Norwegian ski troops stabilize rifles on ski poles, approximately 1700.
Despite their limited usefulness, rifles still occasionally managed to find their way into battle-and some of history’s most lucrative targets were among their first.
Rifles were not adopted for general military issue, and with good reason: rifle-armed infantrymen would have been at a tremendous disadvantage. Reloading a snug-fitting rifled bore was a tedious process, taking about two minutes. At such a slow rate of fire, given the rifle’s typical range-perhaps 200 yards-a line of riflemen would have been bombarded by 25 volleys of smoothbore musket fire and a bayonet assault before they could load for a second shot. And the cost! A rifle required extensive hand finishing, costing three to four times the price of a smoothbore. Further, there was no means to attach a bayonet, and just as well-most rifles, especially long-barreled American guns, were too slender and delicate for bayonet fighting.
It was obvious to military leaders of the day that victories were determined not by shot placement but by reloading quickly and maintaining well-drilled discipline under fire. Of what possible military value was selective, accurate fire? What difference did it make which opposing infantryman a rifleman selected to engage? There were masses of fast-firing muskets to do that, rapidly shooting, reloading, and shooting. Volley fire from rows of well-drilled infantrymen firing smoothbore muskets-that’s what w o n battles, according to 18th-century European generals. It seemed the height of folly to jeopardize this winning equation and instead rely on the agonizingly slow fire of riflemen.
At the naval Battle of Texel on 10 August 1653, Admiral Martin Harpertszoon Tromp, the commander of the 100-ship Dutch fleet and the victor of a dozen engagements with the British, stood at the helm of his flagship, the Brederode, as she neared the enemy’s flagship. Colorfully attired and in conspicuous command, Tromp offered too grand a target for a British rifleman perched high in the nearby ship’s rigging. That sharpshooter’s well-placed shot not only struck down Holland’s foremost naval leader, but also contributed mightily to the Dutch loss at Texel and, with that, a British victory in the First Anglo-Dutch War. Equally, though, Tromp’s death ended any hope of restoring England’s pro-Dutch Stuart monarchy. In grateful recognition, Britain’s King Charles II presented his victorious admiral a New World land grant that the admiral’s son, William Penn, would use to found Pennsylvania-quite a dramatic chain of events from one well-aimed shot.
In 1709, no less momentous were the results of another sharpshooter’s skills. Sweden’s King Charles XII, a youthful, Alexander-like warrior-monarch, inspired his tiny army to dominate the Baltic region. After defeating Denmark, he invaded Poland, seized Saxony, and even fought Czar Peter the Great’s Russia. Brave to the point of recklessness, King Charles did not attempt to conceal his presence while inspecting his front line before one of history’s pivotal battles at Poltava in the Ukraine. He proved an irresistible target for a distant Russian sharpshooter, who took careful aim and nearly missed, striking his majesty in the left foot. The king’s wound festered. Though feverish, 11 days later Charles attempted to command from a stretcher, but the czar’s troops decisively defeated the demoralized Swedes.
Though he retained the throne in Stockholm, this was not the last meeting this monarch would have with a rifleman. Nine years later, on 30 November 1718, while besieging the Norwegian fortress of Fredriksball, King Charles XII raised his head above a wall to observe the action when “a well-aimed shot” struck his left temple, killing him instantly. Thus one Norwegian rifleman ended forever Sweden’s dominance of northern Europe. (And reminiscent of John F. Kennedy conspiracy claims 250 years later, rumors flew that the king had actually been assassinated by Swedish political enemies. Twice, in 1746 an d 1859, his body was exhumed, only to determine that “the fatal shot had been fired from a distance on the king’s left, and from a higher level than that on which he stood.”)
The rifle that killed King Charles XII may well have been a German Model 1711, an early European military rifle manufactured by gunmaker Zella Mehlis, available both in full-length and carbine versions, the latter with a 22-inch barrel. It was known to have been used in the Great Northern War of 1700-1721. Later the Model 1711 was issued to Norway’s sonnenfjellske ski troops, one of Europe’s earliest sharpshooter units.
Where did these early sharpshooters come from? Prior to the 1750s, incidents of military sharpshooting were extremely rare because rifles were extremely rare. Few armies possessed rifles, and there were no military courses to instruct any kind of basic marksmanship, much less precision shooting. To find such expert shooters, armies had to look outside their own ranks, calling on self-taught marksmen already skilled with rifles. It could be said that every 18th-century rifleman, w h e n thus called into military service, was a sharpshooter since only a rifleman could selectively engage targets or hit targets beyond the range of the common infantryman.
Austria and Prussia, too, fielded sharpshooters armed with hunter rifles (Jägerstutzen). In 1744, Prussia organized a special corps of “Field Hunters on Foot” (Feldjäger zu Fufs), recruited from professional Alpine hunters and noted marksmen, outfitted with long-barreled rifles and employed as light infantry. These Feldjägers preceded conventional infantry formations as scouts and skirmishers, remaining close enough for concerted action with the main body, which also could protect them with massive firepower. The following year, Austria established a similar light infantry unit, called the Hunter Group (Jägertruppe), manned by professional hunters from Alpine regions.
Prince Maurice at the Battle of Nieuwpoort by Pauwels van Hillegaert. Oil on canvas.
The army of Maurice of Nassau at Nieuport, 1600, in ‘battalions’. Note the English regiments of the de Veres in the advance guard
In 1568 the Dutch began their long battle for independence from Spain and would remain at war intermittently for 80 years. The problems faced by the young Dutch republic played an important role in the military reforms that would take place there over several decades to come. Although many of these reforms centred on infantry organization, drill and tactics, the nature of warfare in the Netherlands would be one of many more sieges than battles.
The name most often associated with the Dutch reform movement is Maurice of Nassau (1567-1625). He was the son of William the Silent who had been one of the main leaders of the Dutch revolt. In 1584, at the age of only 17, he became Stadthalter of Holland and Zeeland. In 1590, he was made captain-general of all of the Dutch forces and was then in a position to undertake his reforms.
