greatest care choosing limited objectives. Often, particularly after our withdrawal from the Alamein line, the enemy failed to perceive or take advantage of good opportunities to destroy German troops.

The main reasons given for the British victory were Eighth Army’s overwhelming artillery firepower and the DAF’s air superiority. The War Diary did admit, though, that Eighth Army’s infantry were stronger and rested and that this infantry was “superior to the Germans, and still more to the Italians, in night fighting.” But Panzerarmee, it stated, had been crushed by the sheer weight of numbers brought against it. Eighth Army’s successful deception plans had convinced Panzerarmee and German military intelligence that its opponents were more than 40 percent stronger than they actually were.

The secretly recorded conversation of a German infantry officer captured on the night of October 29 was particularly revealing about the state of Panzerarmee’s logistics. The lieutenant from 2 Battalion, 125 Infantry Regiment told his cell mate, an officer from submarine U-559:

We’ve been in FRANCE, in the BALKANS, and in CRETE. Throughout the whole of the French campaign my Company only had thirty-five killed and seventy-five wounded. This time there was no way out for us, it was either death or capture. I was right in the front line, about fifty metres behind my platoons. When the infantry came along there was practically nothing more I could do with our 7.65 guns. As for our M.P.’s [Machine Pistols: the German Schmeisser submachine gun], none of them would fire because of the magazine. We’ve had them since 1940. All the springs were bad and we couldn’t get replacements. You can fire one round and that’s all. Our lack of supplies in AFRICA is appalling.

German intelligence officer Hans-Otto Behrendt believed that Ultra intelligence “played a major part” in the defeat of the last German-Italian offensive at Alam Halfa and had played “a crucial part in the sinking of Rommel’s oil tankers and supply convoys.” For the final October battle, though, “The decisive factor now was quite simply the sheer British superiority in tanks, artillery and aircraft for which no amount of tactical skill and self-sacrifice could compensate.”

Certainly, Eighth Army had superior logistics and firepower, tanks that could match the Germans, and the DAF dominated the skies above the battlefield. But it was the way these assets were used that made the critical difference. The Eighth Army’s artillery was concentrated and its firepower coordinated with infantry and armor in a master fireplan. In the twelve days of the battle, Eighth Army’s artillery fired more than one million rounds of twenty-five-pounder ammunition and throughout the battle “some artillery action was occurring all the time, and heavy action for most of the time.” The DAF made extraordinary efforts to support the troops on the ground and was most effective at disrupting enemy concentrations and their communications. During the October battle, the DAF flew 10,405 sorties and their American allies flew 1,181. This compares with just 1,550 German and 1,570 Italian sorties. It made a telling difference and the effect on morale on both sides was critical.

An American study compiled in 1947, written by the German officer Generalmajor Hans-Henning von Holtzendorff, was adamant that Eighth Army’s success at Alamein was primarily through its use of tanks. Von Holtzendorff wrote, “El Alamein was decided by the numerically far superior Panzer forces of the British, which were not dispersed as before, but were now concentrated and to some extent were equipped with American material.” All of these elements made vital contributions to Eighth Army’s victory.

In infantry, though, Eighth Army’s margin was not so pronounced as many historians have claimed, and the October Alamein battle was primarily an infantry battle. While it was a considerable advantage having a materiel superiority over the enemy, it still needed skill, courage, and determination to effectively apply what you had. One thing Eighth Army did in this October battle was to keep the fight going for over a week, which ultimately wore down the Panzerarmee. This was an old-fashioned battle of attrition, but it produced a decisive outcome. The 9 Division’s Report on Operations believed that this was the most crucial “lesson” of the battle. It began this section of the Report with the heading Maintenance of Pressure. Under this heading it perceived:

So often in military history, the battle has gone to the side which had the will or the strength to hang on just long enough to outlast the opponent. By maintaining offensive pressure, the enemy is forced to use his reserves and if this pressure can be maintained until these reserves are used up and he has insufficient resources to meet the new threat, defeat follows.

In this battle, by maintaining pressure by a series of attacks to the north and to the west, the Axis reserves were drawn in and steadily worn down until on 4 November—11 days after it had been planned to occur—penetration was effected.

This pressure was maintained throughout the battle by the numerous sorties of the DAF, the interdiction of Rommel’s supply line by the Royal Navy, and the cooperation of all arms of Eighth Army. An Air Ministry Report recorded that the Alamein battle “demonstrated untold value of good cooperation between all arms and services.” It was an old lesson to learn, but this cooperation between arms and services was a critical development. It signified, as Alexander McKee noted, a crucial shift. He wrote of the battle: “At long last the British were learning how to make war—which is not the same thing as fighting.”

There was little doubt, though, that the primary responsibility for breaking the Alamein position had been with the infantry divisions backed by heavy artillery and air support. Freyberg’s report on the El Alamein operations concluded that the “value of well-trained infantry, capable of attacking by night with the bayonet against any form of defence, was fully proved.” Jonathan Fennell was correct in his assessment that the infantry units of Eighth Army were “Montgomery’s main offensive force.” Fennell also observed that in winning this last Alamein battle, “many of the frontline battalions of Eighth Army suffered over 50 per cent casualties.” Being the Army commander’s main offensive weapon came with a heavy cost.

It has been argued that Alamein could not have been won without the contributions of the two elite infantry divisions in Eighth Army identified earlier by Rommel—9 Australian Division operating in the north, and two brigades of New Zealand infantry plus supporting units in the center, and later in the pursuit. That the New Zealanders played a vital role was uncharacteristically recognized by Montgomery:

The Battle of Egypt was won by the good fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire. Of all these soldiers none were finer than the fighting men from New Zealand…. Possibly I myself am the only one who really knows the extent to which the action of the New Zealand Division contributed towards the victory.

Montgomery sent the Australian commander a similar message of praise on November 2, just as Operation Supercharge was underway. Montgomery wrote to Morshead that, “Your men are absolutely splendid and the part they have played in this battle is beyond all praise.” General Alexander was also effusive in his praise of the 9th Australian Division when he addressed them at a parade on the Gaza airstrip on December 22. He pointed out that “The battle of Alamein has made history, and you are in the proud position of having taken a major part in that great victory.” Alexander concluded his address by telling the Australians that “one thought I shall cherish above all others—under my command fought the 9th Australian Division.” Churchill too acknowledged in his history of the war that it was the “ceaseless, bitter fighting” that the Australians had endured at Alamein that “had swung the whole battle in our favour.” Twenty-five years after the battle, Montgomery wrote that “it would not be right to single out any for special praise” when all had performed well. But then Montgomery did exactly that, stating, “I must say this—we would not have won the battle in ten days without that magnificent 9th Australian Division.”

It was heady stuff and it was entirely appropriate that the Australians and New Zealanders received high praise for their efforts in the October battle. No historian could ever dispute their key roles. But Montgomery was correct when he gave credit to the fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire, although he perhaps should have mentioned the Empire airmen as well. Throughout the battle Eighth Army had “complete protection from serious air attack and, at the same time, had the benefit of such close co-operation and continuous air support as never before.” There were, of course, other formations and corps that contributed significantly to the outcome of the battle. All German accounts comment on the weight and effectiveness of Eighth Army’s artillery. No infantry division made more attacks nor suffered heavier casualties than 51st Highland Division. And while the armored divisions may not have performed as well as Montgomery and the infantry commanders wanted, no formation did more to win the battle than the 9th Armoured Brigade. The New Zealand official history was correct when it stated that “Finally, tribute for the victory should be bestowed on all those Allied troops who had a share in the fighting and behind the lines.”

Alternate Second World Wars

Axis Power: Could Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan have won World War II? Paperback – September 23, 2012

Introduction

The Second World War is the most popular period for alternate histories. This post is a list of possible points of divergence during and before the Second World War, along with some suggested consequences. Basically, it’s about sixty alternate history essays, each about one paragraph long.

This document is intended as a very broad-brush discussion of the field, which others can use as a foundation for more detailed alternate histories. The times during World War Two discussed below are the times of important consequences: the most elegant choice of a point of divergence may be earlier.

The Militarisation of the Rhineland, 1936

The piece of Germany on the left bank of the Rhine had been kept demilitarised since the end of the First World War. Moving troops in was arguably the first thing Hitler did that flaunted its inconsistency with the Versailles treaty. What if France had decided to respond with force? Germany didn’t have an army capable of fighting France, and would have had to back down. Would the blow to Hitler’s prestige be sufficient to topple him? Would France’s name be mud in all peace-loving countries? The point of divergence would have to create a lot more political will in France, or at least a lot more anti-German feeling.