Like many of the military men of his age, Maurice hoped to emulate the military establishments of antiquity, in particular the Romans. Maurice read military manuals from antiquity, in particular those of Vegetius, Aelian, and the Taktika of the Byzantine emperor, Leo, as well as the works of contemporary commentators such as Justus Lipsius. What emerged for Maurice was an emphasis on regular standing forces and the importance of discipline and drill. But within the context of classical antiquity, Maurice also saw the importance of making more effective use of the constantly improving technology of gunpowder weapons.
One of the most important changes instituted by Maurice was the creation of a standing army. The army was still made up primarily of foreigners serving for pay. Some of these were mercenaries in the traditional sense, while others were foreign troops sent by their monarchs to serve under Dutch command and at Dutch expense (notably fron1 England). In 1603, for example, the Dutch army consisted of a total of 132 companies. Of that number there were 43 English, 32 French, 20 Scottish, 11 Walloon, 9 German and a mere 17 Dutch. The main reason for the preponderance of foreigners was the relatively small population of the Netherlands, combined with the need to keep an army in the field almost constantly for 80 years. Maurice recognized that keeping these companies in his service all year round, rather than discharging them in the off-season or at the end of a campaign, would make the Dutch army a more effective fighting force in the long run.
The maintenance of this standing army also allowed Maurice to initiate new standards of discipline and drill. In this, Maurice was aided by his cousins William Louis and John, counts of Nassau. Maurice and his cousins oversaw the standardization of drill, and equipment, so that all the troops in Dutch service would be using the same methods regardless of their origin. The length of the pike and the armour of the pikemen, as well as the length and calibre of firearms were all standardized. Perhaps more important was the codification of drill at this time in the ‘Dutch Discipline’. All words of command as well as the manual of arn1S for both the pike and arquebus and musket were regularized. In 1607 Jacob de Gheyn’s Wapenhandelinghe was published – a complete manual of arms for pike, arquebus and musket illustrated with 116 plates, accompanied by the appropriate commands and a commentary.
Maurice also modified the military organization and tactics of the Dutch infantry. Once again Maurice turned to antiquity for inspiration. He hoped to replicate the flexibility of the Roman legion by creating units based upon the cohort to replace the large unwieldy regiments and tercios of his own time. To that end, he reorganized each Dutch regiment into two or more battalions. In theory, each battalion was to be 550 men, the same size as a cohort in Vegetius’ antique legio, and was made up of 250 pikemen and 300 men armed with firearms, 60 of which were to form a line of skirmishers. The pikes were to form in the centre of the battalion with arquebusiers and musketeers on the wings.
Moreover, these units drew up in fewer ranks than the earlier regiments and tercios; figures vary but the pikes seem to have been between five and ten deep and the shot between eight and 12 ranks deep. The shot were trained to use countermarch fire, a tactic inspired by Aelian. In this formation the files of shot had intervals between them wide enough for a man to march.
The first soldiers in the file would fire a volley and then do an about face, marching back through the intervals and join the rear rank, all the while going through the drill to reload their weapons. This would be followed by the men of the second rank and then the third and so on. By the time men from the front rank returned to their original position, they would be reloaded and ready to fire another volley and start the drill all over again. This method of firing required great discipline but created a constant volume of fire from the unit. When threatened by cavalry, the arquebusiers and musketeers would retire behind 26 the pikes without disrupting the formation. In battle, the Dutch usually formed their battalions in three lines of battle. These lines could be staggered to resemble a chequerboard so that the battalions in the individual lines could support one another. This bears a striking resemblance to the Roman acies triplex of a legion drawn up in similar formation. Maurice laid the foundations for the early modern standing army based on constant drill and a high standard of discipline. He also developed a system of tactics that truly integrated pike and shot in a coherent fashion. Ironically, throughout the two decades of conflict with Spain, Maurice was only twice able to take his army into battle (both were victories), yet found himself participating in no fewer than 29 sieges.
By the late 1960s surprise had become an important ingredient in military operations. The Soviet Military Encyclopaedia described surprise as ‘one of the most important principles of military art (which) consists of the selection of times, techniques and methods of combat operations, which permit delivery of a strike when the enemy is least prepared to repulse it and thereby paralysing his will for organized resistance.’
Painfully aware of the impact of Barbarossa on the Red Army in 1941, the Soviets determined that they would never again be caught unprepared. At the same time surprise and deception began to rank with superiority in arms and manpower as central themes for future victory against the West. From the outset the Soviets accepted that complete surprise was impossible, but nonetheless began to believe that they could neutralize most NATO early warning and surveillance systems by adopting a policy of absolute secrecy and by using Maskirovka at all levels.
Knowing that they were powerless to prevent the intrusion of United States spy planes and satellites into their air space, the Soviets took steps to disguise the true intentions of military factories and installations in their flight path. Phoney factories and arms dumps were built, and after May 1960 (when Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 aircraft was shot down by an SA-2 missile near Sverdlovsk) dummy surface-to-air missile sites were constructed to deter further sorties over delicate areas. A massive arms park was constructed in East Germany, close to the railway used by the United States, France and Britain to resupply their troops in West Berlin. While every effort was made to disguise the quantity and type of real weaponry stored there, dummy tanks and guns were regularly deployed close to the compound perimeter to confuse the intelligence analysts travelling on the daily trains.
Disinformation, a core component of Maskirovka, became the responsibility of Department D of the Committee of State Security, or KGB. For years the KGB and its predecessors had been doctoring photographs to reinforce the myth that the Bolshevik seizure of power had been a mass movement headed solely by Lenin. Trotsky had ‘disappeared’ from many official photographs, including the famous photograph of Lenin addressing the troops in a packed square in Moscow in 1920. In the 1960s they even began to doctor parades. The May Day and October Revolutionary Parades through Moscow’s Red Square began to ‘exhibit’ new weapon systems, tantalizingly tarpaulined to keep them a secret from prying Western observers. Only when the observers began to realize that the tyre pressures and suspensions on these often massive lorries were inconsistent with their carrying anything more than a light wooden mock-up did they come to realize that the whole thing had been an elaborate hoax.
Later, even after the introduction of Gorbachev’s glasnost, topical subjects were cleverly distorted. Newspaper articles appeared describing the decadence of the West. In March, 1987, the influential state newspaper Izvestia carried a cartoon implying that AIDS had in fact been manufactured in the West. This was followed a month later by an article in the internationally read Moscow News implying that experiments were being undertaken at Fort Detrick, Maryland to spread the disease. The naked aim of this policy seems to have been to create pressure for the removal of US foreign bases, thus strengthening the influence of the Soviets abroad. Ultimately this somewhat crude propaganda attempt was overtaken by events and failed. Nonetheless the fact that it was even attempted gives an indication of the degree to which the Soviets were willing to project their policy of disinformation, even when fighting for their own political survival.
The Need for Strategic Surprise
At the height of the Cold War the Soviets were keenly aware that they could not hope to match the West economically, and fully appreciated that any conflict with NATO would have to be brought to a conclusion quickly and clinically before its sixteen participating members had the opportunity to mobilize and deploy their armies. West Germany would become the principal target, and would have to be overrun in a single pre-emptive offensive. The distance from the then Inner German Border (IGB) to the Ruhr was a mere 350kms across the North German Plain, a relatively short distance for the Soviet Union’s highly mobile Third Shock Army if allowed to exploit its preponderance of armour, mechanized artillery and motor rifle regiments.
The Soviets fully appreciated that, if they were to stand any realistic chance of taking West Germany by surprise they would have to keep deployed in peacetime sufficient armed forces to reach at least the nearest strategic objectives before NATO had the opportunity to mobilize and bring into action its reserve echelons. The Soviets would not have time to call upon their own reserves, nor would they be able to mobilize them before hostilities for the fear of alerting the West to their intentions. In the words of Marshal of the Soviet Union V. D. Sokolovskii, ‘He who, right from the start, can get his troops deepest into enemy territory will be best able to exploit the results of his nuclear strikes (or indeed to foreclose his nuclear option) and to prevent the enemy from mobilizing.’
Experience had taught the Soviets that troops moving fast sustained less casualties, and expended less fuel and ammunition, than forces moving slowly. By moving rapidly their strategists argued that they would be able to impose their style of war on NATO. Instead of having to conduct a difficult breakthrough operation, they would clash with NATO formations in a series of ‘meeting engagements’ – a form of battle for which they had trained and most of NATO had not.
They regarded surprise as a force multiplier which would enable them to achieve at least limited strategic objectives with much smaller forces than would be necessary against a prepared enemy. By moving fast they would be able to exploit the gaps and weaknesses enforced by NATO’s mal-deployment, and by obviating the need for breakthrough operations would remove the necessity for vulnerable concentrations of reserves and for strong second echelons. They would therefore simply not present NATO with sufficient battlefield nuclear targets to warrant the politicians agreeing to nuclear release, with its obvious ramifications.
In the world of deception the Soviets displayed a level of flexibility and organization which NATO both failed to comprehend and was incapable of emulating. Officers were compelled by regulations to employ some form of Maskirovka to aid their exercise assaults and were severely censured if they failed to do so. Dummy equipment was introduced which not only looked like the equipment being simulated but possessed similar physical properties. Where possible it reflected light, heat and electromagnetic energy in the manner of the original to confuse photographic analysts with the array of infra-red and false-colour imagery available to them.
Control of deception plans was exercised at the highest possible level to reduce the possibility of lower-level deception schemes compromising each other and the main plan by revealing anomalies. All plans were clearly defined and subordinated ruthlessly to the aims of the overall operation. They were directed at specific targets, often the enemy commander, and were based on his known prejudices and likely reactions. NATO intelligence gathering and dissemination was analysed to insure that as many of its sources and agencies as possible would be able to corroborate the deception plan without realizing its implications.
The Soviets accepted that modern intelligence gathering made it difficult to conceal preparations for a large-scale offensive. Nonetheless they regarded concealment of the scale, and especially the direction and timing, of the main attack, as quite achievable. Soviet principles of Maskirovka were never tested on the North German plains. They, were, however exploited fully during the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and later in Afghanistan.
The rôle of Special Forces in Maskirovka
It was always accepted by NATO that any Warsaw Pact offensive would involve the widescale use of the Soviet Special Forces, or Spetsnaz, who would attack key targets behind the lines and who would almost certainly attempt the assassination of key military and political figures. Yet very little was known about Spetznaz. In fact Voiska spetsialnogo naznacheniya, to give it its full name, had no peer in the West. In the eyes of the Soviet Union it was a force of special designation rather than a NATO-style special purpose force, and was ideally suited to the art of Maskirovka.
As ever the Soviet paranoia for secrecy was all pervading. Until 1989 references in the Soviet press to the VSN were rare and usually couched in historical terms. Units were described in a special reconnaissance (spetsialnaya razvedka) or diversionary reconnaissance (diversiya razvedka) context, and never as special forces. The very existence of a multi-talented elite within the Soviet Army was discounted as Western propaganda.
In 1989 the Kremlin partly lifted the veil of secrecy and allowed a series of articles to appear in the Soviet military and civilian press referring in detail to the existence and performance of units of special designation. However, much of the information leaked was of low grade intelligence value. It was already known to NATO analysts and was almost certainly only released in an attempt to defuse the West’s growing interest in Soviet special forces. Moreover, many of the units discussed, although doubtless elite, had little, if any, connection at all with Spetsnaz, nor were they directly involved in the growing art of Maskirovka.
The Prague Spring
Maskirovka was used to devastating effect during the suppression of the so-called Trague Spring’, a Czechoslovak liberal-reform movement which began on 5 January, 1968. On that day the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party met to formally end the fourteen-year reign of First Secretary Antonin Novotny. His replacement, Alexander Dubcek, at once began to implement a series of reforming policies which the Kremlin found unacceptable. For six months the Soviets tried to undermine the reform movement through political sabre-rattling, threats and covert action. When this failed they resorted to violence.