Stalin’s Purge

Stalin had several purges, but I’m talking about the one in the late 1930s. It was a key reason why the Soviet Union’s army put up such a poor showing in the Winter War with Finland and the weeks after Barbarossa.

Case I: The purge doesn’t happen: The army will be stronger. Tukachevsky, a brilliant theorist and field commander, will still be alive: he may end up in the job that Zhukov had historically.

Case II: The purge is worse: The army will be weaker: maybe weak enough that they lose. Zhukov joins Tukachevsky in an unmarked grave. Morons may command the Red Army.

Case III: Stalin’s enemies depose him: Just because Stalin was paranoid doesn’t mean nobody was out to get him. Let’s imagine that without the purge there would have been a coup of Red Army generals and politburo political enemies. The new leader might be Tukachevsky, Zhukov, or one of Stalin’s political enemies.

Anschluss

German annexation of Austria was popular in both countries. It’s hard to see who would intervene to stop it, though Mussolini had in 1934. When asked why he didn’t intervene the second time, he said that in 1934 he would have won. If the war starts over this there’ll be a lot of anti-war sentiment in the west.

The Sudeten Crisis

The Sudetenland was a mountainous border region of what’s now the Czech Republic, mostly populated by Germans (it might be better to think of them as Austrians). Nationalist principles implied that they should be joined to Germany. But if they were, Czechoslovakia would become indefensible: the Sudetenland had the best defensive terrain, a lot of smokestack industries and the Czech version of the Maginot line. Historically, Czechoslovakia was forced to give them up because France and Britain wouldn’t back them up and they couldn’t beat Germany on their own.

Case I: France and Britain back Czechoslovakia: Hitler probably would have had to back down: Germany wasn’t ready for war yet.

Case II: Poland backs Czechoslovakia: Historically, Poland acquiesced in the dismemberment of their only nearby natural ally in return for the town of Teschen. A seriously bad bargain. But by the standards of 1938 Poland and Czechoslovakia together have a pretty good army. Even without a western declaration of war they may just be able to force the Germans to back down: especially if great power intervention (from the west or the east) is always a possibility.

Case III: Poland, France and Britain back Czechoslovakia: Hitler definitely has to back down.

Case IV: The USSR and Poland back Czechoslovakia: This assumes Poland at least allows the USSR to rail troops and supplies across Polish territory. Not sure how plausible it is, or what the result would be. You can think of this as Poland jumping at a chance to let Russia and Germany fight somewhere that isn’t Poland. I don’t see that Russian soldiers locked into railway cars, by the way, are a security threat to Poland.

Occupation of the Czech Rump State, May 1939

Germany occupied what was left of Czechoslovakia too fast for anyone to do anything about it. The action gave Germany a big increase in its military strength: a third of the tanks that attacked France in 1940 were made in Czechoslovakia (before or after the conquest). But the action cost Germany a lot diplomatically: this is arguably the first time Germany did something for which it had no real excuse, and it made it clear that Hitler could not be trusted. As a result, it’s the last major piece of intimidatory expansion Hitler got away with.

I doubt there’s much of a point of divergence here, unless it’s Germany not occupying the rump. Which requires a different approach to diplomacy on Hitler’s part: he doesn’t seem to have realised that the western powers took the Munich agreement seriously.

Russia attacks Poland, ahistorical

One of the USSR’s aims seems to have been to recover the territory lost in the collapse of the Russian Empire, and Poland holds a lot. Edward Stasiak suggests an August 1936 trigger. As a general remark, the earlier the war happens the better chance the minor country has: major powers like Russia, Germany, France, Britain and Italy mostly built up their militaries much faster than the minor powers could.

Germany attacks Poland, September 1939

Germany’s immediate claim was on the so-called Polish corridor, around Danzig, but in the long run Poland had to fight or surrender. What if Poland had given up the corridor and become a German minion? It’s not crazy: fear of Russia could be a motive, and realistically the Poles had missed their best chance to resist a year ago when they let the Czechs be devoured. Surrender removes the trigger for a western entry into the war (see below) and it creates a border between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. A war between them may follow, since it’s much closer to what Hitler wants than a war with the west, and Poland will fight as a German ally. Certainly Russia will react to the appearance of the Wehrmacht in Poland with fear and loathing. The Baltic States now become interesting, and a good trigger for the Russo-German war. Who would win that war is very hard to guess.

France and Britain declare war on Germany, September 1939

Hitler thought they wouldn’t. After all, what sort of idiot would let powerful, well-defended democratic Czechoslovakia be destroyed without a fight, then fight to defend the militarily and morally indefensible military dictatorship of Poland?

What if Hitler had been right? Poland is rapidly demolished, and whatever parts of Eastern Europe haven’t fallen into the German or Soviet camps do so swiftly. War between Germany and the Soviet Union is then likely, to general western schadenfreude.

Sitzkrieg: The Phoney War, Winter 1939-40

After and during the fall of Poland, France and Britain remained almost entirely passive, despite facing a very weak German garrison. What if they’d taken the offensive?

Case I: Across the Franco-German border: Not much of a frontage, and straight into the Siegfried line. I don’t think France has the strength to get anywhere, though it was probably worth a try.

Case II: By Invitation Through Belgium: I don’t know what it would take to make Belgium join the allies. This offensive might get somewhere, though I’m sceptical it would bring down Germany.

Case III: By Invasion Through Belgium: I can’t see this happening: if it does, the France and Britain will look very bad indeed. Perhaps if we assume the Belgians had done some deal with the Germans beforehand?

The Winter War, Winter 1939-40

This was a revanchist land grab (Finland had been part of the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire) by the USSR against Finland. Finland did very well, or the USSR did very badly, depending on your point of view. But eventually the USSR’s huge numerical advantage ground the Finns down, and Finland had to make peace by giving up a larger chunk of border land than the original Russian demand. The war motivated Finland to make a vague and desultory attack on the USSR alongside Germany: they wanted the stolen territory back, but never really had their heart in an attempt to destroy the USSR. When the tide turned against Germany, Finland shrugged, gave the territory back up, and made a separate peace.

Case I: Finland wins: Stalin gets bored with attacking Finland and makes some face-saving deal. Finland presumably never enters the war. This is a POD of interest to Finns, but probably of little impact on the big picture.

Case II: It never happens: Stalin doesn’t attack. He may go and do something else violent instead. Otherwise, neither Germany nor Stalin finds out just how awful the Red Army is. It’s arguable that this reduces the chance of Barbarossa happening, or even of a Russo-German war of any kind happening. On the other hand, if there is a Russo-German war the Germans are likely to do very well, because nobody’s been fixing all the things that are wrong with the Red Army. Finland won’t be involved, even to the limited extent it was historically.

Case III: Finland surrenders quickly: Finland realises it can’t win, so it doesn’t fight. Russia takes a slice of territory, not as much as historically. And Finland will have a grudge. Otherwise it’s just like Case II.

Case IV: Finland gets steamrolled: Deprive Finland of Mannerheim’s leadership, make a few other adjustments, and assume they have some bad luck. Finland is rapidly and cheaply defeated. Everybody thinks the Russian army pretty competent. Finland attacks Russia in Barbarossa, and recovers the territory. When (if) the war turns against Germany, Finland tries to make peace. But the Russians have no great respect for Finnish skill at arms and decide to make a finish of it (no pun intended). Post-war Finland is just another Eastern European satellite with a communist government. Sweden finds itself on the front line and perhaps joins the NATO analogue.

Case V: The allies support Finland: I don’t know how to make this happen, but it was talked about. This brings the USSR in as an active ally of Germany, at least for a while. I don’t know how the allies get there but they’ll probably be talking to Norway and Sweden, as well as directly landing at Petsamo.

Norway, April 1940

Historically Norway was invaded almost simultaneously by Germany and Britain: each saw it as important, each feared (rightly) that the other would attack and each (rightly) thought the Norwegians incapable of defending themselves. Germany also overrun Denmark in the process of getting to Norway. The main reason was the iron ore shipments that run (at least part of the year) from Kiruna in Sweden by rail to Narvik in Norway, then down the coast to German ports. By being fractionally later, the allies got the diplomatic credit for defending Norway rather than attacking it.