A series of large-scale Warsaw Pact exercises were initiated in and around Czechoslovakia and were accompanied by numerous visits by military and diplomatic delegations. Following the Warsaw Pact ‘SUVAMA’ exercise, 16,000 Soviet troops remained in Czechoslovakia awaiting their long delayed withdrawal. In a particularly clever ruse, shortly before the invasion the Soviets ordered the transfer of substantial Czech fuel and ammunition stocks to East Germany as part of an unspecified logistical exercise.
So as to mask their intentions from an unsuspecting world, immediately prior to the invasion of Czechoslovakia the Soviets confined to barracks the majority of their conventional troops stationed throughout the northern sector of the Warsaw Pact. The Czechs were not unduly worried therefore when an unscheduled civilian Aeroflot aircraft landed at Prague’s Ruzyne Airport late at night, taxied and eventually parked at the end of the runway. An hour later a second Aeroflot aircraft was granted permission to land. This time the aircraft disgorged its passengers, all of them fit young men, who, having cleared customs without incident, set out for the city centre. Two hours later the ‘passengers’, by now fully armed from caches stored in the Soviet Embassy, returned to take over the main airport buildings.
Almost at once one, possibly two, further aircraft, directed by the ‘rogue’ at the end of the runway, landed and immediately disembarked teams of uniformed Spetsnaz. A series of transports followed, each containing a nucleus of Spetsnaz supported by conventional airborne troops from the 103rd Guards Airborne Division. Within two hours of the first uniformed Spetsnaz troops landing, the airport and its immediate environment were firmly in Soviet hands and troops were advancing unmolested on the capital. By daybreak the Presidential Palace, the radio and television studios, the transmitters, all of the main railway stations and the bridges over the River Vltava were in Soviet hands.
Even now the Soviets maintained a level of total security. To the total surprise of Western military watchers (who openly admitted that they could not have done so themselves) the Soviets brought in reinforcements from throughout the Warsaw Pact in total radio silence. Quietly and with minimal fuss the advance units crossed the Czech border preceded by military police regulators. The latter deployed to the major crossroads, towns and larger villages en route to await the oncoming convoys. When these arrived they were flagged forward and onward to their destination without the benefit of a single radio transmission. The Nato EW (Electronic Warfare) units, which might have expected to gain a great deal of intelligence from the mass manoeuvres, were left confused and frustrated.
After the invasion the KGB embarked upon a propaganda campaign so virulent that it supposedly began to influence the actions of its political masters in the Politburo. Weapons caches supposedly hidden by Western sympathizers were ‘discovered’ near the West German border, fake documents were produced to prove the existence of CIA-supported counter-revolutionary activity, liberals were terrorized and untrue and exaggerated reports sent back to Moscow.
Maskirovka in Afghanistan
The rôle played by Maskirovka in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was no less critical. The aim of the invasion was to establish a new puppet government in Kabul which would ask for Soviet assistance, thus legitimizing the initial intervention. For this it was necessary for the exisiting government, itself pro-communist, to be destroyed completely. The actual invasion took place over the Christmas period when immediate Western condemnation would be difficult to orchestrate.
Nothing was left to chance as every aspect of Maskirovka was fully exploited. In April, 1979, a battalion of Soviet paratroops were deployed to Bagram Airport, notionally to release Afghan troops for operations against anti-government rebels in the hills. In late August General Ivan Pavlovskiy, who had commanded the invasion of Czechoslovakia, arrived with a sixty-man General Staff delegation to conduct a detailed on-scene reconnaissance that lasted into October. On 17 December, after an abortive attempt to assassinate him at his palace in Kabul, President Amin was persuaded by his Soviet advisers to move his court to the more ‘secure’ palace at Darulaman, some miles from the city.
Prior to the invasion, Soviet advisers actually managed to neutralize two Afghan divisions by persuading their commanders that their anti-tank weapons and ammunition needed to be checked and accounted for, and the bulk of their armour withdrawn for servicing.
Between 8 and 10 December, 1979, some fourteen days prior to the invasion, Spetsnaz forces accompanied by an airborne regiment deployed to Bagram, a key town to the north of Kabul, in order to secure the Salang Highway with its vital tunnel. Between 10 and 24 December a battalion from the airborne regiment, with Spetsnaz support, moved to Kabul International Airport less than 3kms from the city centre. Between 24 and 27 December troops from the 105th Guards Airborne Division, again supported by Spetsnaz, landed at and secured Kabul Airport and the Afghan Air Force bases at Bagram, Shindand and Kandahar.
During the course of the following night the full offensive began. Paratroopers arrested the Afghan government, much of it while attending a lavish Soviet social function in the city. At the same time Spetsnaz teams demolished the central military communications centre, captured the still-functioning Ministry of the Interior, the Kabul radio station and several other key points. Simultaneously two Spetsnaz companies, with KGB assistance and supported by an airborne regiment, attacked President Amin’s palace at Darulaman. Amin, his family, security force and entourage were killed for the loss of twenty-five Soviet dead, including KGB Colonel Balashika, reportedly killed by ‘friendly’ cross-fire.
Hitler’s blitz swept through Poland, the low countries, and France from September 1939 to June 1940, but it paled in comparison to the military feat accomplished by the Japanese in an even shorter period of time. Adolph’s European conquest geographically would not even cover the Japanese home islands, yet Japan extended its power and control 4,000 miles east toward Hawaii, 4,000 miles south toward Australia, and 4,000 miles west into the Indian Ocean. Admiral Nagumo’s fleet alone had swept almost 50,000 miles across the high seas from Japan to Hawaii and back, to New Britain, to Truk, to Java, to the Celebes, toward Australia, toward Ceylon and back to Japan. The triumphant Japanese had lost but 23 war-fighting vessels, none larger than a destroyer. Though 300,000 tons of Japanese merchant shipping went to the bottom, what they captured in Allied harbors more than exceeded their losses.
On the surface, it all seemed to come easily for the Japanese. In a mere five months, every objective of the imperial grand scheme had been achieved. Across 10,000 miles of ocean from Hawaii to Australia to India, the Combined Fleet reigned supreme. The Allies had been routed out of the Southwest Pacific with the exception of New Guinea. No one on the imperial staff doubted Port Moresby on New Guinea’s south coast would soon capitulate, just as the other Allied bastions had. Once Japan moved east into the Bismark Archipelago and finished securing the Solomon Islands, Australia would be dealt with next.