Case I: No invasion: Germany lost half its navy in the Norwegian campaign, that won’t happen. Various British losses won’t happen either but I’m not sure of their importance.

Case II: The allies attack first: The allies look like bullies, that may affect American support. The allies may do slightly better in the fighting but probably not much.

Case III: The allies get bogged down: The saving grace for the allies was that Norway was all over quickly. If the commitment had been more severe that could have an effect on the battle for France.

The Fall of France, May-June 1940

There were three sectors to the French-German effective border: a southern sector covered by the Maginot line; a central sector that the French thought impenetrable due to the Ardennes forest; and a northern sector where the French expected to be attacked and massed their best armies. The French plan was to advance through the northern sector to save as much of Belgium as possible. The Germans attacked through the centre, demonstrating that the Ardennes were not impassable after all. This left the bulk of the French army hopelessly outflanked and rapidly pocketed, and led to a swift German victory. Almost any POD gives the French a better chance than what happened historically.

Case I: Germans attack in the north: They were planning to do this, but changed their minds at the last minute, partly because the plans fell into allied hands. This leads to a German attack straight into the teeth of the French defence: the best case the French can possibly hope for, even so I’m not sure they will win.

Case II: Germany and France both concentrate in the centre: This probably requires an intelligence leak, perhaps an intercept decoded by the British. Same comments apply, if anything this is better for France since the forest will favour the defence.

Case III: Belgium joins the allies: Belgium remained neutral, but surely understood that Germany was the main threat. If Belgium concludes it’s for the chop in any case it may agree to allow French and British troops to enter its territory: say, during the Phoney War. That changes the campaign a lot and I’d only be guessing if I said how. Once again, it’s hardly likely to be worse than history.

Dunkirk, June 1940

What if the Anglo-French armies trying to evacuate from Dunkirk get wiped out? Deprived of this core the British army will lack the cadres needed to train new recruits. As a result its army will be of much lower quality throughout the war, a bit like it was in the first world war after its expeditionary force was wiped out in August 1914.

Vichy France, 1940

Vichy France was set up by the Germans to neutralise French resistance and hopefully produce an ally. The territories of France tended to sign up to the Vichy government unless they were immediately exposed to allied pressure (e.g. New Caledonia). In practice the only significant achievement of the Vichy French armed forces was to defeat an allied attack on Senegal, in West Africa. In 1942 it became clear that the Vichy French could not be relied upon to achieve anything for the German cause, and Hitler ended the farce, occupying the Vichy part of the country as the allies rolled up North Africa.

Case I: Active French participation in axis: There was some anti-British feeling on the part of the French, partly due to the British attack on French fleet elements they feared would fall into German hands. Suppose France was even more irritated with Britain for some reason. French troops could help to bolster Germany in the east, the way Rumanians, Hungarians etc. did historically. The SS will also recruit more successfully from France. The French navy becomes available to the Germans, except for whatever the British have already sunk.

Case II: Stronger Free France: Suppose Vichy France is seen by the French with contempt. Perhaps Petain refusing to support it would be an aspect of the POD. The most important areas are Senegal, Northwest Africa and Syria. If all these go Free French then all of Africa will fall rapidly.

Battle of Britain, late 1940

This could go differently, but I’m not sure what the impact would be. Worst case for Britain is that the fighters get driven out of Southern England and the Germans pound London and the southern cities with impunity. For a while, at least.

Sea Lion, late 1940

The German invasion of Britain. Others have written as to why this could never work. Strictly, of course, that’s a meaningless statement in alternate history. Let’s rephrase by saying that the point of divergence required to make Sea Lion possible will be so large and/or early that the alternate history resulting will be too different from real history to justify using the same name.

If you’re determined anyway, you’ll need every POD you can scrape up. Have the bulk of the Danish, Norwegian, Dutch and French navies fall intact into German hands, preferably with their crews carrying grudges against perfidious Albion. Chop the British navy up in an invasion of Norway or something. Wipe out the British army: Dunkirk is a popular place for that. Inflict much higher losses on the Royal Air Force during the fall of France. Have the Germans see the attack on Britain not as a separate campaign but as a natural continuation of the defeat of France, and have them draw up the plans before they even attack France. Let the Germans have a clever idea as to how to get the troops across: something to supplement the Elbe-Rhine barge fleet. Let the British make a bad mistake when guessing where they’ll land: they did historically. Give the Germans some experience (off Norway?) bombing ships, so they get good at it. Transfer the best of the Regia Aeronautica to the channel to assist the Luftwaffe. Best of luck, you’ll need it.

Spain, ahistorical

Franco liked to say that he fought as a German ally on the eastern front of the European war, as an American ally in the Pacific, and stayed neutral in the west. Spain traded with Germany from the fall of France until late in the war.

Case I: Spanish Republicans win unassisted: They’ll be friendly to the USSR, which means they will trade with the Germans from the fall of France to Barbarossa, then cut off relations. Unless invaded by the Germans they will offer themselves as a launching platform for the second front. If they are invaded then Britain gets to fight a twentieth century version of the Napoleonic peninsular war.

Case II: Spanish Republicans win with Russian assistance: As Case I, but more so.

Case III: Spanish Republicans win with western assistance: Spain may fight on the allied side in the war. But perhaps not, they are tired of fighting and still more aligned with the USSR than the west.

Case IV: Spanish civil war drags on: What if the Spanish civil war were still in progress when France declared war on Germany? There’s a German army of “volunteers” fighting alongside Franco. Spain would become the first theatre of war in the west.

Case V: Spain allies with Germany: Say, just after the fall of France. Historically Spain demanded so much as its price that Hitler said forget it. Germany can use Spain as a launching pad to attack Gibraltar and close one end of the Mediterranean. The loss of Gibraltar and Spain would make it very hard for the allies to take the offensive in North Africa, to carry out operations like Torch, or later to land in Italy. So the landings aimed at the liberation of France move up to 1943.

Case VI: Germany invades Spain: Would Franco really fight the Germans, when he has the chance to acquiesce? I assume the Germans win, and Spain becomes even more devastated. But it may not be pleasant, peninsulas with tough terrain and poor transport infrastructure, like Spain, are vulnerable to allied sea power.

Turkey, ahistorical

Turkey stayed out of the war and traded with Germany until very near the end, when it made a token declaration.

Case I: Turkey as a German victim: Same comments apply as to Spain. Idea is for Germany to directly threaten the Caucasus. It also gives the axis control of the Bosphorus-Dardanelles but I’m not sure that’s important. I’m not sure I really believe this idea.

Case II: Turkey as a German ally: As above, but no need for an invasion and the Turkish army as an ally. Turkey can influence events in the Caucasus, Syria, Iraq, maybe Greece.

Soviet Pre-Emptive Attack

The Soviet Union did have a plan for this, one was drawn up by Zhukov. It was sort of like a larger version of the German invasion of France, pushing through the centre then hooking north to pocket Army Group North (to borrow a term from Barbarossa) against the Baltic. Who knows how well it would have worked: probably not really well, but also probably better than Barbarossa was for the Russians. The two obvious times are early 1941 and mid-1940. The latter is probably more interesting. Either way the Russians will have struck first, which increases the chance the Russian people will blame Stalin for the war. The Russian buildup during 1940 was huge, so both sides will be weaker in numerical terms.

Balkans Diversion, May 1941

The German attack on Yugoslavia and Greece may have delayed Barbarossa. Or may not, depending on who you believe about the weather. It certainly diverted British troops from North Africa, letting Rommel achieve impressive things. The root POD here may be the Italian attack on Greece.

Barbarossa, June 1941

Always a good subject for debate. Barbarossa was a brilliant tactical success, though it didn’t quite achieve its optimistic objectives. In the long run, of course, it was a strategic catastrophe for Germany. A key question is whether Germany had a choice: would the USSR have attacked eventually anyway?

Case I: It doesn’t happen: This leaves Germany facing a powerful but quiescent USSR in the east, and a belligerent but largely helpless Britain in the west. When and if the US enters the war the allies can probably win the Battle of the Atlantic, but it’s going to be a terrible drain: every unit of resources allocated by Germany to submarines requires far more allocated by the west to anti-submarine warfare and replacement of shipping losses. The allies can’t kick Germany out of France, or knock Italy out of the war, without Russia taking the brunt of the fighting. The three possibilities obviously worth looking at here are: a negotiated peace in the west; an eventual USSR attack on Germany; and the development and use of nuclear fission bombs by one or both sides.

Case I: Germany does better: Just having the Germans prepare better

Case I: USSR does better: Easy to arrange, just let Stalin listen to a few of the warnings he historically ignored. It’s not clear it’s a very interesting POD, though. The war will presumably be shorter, and Russia less exhausted, perhaps the USSR will control more of Europe.

Case II: Single main objective: Some thinkers have attacked Barbarossa as being unfocused. Each army group had a separate objective: Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the centre and Stalingrad in the south. There are some what-ifs you can play here assuming that the Germans identify one of these as the Russian centre of gravity, the most popular choice being Moscow. This isn’t an easy plausibility argument, if you want to start from a small have a good grasp of military logistics.

Strike North, 1941

Japan attacked Russia in 1939 and had the dreadful bad luck to run into a Russian general called Zhukov. (Who’d been exiled there by Stalin in order to put him on tenure track for a gulag and an execution, so if you stop Zhukov’s arrest there’ll be someone else in the theatre. This makes Zhukov’s arrest a rather elegant POD.) The result was a modest but quite dramatic Japanese defeat at Nomonhan. POD that away and the Japanese may be willing to attack the USSR in alliance with the Germans. They probably won’t do all that well, they really never did against European armies except in jungles. But the distraction could be very serious, and the lend lease that historically flowed on Russian ships from America to Vladivostok will cease.

Brutality

Life in Stalin’s idea of a socialist Utopia wasn’t fun. So when the Germans arrived in places like the Ukraine they were initially hailed as liberators by a significant percentage of the population. By their nature, however, Nazis cannot be put in contact with Slavs without a high risk of massacre. The Third Reich rapidly ran through its fund of good will and achieved an amazing thing: turned the Ukrainians into supporters of Russia. Changing this will take a big POD: racist brutality isn’t a detachable aspect of Nazism, it’s a central element. But letting the Germans keep a few friends would go some way toward any German victory scenario you wanted to construct. Ironically, the big winner from the change would be the SS, which could recruit Ukrainians, etc.; yet the SS is the historical worst offender.

Genocide

The Germans diverted significant resources into killing people they didn’t really need to. Jews are the famous example, but Gipsies, educated Poles, commissars, etc. are all worth remembering as well. (Apologies for anyone I left out, but that just underlines the point that this document is intended as a brief outline.) A Germany that harnessed those people’s talents would be really scary, but that’s probably too much to hope. (When I say “hope”, of course, what I really mean is fear.) A Germany that just used them as brute slaves might at least be slightly more efficient. The most interesting consequences might be in having all those educated, creative people still alive after the war. Add four million or so Jews, still alive and mostly wanting to leave Europe, and see what Israel turns into, or New York.

Strike South, December 1941

The Japanese felt themselves forced into war with the US, because their oil supplies had been cut off. This was the result of a sort of accidental diplomatic blockade: the US cut off their oil to protest Japanese occupation of French Indochina, and the Dutch and British cut off theirs because they thought it would please the Americans. It doesn’t seem the Americans wanted to hurt the Japanese quite as badly as they did. American terms for a resumption of oil supplies were withdrawal from China. Nobody in Japan knew whether meant just China south of the great wall, which they might be willing to do, or Manchuria and/or Taiwan as well, which they wouldn’t. There are plenty of PODs here for keeping Japan out of the war. The post-war implications of a powerful nationalist state in East Asia are fascinating.

Pearl Harbour, December 1941

After Pearl Harbour Japan rampaged across the western Pacific for six months. Something that should be made clear: Japan can’t win against a serious America. Historically the US crushed Japan using about a fifth of its strength, the rest going to Europe. Make Japan tougher and you just force the US to allocate a little more or take a little longer. If you want Japan to win it has to be mostly a political change.

Case I: It doesn’t happen: It was always a risky plan, so let’s assume it never happened. The old American battleships survive, which is a mixed blessing because they’re too slow to keep up with the carrier fleet. The Japanese carriers that struck Hawaii are off doing other things and so Japanese expansion goes a little faster.

Case II: The carriers are sunk: This could make a big dent in the American response. Japan’s rampage will last significantly longer. American counterattacks will have to wait for the Essex-class carriers, but maybe Japan will have pushed further out by the time they come. Which won’t clearly be good news for Japan.

Case III: The fuel supplies are wiped out: This will slow the Americans down a lot, but I doubt the implications are very interesting. Ships will go to Europe instead, which will help the Atlantic war.

Case IV: The carriers are spotted: A battle at sea follows, which the Japanese almost certainly win. Ships that get sunk in this battle won’t rest on the bottom of the harbour waiting for salvage: they’re gone for good.

Germany Declares War on the United States, December 1941

Hitler underestimated the United States in particular and the importance of convertible civilian industry in general. He may also have overestimated the long term importance of Operation Drumbeat, the mugging of a hopelessly ill-prepared US merchant fleet by U-boats. And he probably figured that with the US and Britain cooperating closely in the Pacific against Japan, they would also cooperate closely in the Atlantic. Even so, gratuitously declaring war on the United States was the action of a loon.

So what if he doesn’t? FDR is going to find it hard to ask for a declaration of war against Germany, now that the US has a real live actively evil empire to fight and no desire for distractions. He’ll have to sell it by claiming the axis is a real alliance, but will congress believe him? Hitler can make that especially hard through speeches declaring solidarity with the Aryan people of America. In fact, a declaration of war on the Empire of Japan would cost very little and is probably worth every pfennig’s worth of ink in the pen he uses. And why not go the whole hog: offer the United States the services of, say, a brigade of German volunteers (they may even actually have volunteered!). The eastern front will never notice the loss of a single brigade, and even when the US turns the offer down it’s all ammunition to the “Japan first!” crowd in congress. If you want to contemplate some less plausible options, what if the US says yes? Then there’ll be US soldiers serving alongside Wehrmacht: improving US doctrine, building personal links and making the US army realise that these guys are really capable and really evil. Germany may ask the American congress to send over that Joe Kennedy chap to help mediate peace between Germany and Britain. Sound fellow.

Battle of Moscow, late 1941

In my opinion, the pivotal moment of the war. German forces reached the outskirts of Moscow, and advanced elements even circled behind it to cut rail lines. Historically a Russian counteroffensive drove the Germans back, but what if the Germans had taken Moscow? This is an enormous blow to the USSR: the loss of Moscow’s industry; its importance as a transportation hub; the disruption to war planning; and morale. Comrade Stalin might just find himself up against a wall in front of a firing squad, with the new government making whatever deal they can. It isn’t easy to take a city that’s stubbornly defended, so we’re looking for a POD that worsens the Russian’s historical level of surprise.

Midway, June 1942

The American victory at Midway ended the historical Japanese rampage. The attack was partially triggered by the Doolittle raid, so that’s a possible POD.

Case I: No attempt: The Japanese are obviously stronger. The Americans will have to kill their fleet honestly. Which they will, by overwhelming force. But not before the Essex-class carriers arrive.

Case II: The US doesn’t respond: Perhaps because the Japanese change their codes. Midway falls, and the US will have to respond somehow, which leads to the battle on Japanese terms that the Japanese wanted.

Case III: Japanese victory: Not out of the question, the initial American attacks did get savaged. The point of divergence could be to take Spruance out of the picture (as a submariner he’s an unlikely candidate for carrier command) and replace him with someone of less competence. Results are as for Cases I and II, but more so.

Stalingrad and Baku, Winter 1942-3

An easy German occupation of Stalingrad, for whatever reason, might have some impact but probably not a huge one. Pushing through to cut off and (perhaps eventually) occupy the Caspian oil sources could be very important. I’m unsure how important Stalingrad was.

Kursk, 1943

Mentioned mostly so I can dismiss it: the Germans are too far gone by this stage for any single battle to save them.

Normandy, June 1944

Normandy was a spectacularly brilliant deception operation and a logistical triumph. Even so, there was one beach, Omaha, where it all went horrible. What if everything that historically went right had gone wrong, and there’d been five beaches like Omaha? What if the invasion had turned into a bloodbath, pinned against the channel and eventually evacuated in disgrace, or even overrun? It would be the end of any significant allied effort for 1944. By the time they were ready to try again the Russians would be knocking on the door of Berlin.