Japanese military doctrine stressed offense. Their fighting ships, aircraft, submarines, and ground forces were designed for and functioned well when on the attack. Little consideration was given to defense. When attacked, the Japanese soldier, sailor, airman, flag officer, or even emperor had difficulty reacting properly. Poorly considered attempts at swift vengeance were the typical response: the April 18, 1942, Doolittle Raid a prime example. The imperial staff planning focused on continuing the offensive, since reverting to a hold-and-consolidate posture might indicate temerity and yield the initiative to the Allies.
As the lights were going out in the Philippines in late April and early May, American listening posts picked up message traffic indicating a Japanese invasion force was proceeding around the northern side of New Guinea, intent on seizing Port Moresby. This outpost was the last remaining Allied base of any size north of Australia. An Allied loss here would put Japan’s air power well within reach of the southern continent’s northern extremities and provide jumping off points should invasion of Eastern Australia be in the offing.
Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii and General MacArthur in Australia recognized the extreme threat to Australia that this Japanese gambit represented. To ambush the invasion, Nimitz ordered into action both the Lexington under Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch and Yorktown under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, the overall commander of the task forces that included escorting cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and tankers.
En route to the battle for Port Moresby, the 4th Japanese fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inouye included two carriers, Zuikaku and Shokaku, along with one light carrier, Shoho, four heavy cruisers, submarine-hunting destroyers, and 14 troop/supply transports. The Japanese task force swung east for a stop on May 3 at Tulagi. The Japanese were lucky; the Australians had abandoned their outpost on this small island three days prior. Without opposition, a garrison made up of troops, seaplanes, destroyers, minesweepers, and support equipment disembarked and occupied the small island and its harbor located just north of Guadalcanal in the Solomons. Then the main force continued on toward Port Moresby.
Upon learning of the Tulagi landings while at sea, Fletcher launched an air strike on May 4, from 100 miles south. Three waves of planes struck the island’s new tenants. One Japanese destroyer had to be beached, and five seaplanes were sunk, as were four barges and three minesweepers. But Fletcher had given himself away. He withdrew his force south, then swung west, hoping to surprise the Port Moresby-bound transports, which his intelligence estimated were about to appear rounding the eastern tip of New Guinea on the sixth.
But Admiral Inouye instructed his invasion transports to remain at sea while he detached his striking force to take up hot pursuit of the maneuvering American carriers. On the night of May 6, the two fleets passed 60 miles abeam each other going in opposite directions. A Japanese scout plane, flying well to the south of the two American carriers, spotted the U.S. oiler Neosho and her escort, the destroyer USS Sims, before 8 a.m. on the 7th, yet the Japanese crew reported these ships as a “carrier and cruiser.”
Later that morning, a U.S. scout plane alerted Fletcher that two Japanese carriers and four heavy cruisers were headed his way from the northwest. It, too, was mistaken. The carriers were now southeast. Based on these botched reports, both sides felt pressed to act. Thus began what would come to be known as the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Japanese launched two strikes in the direction of their sighting. Both found the ships, but the first strike employed level bombing from altitude. All bombs missed. This was not the case for the second attempt by dive bombers. Shortly after noon, the Sims went to the bottom and the Neosho was reduced to a drifting wreck that was scuttled four days later.
Fletcher’s strike involved 93 aircraft. They found the wrong ships just before noon. Lieutenant Commander Weldon L. Hamilton in an SBD Dauntless dive bomber spotted the light carrier Shoho and decided that, light or not, it was a carrier and needed to be sent to the bottom. All 93 aircraft took part in one continuous, chaotic, attack lasting 26 minutes.
At the Combat Information Centers aboard both American carriers, little of the garbled radio transmissions made much sense. Suddenly, Lieutenant Commander Robert E. Dixon, Lexington’s second SBD flight leader, transmitted clearly and loudly, “Scratch one flattop! Dixon to Carrier, scratch one flattop!” The tension on the carriers exploded as men cheered in jubilation.
It was, in retrospect, a hollow rejoicing. That same day, May 7, some 2,700 miles to the northwest, General Wainwright formally surrendered the Philippines to the Japanese.
On May 8, Japanese and American scout planes out over the Coral Sea located each other’s main fleets east of New Guinea. Every available aircraft was launched by both sides. Yorktown was hit by one delay-action bomb that penetrated four decks and exploded, killing 64 sailors. The Lexington was hit by at least two torpedoes and two bombs but kept up steam even though on fire. She began to list, but the crew counter-flooded compartments with oil ballast to stabilize her while they fought the fires.
Lexington’s airborne planes along with those from the Yorktown spotted the carrier Shokaku turning into the wind to launch aircraft. The attack was on. American torpedo bombers launched at too great a distance and missed, but the dive bombers had better luck. One bomb struck near the bow and one aft. A third later smashed into her deck. The now heavily damaged Shokaku limped away, her decks of steel and planks mangled and burning.
The American planes headed home, with Lexington’s aircraft recovering aboard in spite of her heavy damage. Just after one in the afternoon, a smoldering fire aboard the Lexington, caused by a motor generator left running, spread to high-octane fuel, touching off a succession of explosions. Seven hours later she went to the bottom. Fletcher then reversed course for Hawaii with his remaining carrier and supporting ships.
Though the Japanese suffered less damage and loss, the invasion of Port Moresby was turned away, since Inouye withdrew his fleet to Japan for repairs. The engagement was the first carrier versus carrier engagement and the first between naval forces that never came within sight of each other. This was the second time a Japanese invasion had been turned back, the first being the initial Wake Island attack in early December 1941.