Jet Fighters

The Me-262 was a primitive jet fighter. Its production and development were held up by Hitler’s odd obsession with converting it into a strike aircraft.

Case I: Germans develop jets earlier: It’ll hurt, but it can’t really turn the war around. The US, Britain and USSR will presumably accelerate their own jet programs in response.

Case II: Germans fail to develop jets: This may retard jet aircraft.

Case III: Allies develop jets sooner: P-80s, MiG-somethings and/or Gloucester Meteors battle Me-262s and Arabo blitzbombers. All good fun, and jet technology may be accelerated, but probably not a huge impact on history.

The K-Bomb

The Germans had most of what they needed to produce a nuclear fission bomb. The big problem was resources generally, it’s hard to see Germany funnelling the vast sums into their program the Americans could into theirs, unless Hitler gets obsessed with the idea. They had Werner Heisenberg to run it, but they’d also lost a lot of brilliant scientists like Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi, and made no visible effort to recruit Nils Bohr. Their concept was completely wrong (they thought they’d need to build a reactor and make it go supercritical, which rules out bombs small enough to be transported in aircraft) but that can be taken away by POD. If the Germans get the K-bomb early enough (from kern, the German word for nuclear) they’ll probably drop the first one on London or Moscow. A later target might be Antwerp, or some critical centre of communications on the Eastern front.

Atoms for Germany, 1945

Nuclear weapons were invented for the purpose of attacking Germany. Let Germany hold on six months more and they may be. The postwar consequences are probably the most interesting: Germans may have stronger negative feelings about nuclear power, nuclear weapons and Americans.

Hiroshima, August 1945

The US didn’t realise it, but Japan was ready to surrender when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. A translation error was partially responsible for the confusion: nobody should discuss sensitive subjects with foreigners in a language as deliberately obscure as Japanese. The final straw had been the USSR’s entry into the war, since the Japanese had been hoping the USSR would mediate. If America realised Japan was about to surrender, or if Japan surrendered sooner, maybe just a few weeks sooner, there might never have been a nuclear weapon used in anger. The post-war issues could bear a lot of scrutiny: America thinks the bomb is a secret, but it isn’t. The USSR knows about the bomb, but maybe Stalin will be skeptical of his scientists’ apparently hyperbolic descriptions. Both sides will capture German scientists from Heisenberg’s project, who will think the project very difficult. But maybe not say so, since they’re all unemployed and in danger of becoming slave labourers if they can’t prove themselves useful. What if Russia builds a nuclear arsenal in secret? How long before scientists and science fiction writers start wondering aloud why nobody’s been working on this? Or before the news leaks: scientists are very bad at keeping secrets, at least amongst themselves.

World War Three

At the end of world war two the allied and Soviet armies met across a vanquished Germany. What if the meeting had been violent? The Russians have a huge army, but not much manpower left in reserve. The western allies have the arsenal of democracy, lots of airpower and the sympathies of any German military units that have survived (e.g. the Norway garrison, von Kesselring’s army of Italy and that division that got stuck on a channel island) or can be formed (e.g. from POWs). Best of all there are nuclear weapons in the pipeline. The Russians must win fast, or they won’t win at all: of course, the best they can possibly hope to do is overrun Germany, France and just maybe Italy, so there’ll always be a base for the allies to come back or at least strike back. The French, Yugoslav and Italian communist partisans will presumably fight as allies of the USSR. The Japanese have a glimmer of hope that they never deserved: if they get an offer of peace from the allies short of total humiliation they will accept; if they don’t they will fight without real hope, notionally alongside the Russians.

Case I: The western allies start it: I don’t see how to arrange this, it probably requires a conspiracy between, at a minimum, deranged analogues of Roosevelt, Churchill and lots of other people. Let us never speak of it again. OK, maybe a deranged analogue of Patton starts it and it gets out of hand. But sooner or later someone will try to pull the plug, if Stalin will agree. Not a really plausible POD.

Case II: The USSR starts it: Stalin’s paranoia points outward for a while, instead of inward. Maybe the POD is a clever Red Army general who deliberately redirects Stalin’s attention as the only way to prevent another purge. A lot of people in Russia will be unhappy and they’ll take any good opportunity to depose Stalin if they think they can make terms. Or maybe Stalin realises what nuclear weapons can do and thinks he has to strike now, which is a really dumb way to think but who knows the mind of a mad dictator.

Case III: Both sides think the other started it: Probably the most likely POD. This makes for a bitter conflict, both sides are crying infamy and are in no mood to accept anything less than unconditional surrender. The blue glow of Cerenkov radiation replaces street lights in many Russian cities.

BY David Bofinger

From Warsaw to the Oder: Planning for the Inevitable II

Lacking manpower, materiel, and suitable fortifications, Army Group A cracked apart on the first day of the Soviet offensive (within hours, actually). As always, the Soviets staggered the start. Coordinated front-level offensives on this continental scale require more than a starter’s pistol. Local variations in weather, the ground, and the state of preparations can lead to delays. In previous weeks, the Stavka had been the recipient of urgent requests from the western powers to advance the date of the offensive, scheduled originally for January 16. Stalin had obliged. Indeed, there was nothing he seemed to enjoy more than advancing a starting date on his commanders. The result was a certain amount of last-second scrambling that some commanders handled more smoothly than others:

January 12th       1st Ukrainian Front (Konev)

January 13th       1st Baltic Front (Bagramyan)

2nd Byelorussian Front (Rokossovsky)

3rd Byelorussian Front (Cherniakhovsky)

January 14th       1st Byelorussian Front (Zhukov)

At any rate, staggering the attacks brought a benefit—as the Soviets well knew by now. With German field commanders confused as to the location of the Soviet Schwerpunkt, they were uncertain or tentative in their reactions and often inserted their meager reserves prematurely or into the wrong place. The impact of receiving one massive blow after another also had a paralyzing effect on the High Command, including both Hitler and the OKH alike.

The Vistula-Oder operation, then, began as Marshal Konev’s show, with Zhukov’s front following two days later. Konev’s assault out of the Baranow-Sandomierz bridgehead married brute force to a sophisticated tactical approach, and it remains a model of modern offensive operations. The offensive opened with a brief but monstrous 15-minute bombardment at 4:45 a.m., with 300 guns per kilometer arranged quite literally hub to hub, targeting 4th Panzer Army opposite the bridgehead. Joining in at 5:00 a.m. were the “forward battalions,” probing the German front for weak spots and driving ahead 600 meters into the German defensive zone over the next few hours, occupying the German frontline trenches and even parts of the second. Most of the defending German infantry thought that they were facing the main attack by now, and they came up from their bunkers, where they’d been waiting out the Soviet bombardment, to engage the Soviet assault troops. That decision was fatal, leaving them open and vulnerable to the big one: an all-guns-at-once, 107-minute plastering of every worth-while target at and behind the German front. Soon the entire battlefield was a seething mass of high explosives, deadly chunks of shrapnel, and clods of frozen dirt, covered in a thick, choking, acrid smoke. A whole series of direct hits destroyed the headquarters of 4th Panzer Army, and the commander, a shaken General Gräser, might as well have been back in Berlin for all the control he was able to exert on the battle. And now, just before noon, it was the turn of the main body of Soviet infantry, moving up in 150-meter-wide sectors deliberately left untouched by the bombardment. Within hours they had penetrated as deep as five miles, and Konev hadn’t even played his trump card: the more than 2,000 tanks of the 3rd Guards and 4th Tank Armies. They came up at 2:00 p.m., passing through their own infantry and driving deep, smashing German defenses beyond hope of repair. By nightfall, they had torn a 25-mile-wide gash and in some sectors had penetrated up to 20 miles deep.