The battle of the Coral Sea was the third naval probe by the American fleet, and Admiral Yamamoto’s concern regarding maintaining the initiative now peaked. Though the first two U.S. forays involved the Gilbert and Marshal Islands in February and the Marcus Islands in March, the Coral Sea operation was a deep Pacific probe. Early on, Yamamoto became fully aware that air power was making the difference in virtually every operation the Japanese were conducting, and that the proper application of that arm would determine the outcome of the war. In that light, he felt the aircraft carrier, not the battleship, determined fleet strength, and as such the Allied carriers needed to be dealt with promptly while the Japanese Navy had numerical superiority. Early in Yamamoto’s career, the Russian fleet had been surprised at Port Arthur, then drawn into battle at Tsushima Strait where they were soundly defeated. What works, works, was Yamamoto’s creed, and he intended to repeat the performance. A strike at Midway, two small islands (Sand and Eastern) located 1,150 miles northwest of Hawaii, would be the setting, an operation that was sure to draw the American carriers into battle. Only this time, instead of being an ordinary seaman fighting the battle, he would be the commander who devised and orchestrated Japan’s most decisive victory.
In preparation, an odd exercise had been tested. Called Operation K, two H8K1 Emily flying boats took off from Wotje Island in the Marshalls on March 4. They set down at French Frigate Shoals, a reef 487 miles northwest of Honolulu, Hawaii. Refueled by submarines, they then launched on a night reconnaissance and bombing mission over Pearl Harbor, Oahu. U.S. Army radars detected the Japanese planes while they were some 200 miles from Oahu. Fighters were launched to intercept, but were unable to obtain visual contact in the dark. The two Emily seaplanes arrived over Oahu just after two in the morning, but the island was shrouded in clouds. Both planes released their bombs above what they thought was Ford Island and subsequently reported success. One stick of bombs actually struck harmlessly on Mount Tantalus above Waikiki. The other string splashed into the sea at the entrance to Pearl Harbor. In view of the reported results, Yamamoto incorporated a similar mission into his maturing Midway Plan, which had been forwarded to the imperial staff in April.
The generals and admirals in Tokyo had other ideas. Being debated were three options: thrusts toward either Australia, India, or Hawaii. The “Australia first” group considered the continent a grave threat, an eventual springboard for an Allied counteroffensive. As such, Australia needed to be under Japanese control or its sea lanes closed to U.S. shipping. But the Army generals vigorously opposed the idea of invading Australia. The China problem had given them no illusions regarding the task being suggested. The Army staff concluded it could not assemble the 10 or more divisions needed for such an operation. Navy staff officers bristled, suspecting the Army was holding back its divisions, counting on the success of Hitler’s upcoming Caucasus offensive in the spring to allow Japan to initiate a ground offensive against the Russians in the vulnerable Soviet Far East. The Army was also opposed to extending control westward into the Indian Ocean. A proposed amphibious assault on Ceylon would again pull divisions from China and make things there vulnerable to a Soviet counter.
The Hawaii option envisioned occupation of Midway, Johnston and Palmyra Islands from which air power could be brought to bear on Hawaii to support amphibious landings there. Once Hawaii was under Japanese control, the U.S. would effectively be shut out of the Central and Western Pacific. But surprise would no longer be available, and the amount of airspace over the Hawaiian Islands was considered too extensive for medium bombers and long-range fighters to adequately cover.
While the fractured staff worked toward a solution that all could agree upon, plans had gone forward to at least isolate Australia by extending control east beyond New Guinea into the Solomon Islands, plus the New Caledonia, Fiji Islands, and Samoa area.
Yamamoto’s scheme at Midway, though complex, seemed more manageable than the other three options the staff was deliberating. More importantly, the Army had no objections, their contribution to the effort being minimal.
Yamamoto wanted to draw out the American carriers via a feint at the Aleutians immediately prior to the assault on Midway. The plan would require the largest Japanese naval commitment to date. Within the Combined Fleet, the only outspoken opposition against the plan came from Vice Admiral Inouye and his 4th Fleet staff. Inouye had presided over the debacle on the first attempt to invade Wake Island. It was one of his destroyers that was among the largest Japanese war ships lost during the first four months of the war. Yamamoto, not altogether thrilled with the 4th Fleet performance to date, ignored Inouye’s rebuff. But the admiralty staff in Tokyo also had misgivings about the value of Midway, and in particular the heavy logistic requirement needed to supply both it and the Aleutian Islands once occupied. After successfully invading Midway, long-range bombers from Hawaii could attack the island, while Japanese land-based medium bombers on Midway would be limited in their ability to respond in kind. Due to its size, Midway offered little hope for dispersal and concealment of aircraft, fuel, and munitions, while the Hawaiian Islands had ample locations to disperse everything. Continuous day and night air patrols would be required around Midway to minimize losses from these expected forays.
The admiralty staff eventually leaned toward the isolation of Australia. They believed that severing the sea lanes would be the best way to draw out the American carriers. In doing so, the decisive battle would occur much farther from Hawaii such that logistics issues for both sides would be equalized.
Yamamoto threw aside these objections, claiming the most direct way to isolate Australia was to “destroy the enemy’s carrier forces, without which the supply line could not in any case be maintained.” Japan’s superiority over the U.S. Pacific Fleet in carriers alone at that time was nearly three to one, with Japan possessing seven large and four light carriers against America’s four large carriers. The admiral also pointed out that even if the four U.S. carriers could not be drawn to battle, “we shall still realize an important gain by advancing our defensive perimeter to Midway and the Western Aleutians without obstruction.”
In the months following the opening of the Pacific War, Yamamoto’s efforts in protecting of Tokyo and the Imperial Palace became close to an obsession. He had established the picket boat line, yet the U.S. Navy incursion at Marcus Islands in March made him nervous. But all the arguments against Yamamoto’s Midway plan paled when the unthinkable did happen.
Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo on April 18 ended the wrangling. The admiralty staff threw in the towel and signed off on the Yamamoto venture. Key to its success was timing. Yamamoto wanted the mission launched in early June when the moon was full. Complex maneuvers would be conducted at night, and the fleet’s lack of radar once again was having a direct impact in strategic decisions. A delay until July’s full moon was considered unacceptable by Yamamoto.
A mission rehearsal, or rather a table-top war game, was scheduled by Yamamoto on the Yamato during the first week in May. The exercise went smoothly. It did so because chief of staff Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki canceled or revised the adverse rulings of the game’s umpires at every negative outcome. In one reported instance of what would become supreme irony, the Japanese officer acting as the American player rolled his dice the first time and sank four of Yamamoto’s carriers. The Japanese side complained that it was not possible for this to happen and had him re-roll. This attempt resulted in one carrier sunk and two damaged.