Through it all 4th Panzer Army hadn’t reacted and, indeed, hadn’t been able to react. Like a patient lying on an operating table, the initiative was out of its hands. The formation in the front line, XXXXVIII Panzer Corps, had three divisions stretched very thinly, and the opening Soviet attack had vaporized it. Analysts who have studied German dispositions carefully note that the reserve Panzer formations of 4th Panzer Army (the 16th and 17th Panzer Divisions belonging to General Walther Nehring’s XXIV Panzer Corps) were deployed too close to the front line. The decision belonged to Hitler, suspicious as ever of his commanders’ operational intentions and willingness to retreat. Located just a few thousand yards behind the Hauptkampflinie, however, Nehring’s corps suffered mightily in the opening bombardment, especially in terms of command, control, and radio facilities. Within an hour, Nehring was out of communication with his divisions, and as much as General Gräser, he was commanding blindly for the entire opening sequence. He finally received orders in the late afternoon to close up his two divisions to the town of Kielce—dead center in the path of the onrushing Soviet tank armies. His signal troops had restored communications with his divisions by now, but it hardly mattered: the orders were already obsolete. Soviet armor had already overrun the assembly areas for his Panzers, catching one Tiger tank battalion being refueled out in the open and destroying it completely. The two divisions struggle gamely toward Kielce in disconnected and isolated fragments, and the commander of 17th Panzer Division, Colonel Albert Brux, was wounded in a Soviet bombardment and taken prisoner.

Not that it mattered. Soviet armored spearheads had already taken Kielce. Nehring’s corps never did manage to launch a counterattack. Rather, it found itself fighting for its life against superior forces from the start. Soon, 4th Panzer Army had ceased to exist as a military formation. It had degenerated into an onrushing stream of men and vehicles, along with thousands of ethnic German refugees, all heading west and northwest, desperately trying to get to safety. This almost always meant off-road movement, however, since Soviet armor was prowling all the good highways. In the course of the first few days, small groups of survivors from the neighboring XXXXII Corps and XXXXVIII Panzer Corps coalesced around the remnants of Nehring’s Panzer corps to form Gruppe Nehring—all that was left of the army.

Nehring was a tested commander and managed to form the motley command into a “roving Kessel” (wandernden Kessel). Surrounded on all sides by Soviet units heading west at top speed and barely thinking it worthwhile to stop and fight a pitched battle with German forces who were already obviously defeated, under constant air attack, and low on supplies and ammunition, Nehring’s little band (fewer than 10,000 men all told) managed to thread the needle again and again over the next ten days. Unbeknownst to him, he had hit the seam between the two Soviet fronts, Zhukov to his north and Konev to his south. Moving mainly by night, hiding the tanks and vehicles among the houses and barns of this rural land, Nehring avoided Soviet concentrations, launching the occasional attack only when absolutely necessary and crashing through roadblocks. Kielce to Piotrków, Lask to the crossing over the Warthe River at Sieradz, and finally crossing the Oder River to safety at Glogau: Gruppe Nehring had traveled nearly 200 miles to safety. Like the Rückkämpfer of 1944, Nehring had beaten the odds—but his saga is impressive only within the context of yet another miserable German operational collapse.

On January 14, Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front joined in the offensive. Coming out of the Magnuszew bridgehead, Zhukov meted out the same punishment to German 9th Army as Konev had to 4th Panzer. Here, too, the Soviet commander displayed finesse along with crushing strength. He opened with a furious 25-minute barrage and followed it up with a massive reconnaissance actions. It was of such size, scope, and ferocity (thirty-two reinforced rifle battalions and twenty-five additional rifle companies to reduce German strongpoints) that most of the German defenders believed once again that the main attack had begun. Soon they were falling back, abandoning the front line and then the second. A simultaneous attack out of the Pulawy bridgehead had equal success, and by the end of the day Zhukov’s armor was 20 miles inside the German defenses. The commander of 9th Army, General Lüttwitz, inserted his Panzer reserves with impressive dispatch, and 19th and 25th Panzer Divisions duly entered the fray on the first day. Given the collapse of the defenses in front of both bridgeheads, however, Lüttwitz had no choice but to split the divisions, directing 19th Panzer toward the Pulawy bridgehead and the 25th against Magnuszew. Here, too, the impression was not so much of being defeated as simply being swallowed up, and both Panzer divisions were soon reeling back with heavy losses. The next day, Zhukov directed 47th Army to begin its envelopment of Warsaw from the north, while 61st Army and 1st Polish Army drove up from the south. A few days of fighting and it was over: German troops evacuated Warsaw on January 17, and the victorious Polish formations were parading through their liberated capital.

With both 4th Panzer and 9th Armies in tatters, and both Soviet fronts pushing hard, the Vistula-Oder Offensive entered its travelogue phase. Warsaw began the parade, and now the cities and towns fell in a rush: Kraków and Czeţstochowa to Konev, Łódź to Zhukov. While there was the occasional skirmish, this was top-speed movement, limited only by logistical constraints and supply, ammunition, and fuel. By January 31, the two Soviet fronts had overrun the entire vast Posen Bulge, known as the Reichsgau Wartheland or Warthegau during Nazi occupation. On January 12—the very night that Soviet forces had smashed the German 4th Panzer Army—the provincial Gauleiter, Arthur Greiser, had promised the local population that victory was certain, that “the Bolshevist flood would bleed itself to death on the borders of the Warthegau,” and that “the Bolshevist marauders (Soldateska) would not set a single foot on our land.” But these had been empty words, and Greiser knew it. Sitting on a flat, featureless plain, he had done nothing to fortify the Warthegau, and only very late in the game, on January 20, did he approve an evacuation of the civilian population. While desperate families—women, children, and the elderly—loaded themselves and their possessions onto wagons and sleighs and scurried in the freezing cold, Greiser had a berth on a safe private train to Frankfurt on the Oder, one of many despicable flights carried out by party officials in those last days. Fighting an overmatched military and an utterly negligent civilian authority, the Soviet campaign had been one of the most successful and dramatic in history. Elements of the 1st Tank Army, part of Zhukov’s front, were already on the Oder River near Küstrin and Frankfurt, having lunged nearly 250 miles in just over two weeks. Konev’s spearheads likewise had driven deep into Silesia, reaching the Oder and seizing sizable bridgeheads on the left bank of the river at Steinau and Ohlau, northwest and southeast of the provincial capital, Breslau. Silesia, Prussia’s ur-conquest from two hundred years before, now stood under threat. The Wehrmacht’s losses in all this had been colossal: no fewer than 300,000 men. “The catastrophe at the front was coming down on us like an avalanche,” as Guderian put it.

Under Guderian’s continual urging, Hitler did finally order reinforcements to the front: five divisions and a corps headquarters from the Courland Pocket, the Grossdeutschland Panzer Corps from East Prussia. The former involved evacuation by sea and would take time, if it happened at all. The latter had minimal impact. Grossdeutschland began to detrain at Łódź on January 16 and immediately sent one of its divisions, the Hermann Göring Fallschirmjäger Panzer Division, into action east of the city. But the division had massive Soviet forces hurtling at it from all directions and had no choice but to fall back. Łódź itself fell to elements of Chuikov’s 8th Army—largely consisting of infantry but moving just as rapidly as the tank armies—on January 19. Subsequent Soviet attacks caught the German trains carrying much of the Grossdeutschland Corps’s equipment and destroyed them. Within days of arriving at the front, the corps commander, General Dietrich von Saucken, saw his force reduced to the size of a battlegroup. And like Nehring, he sound found himself surrounded and in command of a wandering cauldron (Gruppe Saucken), heading south and west toward the Warthe. Nehring’s group was all that was left of 4th Panzer Army, Saucken’s the remnant of the 9th.

While the front disintegrated, not just between the Vistula and the Oder but in East Prussia as well, business as usual went on at Führer Headquarters. The same interminable situation conferences took place. Guderian and Hitler continued to argue over the same trivial particulars of operations, administration, and personnel, all of which the general describes in detail in his memoirs. They even redesignated their army groups, hardly the most pressing need at the moment:

Old Army Group (Oder Front)                     =======>              New Army Group Center

Army Group Center (East Prussia)               =======>             Army Group North

Army Group North (Courland Pocket)         =======>            Army Group Courland

And in his by now traditional response to disaster at the front, Hitler fired his generals in droves. General Harpe, the commander of Army Group A, got the axe first, followed by General Lüttwitz, commander of 9th Army. The ostensible reason was the hasty evacuation of Warsaw—yet another fallen city that Hitler had ordered held to the last man. After the fall of the fortress complex of Lötzen in East Prussia on January 23 essentially without a fight, the dismissals gained momentum. General Reinhardt, commanding Army Group Center, went next, followed by General Hossbach of 4th Army. The new army group commanders were Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner, perhaps Hitler’s most fanatic servant, at Army Group A (now redesignated Army Group Center) and General Lothar Rendulic for Army Group Center (now Army Group North).