That same week, the New Guinea part of the headquarters plan to isolate Australia hit a snag as a consequence of the Battle of the Coral Sea. Once again Vice Admiral Inouye had failed to deliver on time. The Japanese staff, now with increased urgency, sought a means to prevent the U.S. fleet from establishing a secure sea lane to and from Australia. How to go about it was what had them stymied. Yamamoto with his Midway plan offered a solution.
Two fleet commanders who would find themselves in leading roles at Midway, Vice Admirals Kondo (Second Fleet) and Nagumo (First Air Fleet), were engaged in battle operations during the planning cycle. By the time they learned of the proposed operation, it was no longer being argued, but had been locked in. Thus the Japanese Combined Fleet began assembling for the largest naval operation in history.
The plan called for over 200 ships and submarines including 8 carriers bearing over 700 planes, 11 battleships, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers, 21 submarines, plus 80 transports and auxiliary support ships, all arranged in 16 different fleets. The required fuel alone exceeded that needed for a full year of peacetime operations.
At naval headquarters on Oahu, Admiral Nimitz had an element that most wartime commanders could only dream about. Designated Station Hypo, it was the admiral’s code-breaking team led by Commander Joe Rochefort. The commander was regarded by some as brilliant but eccentric, often wearing a red smoking jacket and carpet slippers at work. He assembled a group of similarly minded code breakers whose work would ultimately change the outcome of the war. By the first week in May, Station Hypo had already discovered that Yamamoto had a grand scheme in the works. What they did not yet know was the where and when. The Japanese began referring to the next battle as occurring at point AF. But where was AF? Rochefort thought it was Midway, but had to prove it. He got the nod from Admiral Nimitz to send a message to Midway via secure underwater cable asking them to transmit in the clear that their fresh-water distilling plant was out of service. The hope was that the Japanese would intercept the transmission and comment on it. They did. On May 20, code breaker Tommy Dyer working in Station Hypo decoded a message sent to Tokyo from the Japanese listening station now on Wake Island. The message alerted Yamamoto regarding a water emergency at point AF. Bingo!
Nimitz now had enough deciphered message traffic from Japan to convince him that the next push by the Japanese was toward Midway and the Aleutians. This was no gambit aimed at an Australian outpost on a backwater island thousands of miles away. This was aimed at American soil, and there would be no thought of anything but a maximum response.
Nimitz had already visited Midway on May 2, ordering an increase in the garrison force and aircraft needed to defend the island. Nineteen Marine Corps SBD-2 Dauntless dive bombers, seven F4F Wildcat fighters, 30 PBY flying boats, plus 18 B-17 and four B-26 bombers were added to the air power on station, bringing the total to 119 aircraft. The admiral also stationed 20 submarines in three patrol arcs around the island at 100, 150, and 200 miles out. All were in place as the Nagumo force closed the distance to Midway.
Nimitz did not ignore Alaska. The command arrangement there was a merger of U.S. Army, Navy, and Canadian forces, with the U.S. Navy as the senior service.
While Erster Generalquartiermeister Erich Ludendorff had busied himself during the Brest-Litovsk negotiations sketching future borders on European maps with reckless abandon, his field commanders and staff had assessed Germany’s prospects for 1918. They were not cheery. More than one million draft-eligible men remained in war-related industries at home, and the OHL estimated late in 1917 that it could at best pry loose 300,000 for front-line duty. Reserves were being called up at the rate of 58,000 trained and 21,000 untrained men per month and would cover needs only until January 1918. Thereafter, the cohort of 1900, not due to be called to the colours until the autumn, was all that remained. `Seen from this point of view all operations that are not necessary should be avoided.’ Ludendorff hoped that leaders in Germany would `keep our nerves 10 minutes longer than the enemy’. General Hermann von Kuhl sadly noted that the U-boat war had turned into `a wild-goose chase’.
Kuhl’s superior, Crown Prince Rupprecht, sent Ludendorff his appraisal of the military situation on 25 October 1917. The Bavarian ruled out major offensives in the west, claiming that his forces were capable only of `limited counterattacks’. Time was running out. The anticipated arrival of the Americans in the autumn of 1918 would turn the numerical advantage against the Reich, which was in no position to `do the enemy the favour of allowing ourselves to be destroyed bit by bit in battles of material’. Crown Prince Wilhelm seconded Rupprecht’s analysis. Both agreed that men had to be spared; territory could more easily be lost. On 28 October Ludendorff `generally’ concurred with Rupprecht’s views and merely raised the possibility of a limited offensive by the Fourth Army against the British in the area of Armentieres-Bailleul `to deflect the impact of the Americans’. Like Kuhl, Ludendorff had lost faith in the U-boats. The only cheerful news was that deep divisions between the English and French peoples in Canada prevented that country from sending more troops to France.
On 23 October Major Georg Wetzell, the OHL’s head of operations, penned what became the critical position paper on its military alternatives for 1918. `If we do not wish to succumb to false illusions,’ Wetzell stated, `then we must count on the fact that the Entente will survive the winter . . . and that the Americans will have added significant forces to the western war theatre in the spring of 1918 (10-15 divisions)’. The Western Front remained decisive. The only viable strategy was `to deliver an annihilating blow to the British before American aid can become effective’. The Army could be strengthened in two ways: shortening Army Group Crown Prince Wilhelm’s front by withdrawing to the Gudrun Line would free up 20 divisions; and 15 more could be removed from the east. Within 24 hours, Ludendorff approved Wetzell’s concept. The collapse of Russia allowed the OHL to raise its estimates of reinforcements from the Eastern Front first to 31 infantry and cavalry divisions and then to 45. But Ludendorff’s insatiable appetite for Russian lands reduced this figure to 33, with the result that there were still 40 infantry and three cavalry divisions in the east when the Army launched its great offensive in France. Indeed, Ludendorff was caught on the horns of a dilemma of his own making: on the one hand, he wanted to get every soldier and every gun to the Western Front for the great Armageddon, but on the other hand he knew the low fighting value of these occupation troops and feared withdrawing too many lest the Russians – Red or White – seize the chance to retake the lands lost at Brest-Litovsk.