Their appointments continued a long-standing devolution within Hitler’s marshalate. Like Field Marshal Model in the west, neither Schörner nor Rendulic could make a claim to any particular operational brilliance or innovative style of leadership. Both were loyal to the core, however. Schörner, in particular, viewed terrorizing the men underneath him as a legitimate tool of National Socialist command, executed thousands of his own soldiers to keep the others in the line, and would remain with his command until the end of the war. Rendulic managed to touch all the command bases: Army Group Courland, Army Group North, back to Courland, and then Army Group South until the end of the war (with one last redesignation at Army Group Ostmark), all in the course of four months. They were men upon whom the Führer could rely: ruthless, grim commanders who were determined to throw their men into the fire by the hundreds of thousands for as long as Hitler felt they should.

The Axis in Iraq 1941 I

Two weeks into the campaign and the British were secure in Basra and had lifted the siege of Habbaniya. They had also degraded the Iraqi air force, which had been reduced, the War Cabinet were told, to about fifty aircraft, of which only six were first-line operational types. But though the Iraqi army had suffered a demoralizing reverse, it was still largely intact, with 20,000 troops in and around Baghdad and 15,000 in the north. Rashid Ali’s government still ruled unmolested in Baghdad and the Indian Army troops decanted into Basra were bogged down and making exceedingly slow progress in their endeavours to move north to threaten the capital. Most worryingly, German forces and ammunition trains had started to arrive. The British government believed that the Germans might send up to sixty fighters and bombers. About thirty Luftwaffe aircraft were reported to have landed in Aleppo and Damascus en route to Iraq. By this stage, British objectives had crystallized around the overthrow of Rashid Ali, the removal of the Golden Square and the return of Prince Abdulillah as regent.

The Chiefs of Staff remained distinctly worried, despite the success at Habbaniya. Dill confided to Auchinleck on 21 May: ‘If we cannot quickly scotch the trouble that has started with Rashid Ali it is difficult to see where it will all end’. There were wider implications, too, the longer the situation in Iraq remained unresolved. As Eden wrote to Churchill on 19 May, ‘these developments cause me most concern on account of their influence on Turkey’s policy [as to whether to remain neutral or actively assist Germany]. The Turks are concentrating troops on the Iraqi and Syrian frontiers and are asking us in return for our plans for dealing with the situation in these recalcitrant countries’.

A message from Churchill to Roosevelt on 14 May reflected the finely balanced situation, as well as allied ambitions. ‘In Iraq,’ the British prime minister told the American president, ‘we are trying to regain control and anyhow we are making a large strong bridgehead at Basra where later on in the war American machines may be assembled and supplies unloaded.’ But, Churchill cautioned, ‘there is no doubt’ that Admiral Darlan, leader of Vichy Syria, ‘will sell the pass if he can, and German aircraft are already passing into Iraq’.4 The unfolding situation was difficult to read, and the British needed a quick resolution, not least so that Iraq could play its part in the wider war effort. It was infuriating to be fighting the locals – who were supposed to be allies – when there was a world war to be won. For both sides, it was a race against time: for the British, to get more troops into Iraq and onto the battlefield, and for the Iraqis, to get the Germans in and crush British resistance before it was fully mobilized.

Fevered Iraqi appeals to Berlin had been made from the start of hostilities. On 4 May a coded radio message had been picked up by the British. ‘This is Baghdad,’ the announcer repeated three times. ‘This is a message to the Iraki legation in Ankara [repeated]. It is the Iraki Foreign Office.’ The message instructed Iraq’s Ankara legation to keep the pressure on German officials to send military aid forthwith. War Minister Naji Shawkat also travelled to Ankara ‘to impress upon the German authorities Iraq’s urgent need for military assistance’. But the Iraqi government was simultaneously exploring options for a return to peace. On 13 May the American ambassador in Ankara, John Van Antwerp MacMurray, reported that Shawkat had ‘sought to obtain [the Turkish] Government’s assistance in formulating acceptable basis of understanding with the British’. In response, Turkish officials made plain their conviction that Iraq had violated the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty and taken a ‘course whose successful outcome could only place it and [the] Moslem world at [the] mercy of [a] power far less indulgent and more oppressive’. Rashid Ali also sent his Foreign Minister to Saudi Arabia, where he was given short shrift by King Ibn Saud. The British also appealed for the Saudi king’s aid, on 2 May telegramming Jeddah to ask him to make a public statement ‘deploring the situation, to which Rashid Ali’s disastrous policy has brought Iraq, and expressing the hope that Iraqis would disown him’.

Intelligence decrypts kept London informed about the build-up of Fliegerkorps XI in the Balkans, for a time entertaining the idea that the threat to Crete might be a cover for an operation in Iraq. On 9 May, Ultra had revealed that an alternative had been chosen. From Luftwaffe cyphers it was learned that an airfield near Athens had been set aside for special operations and that bombers and fighters, stripped of their Luftwaffe markings, were being ferried through Syria to Iraq. The War Cabinet’s weekly resumé reported that:

French authorities are known to have sent two train loads of ammunition eastwards but deny this destined for Iraq on German demands . . . Enemy agents are believed to be entering Iraq from Turkey and Iran, presumably assisted by Fifth Column already organized there to prepare for reception German airborne troops . . . By advancing through Turkey into Syria and at the same time renewing their offensive in North Africa they could develop once again the pincer movement which they have used so consistently in all their recent campaigns.

It was on this day, 9 May, that the Foreign Office in Berlin announced Germany’s military aid package to Iraq. Major Axel von Blomberg was on his way to conduct a reconnaissance of Iraqi airfields for Luftwaffe use, the first twenty aircraft were due to arrive soon and supplies were moving through Syria. Though in the end it did not transpire, the original plan was also to deploy a reinforced battalion containing at its core elements of the Brandenberg Regiment, a specialist unit controlled by the Abwehr and used on intelligence and sabotage operations. General Hellmuth Felmy was in overall command. He had retired as an air force general in January 1940, but had been recalled in May 1941 and appointed head of Sonderstab Felmy, the German military mission to Iraq. It would perform the role of a ‘central agency for all Arab questions applying to the Wehrmacht’. Luftwaffe colonel Werner Junck was the officer tasked with taking Fliegerführer Irak to Mosul, from where its aircraft would operate bearing Iraqi air force markings. The force initially comprised a squadron of twelve Messerschmitt Bf 110s, a squadron of twelve Heinkel He 111s and thirteen Junker transport aircraft. A squadron of Italian Fiat CR.42s also arrived from Rhodes. German forces made their presence felt as soon as they arrived in theatre. On 12 May a Heinkel bombed men of the 1st Battalion the Essex Regiment, part of Habforce, as they began their journey towards Habbaniya, and the following day a Blenheim was attacked by a Messerschmitt over Mosul. On 14 May six Messerschmitts were seen at Erbil and three Heinkels were also reported. By this time, the bulk of Junck’s force had arrived in theatre. The deployment of German forces was intended to provide ‘what the Germans tellingly described as “spine straightening” for the Iraqi army, much of which had become terrified of bombing by British aircraft’.

Crucial to the outcome of the campaign would be how well German forces could be integrated with their Iraqi allies, and the extent to which these unlikely bedfellows could agree upon and execute an effective joint plan of action. Major von Blomberg was charged with the task of supervising this integration, and travelled to Baghdad on 15 May to arrange a council of war with the Iraqi leadership. Unfortunately for both him and the nascent German–Iraqi alliance, an Iraqi soldier ‘guarding a bridge in Baghdad, not recognizing the shape and silhouette of the He 111, and believing it to be British, placed a few well-aimed rounds into the fuselage as it cruised low overhead’. Von Blomberg was discovered to be dead on arrival, a bullet through his neck. Following this inauspicious start, Junck himself flew to Baghdad the following day to confer with Rashid Ali, Chief of the General Staff Major-General Amin Zaki, Colonel Nur ed-Din Mahmud and Colonel Mahmud Salman (of the Golden Square). It was agreed that the German priority should be to prevent Habforce arriving at Habbaniya, followed by the capture of the RAF base. Only a few days later, however, Habforce arrived at its destination unmolested, the Germans having arrived too late.

While in Baghdad, Junck conferred with Fritz Grobba, reinstalled as Berlin’s representative after a ‘triumphal return’. His party had flown in from Rhodes via Aleppo and Mosul in Heinkels accompanied by Messerschmitt fighters. His mission was to prepare for a new German–Iraqi alliance after the British had been ejected. As part of this initiative, the Germans were quick to get a team to Baghdad to examine the Iraqi oil industry with a view to its transfer to Nazi use. The German Petroleum Mission, a group of ‘reputable scientists’, came well prepared with equipment and supplies, and were led by a very able petroleum technologist, surmised by the British to be one Colonel Geissman: he informed staff at the Baghdad Chemical Laboratory ‘that he had been in charge of the immediate utilization of seized petrol supplies in most of the major German campaigns’ to date. Geissman’s immediate object was the production of the maximum quantity of aviation spirit of at least 87 octane rating. The German scientists ‘succeeded in blending all spirits in Baghdad derived from Abadan up to about 92 octane rating’.

The Germans were also sending weapons. An agreement with the Vichy authorities allowed the Syrian government in Damascus to recover a quarter of the weaponry impounded under the terms of the French armistice in return for turning over the remainder to the Iraqis. The agreement had also permitted Axis forces to use Syrian airfields and facilities, and provided for the establishment of a Luftwaffe base at Aleppo. The first trainload of ex-Syrian weapons had arrived in Mosul on 13 May via Turkey, and included 15,500 rifles, 200 machine-guns and four 75-millimetre field guns, all with ammunition and shells.

Junck attacked Habbaniya on 16 and 17 May using six Messerschmitts and three Heinkels operating from Mosul. The problem for the Germans was that the British had forces up and running inside Iraq and were imbued with an offensive spirit, determined not to allow the Germans the chance to get a grip on the situation. Air Vice-Marshal D’Albiac, now directing British air operations, was quick to take the attack to the Germans, sending aircraft against their Mosul stronghold. Attempts were also made to disorganize the German movement of supplies by bombing Mosul railway station and the railway lines and sidings surrounding it. On 17 May British reinforcements arrived in the shape of four Gladiators from 94 Squadron and six Blenheims from 84 Squadron.

Although the nine remaining Wellingtons in Basra had been withdrawn to Egypt on 12 May to assist in operations against Rommel in the Western Desert, two new long-range cannon-firing Hurricanes had also arrived from Aboukir in Egypt. Together with the Blenheims, they made a daring, long-range sortie to hit back at the Luftwaffe at Mosul on 17 May, destroying two and damaging four aircraft for the loss of a Hurricane. On the same day, two Gladiators from Habbaniya, loitering around Rashid Airfield at Baghdad, encountered two Bf.110Cs attempting to take off, and destroyed them both.

All in all, this represented a disturbing rate of attrition for the newly arrived Germans.

Nevertheless, the Foreign Office in London urged a quick solution. Eden wrote to Churchill, again raising the fear that if Germany was successful in Iraq and Syria, Turkey would ‘be effectively surrounded and it would indeed be difficult then to count upon her enduring loyalty’. In connection with this, the Foreign Secretary noted that ‘the mobile brigade [Habforce] had evidently had difficulties in its approach to Habbaniya’. He had not, he continued, ‘appreciated when the Defence Committee recommended this move that its development would take so long. The delay has enabled German arrivals to hearten the Iraqis.’19 Meanwhile, in Baghdad and several Iraqi outposts incarcerated American and British subjects also wondered at the delay, none more so than those crammed into the diplomatic compounds.

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The British Embassy stood on the west bank of the Tigris, its gardens set about with buddleia, hibiscus and pomegranate. ‘Passing through the gates in the high wall,’ wrote John Masters, ‘I entered Arnold’s Rugby, with rooks cawing in immemorial elms and chestnut trees spreading their gaunt branches across gravelled paths; and there was a big grey English country house, and the smell of tea and crumpets in the Counsellor’s study.’ Freya Stark’s memoir offers a vivid account of the month-long incarceration of the ‘small Lucknow of imprisoned British’; 350 men, women and children, as well as the ambassador and his staff, crammed into the embassy compound living in dormitory-style makeshift accommodation. Overflowing with European refugees, the embassy’s ballroom was ‘like pictures of the first emigrant ships’. Each defending his or her own privacy, she wrote, we ‘vainly try to make small barricades of our boxes and belongings’. Anticipating ‘Ash Wednesday’, the famous occasion on which secret documents were burnt by the British Embassy and Middle East Command headquarters as Rommel closed on Cairo, official papers were destroyed.

Defences were improvised around the perimeter, including sandbags in case the compound was shelled or bombed. There were loopholes in the sandbag wall at the front entrance, and barbed wire connected the cypress trees to form an inner defensive ring. To create more obstacles, cars were parked on the lawn. Improvised bombs were stockpiled at various locations throughout the compound. Known as the ‘general’s bombs’, the arsenal included petrol tins of sand and beer cans filled with paraffin with cotton-wool fuses. Iraqi policemen ensured no one left the compound, and a drum-beating, war-chanting ‘mob’ sometimes gathered outside. Its efforts appear to have been rather desultory, however, the result of official encouragement and the passion of a small group of enthusiastic nationalists, rather than a reflection of a seething anti-British population. Though most of the British people affected indifference and good cheer, it was a worrying time. Stark described the ‘pathetic look of dog-like trust of Indians; gloomy look of Iraqis; imperturbable, hot, but not uncheerful looks of the British’. Attempts were made to fashion a receiving set, and activities were planned to sustain morale, such as a concert, during which the audience was ‘not allowed to applaud, fearing that the sound of it across the river might be thought of as rejoicing over the air raid’.

The inmates were cheered by RAF activity overhead. A large V was marked out on the lawn in white sheets ‘to tell the air that we are lost to news’, and Union Jacks were spread out on the roof to prevent British aircraft attacking their own embassy. With increasing regularity the throttle of ‘British bombers, black in the blue sky’, was heard. On one occasion Stark observed the ‘very beautiful sight’ of a Wellington bomber ‘slowly sailing along at about 1,000 feet, up the river from south to north, very dark against the green sky and the sleeping houses’. An aspect of the British campaign that Stark found less impressive was the propaganda material dropped by the RAF, a ‘dead sort of animation of Arabic leaflets’. Ambassador Cornwallis agreed that their tone was ‘insulting’. They had a threatening tenor that Britain’s precarious position hardly justified. Stark wrote scathingly of the ‘monstrous leaflet drop by the British Government to say they will bomb Government buildings in Iraq, so condemn all here to destruction – and of course it can’t be carried out. Why spread empty threats? HE [His Excellency] telegraphs urgently to stop violent leaflets written by ourselves.’

To replenish the embassy larder, the Iraqi guards would escort a lorry to the shops. During and after RAF raids this was impossible as the shops were shut, their owners ‘terrified by our bombing’. As stocks dwindled, rationing was introduced. Portions were ‘quite sufficient though one could easily eat every meal twice over’. A typical day’s rations might comprise, for breakfast, ‘cocoa, one sardine on bread, one bread-slice and jam. Lunch: rice, corned beef, half tomato, two small bread bibi; two prunes and half slice pineapple. Evening: fish, curry and stewed fruit: very little of each.’

A mantle of depression settled on the embassy as the realization set in that the siege might last a long time. We ‘must admit that in the map of the whole Middle East we are not so very important, but console ourselves by reflecting that our neighbourhood to Oil will prevent us from being forgotten’. Furthermore, it was not just the RAF that was active in the skies above Baghdad; on 15 May, German aircraft were spotted for the first time. The Iraqi police outside the embassy became less amiable and ‘call the inside Iraqis Ingliz and promise massacre’, inspired by the Grand Mufti’s speeches. One of the policemen guarding the compound told Stark that if she became a Muslim he would keep her himself: ‘I am sorry that their minds dwell on loot and rapine – evidently the result of the Mufti’s preaching of a holy war last night’. She worried about the embassy’s Iraqi and other non-British servants and attendants, for a death sentence had been placed upon them. There were also threats directed specifically at the women, a policeman telling Stark that he could not imagine what use ‘the harim’ about to be murdered had for so many items of cosmetics. ‘I mean to be killed, if it comes to that, with my face in proper order.’ Things were little better at the American legation nearby, to the anger of Paul Knabenshue. His mission, he wrote, had to deal with ‘a hostile gangster fifth column illegal government under the direction of Grobba, the former German Minister to Iraq’. The Iraqi police guard deployed around the American compound ‘for our protection’ had, in fact, ‘made us prisoners’.