The need to force a decision in the west early in 1918 occupied military commanders throughout the winter of 1917-18. Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht worked on a modest campaign in Ypres designed to break out of Armentieres in the direction of Bullécourt-La Fere. Army Group Crown Prince Wilhelm proposed a double-sided pincer movement against Verdun (!) designed to annihilate French forces in the region. Army Group Archduke Albrecht of Württemberg planned to shift the war’s focus to Alsace. And Hindenburg favoured a direct assault against the British to throw Douglas Haig’s forces back to the Channel. Yet a number of high-ranking commanders – Hoffmann, Seeckt, Schulenburg, Lossberg, Gallwitz and Crown Prince Rupprecht – seriously questioned whether the Army could sustain a major offensive in the coming year.
On 11 November Ludendorff decided on the gambler’s last throw of the dice. Wilhelm II was apprised of Operation Michael on 23 January 1918; on 10 March Hindenburg issued formal orders for infantry to charge enemy lines at 9:40 a. m. on 21 March. Colonel Albrecht von Thaer fully appreciated the immensity of the decision. `Here in the west we stand before the future as before a dark curtain. The coming events will bring tremendous and for many horrible [things].’ Using language similar to that which Erich von Falkenhayn had used at Christmas 1915 to describe his Verdun offensive, Thaer predicted that both sides would be subjected to a severe `bloodletting’ throughout the coming summer. Thaer as well as countless colleagues used the term `last card’ to describe Operation Michael. Yet all agreed on the need for decisive action. General Fritz von Loßberg, staff chief of the Fourth Army, put it bluntly to Wilhelm II on the eve of Michael: if the war continued at its present pace, `it can well last into 1920′.
Ludendorff divided the forces for Michael into three categories: 44 `mobile’ divisions with full-strength battalions of 850 each armed with machine guns, flamethrowers and trench mortars and assigned the best supply horses available; about 30 `attack’ divisions similarly equipped and designed as first-line replacement units; and finally more than 100 `trench’ (Stellungs) divisions stripped of their best equipment and intended merely to hold the front. Ludendorff stepped up training courses for his infantry throughout the winter of 1917-18. The captains and majors of the roughly 70 `mobile’ and `attack’ divisions chosen to spearhead the initial assault underwent training in 80-men cohorts in special 8-day courses run by a staff of 18 instructors at Sedan (and then Valenciennes) as early as September 1917. Subjects taught ranged from tanks to anti-tank warfare, machine guns to gas and artillery to air warfare. The courses, which were quickly expanded to 4 weeks each, stressed rigid discipline, daily physical exercise, special instruction in the use of machine guns, and joint operations with artillery and air power. Artillery was trained to deploy high-angle howitzers against tanks.
The German front remained committed to an in-depth and elastic defence, with the third line holding `the mass of troops in bunkers’. Enemy assaults were to be halted where possible at the first line `with the last bullet and handgrenade’, but in the case of strong hostile artillery the troops were to withdraw to the second line of defence. German soldiers were drilled to accept that timely counterattacks were their best and only hope; the speed of the echeloned counterattack, the place chosen for it and the coordination between machinegun and artillery fire were critical. Units were instructed to reorganize the minute an attack had been repelled as enemy artillery was to be expected.
Ludendorff calculated that the Army had sufficient seasoned officers available to command its battalions, but that it lacked veterans to staff its companies. All too often young and inexperienced officers, mainly from reserve formations, were rapidly advanced to command companies. Thus, training was critical to Michael’s success. The OHL also made sure that the assault divisions received sufficient food: 600 g of bread, 200 g of meat (served 5 days of the week), 50 g of fat and 100 g of honey or marmalade per day. Still, the soldiers’ caloric intake overall had fallen from 3100 in August 1914 to 2500 by early 1918. Dried cod and canned meats often substituted for fresh meat. The OHL lavished special attention on machine guns. It decreed that each infantry regiment was to have 30 heavy MG 08 guns and 72 light MG 08/15, but production bottlenecks cut the number of light machine guns in half.
The MG 08/15 could be used in the first defensive line to repel an assault, but its true value lay as a counterattack weapon in forward positions beyond the range of friendly artillery; it was also deemed fit to use against tanks at close range. Machine guns were to be deployed in clusters of two or three and each crew carried 5000 rounds in belts, sufficient for four bursts of about 3 minutes each. The guns could fire at the rate of 400-500 shots per minute, but barrels tended to overheat quickly. The fine dust of the Champagne and Flanders (when dry) caused frequent jamming, and the troops were instructed to oil their weapons well and to use wet cloths to protect them from both dust and gas. The heavy MG 08 gun was described as `the weapon of intermediary terrain’, that is, as the main killing tool between the first and second lines. While it could be used against enemy flyers, it was most effective against hostile troops that had overrun the first trench line. Teams consisted of one gunner and four assistants, which were most advantageously placed in reinforced concrete pill-boxes 7-10 yards deep with a firing platform 2 yards below the surface. Gunners were to move only by night and then to use rakes to erase their footsteps in the dirt to foil enemy reconnaissance by air. A school at Rozoy trained 20 machine-gun crews at a time. Austro- Hungarian and Turkish officers were invited to the courses.
Reconnaissance and communications received detailed attention. In good weather the pilots of tethered balloons could take pictures up to a range of 18 or 19 miles. Reconnaissance planes were outfitted with special radios and telephoto-lens cameras, allowing a pilot both to report his sightings and to photograph them. About 4000 cartographers on the ground developed and analysed the pictures. The Army found that dogs – 12 per regiment – remained the most reliable means of getting messages to and from the front. Each animal underwent 4-6 weeks of training with two trainers: one at the front and one in the rear to assure accurate runs. Each division had 120 pigeons housed in hermetically sealed cages to protect them against gas. The birds were tattooed under the wing for identification and had aluminium tubes attached to their legs to hold messages. They could go 48 hours without food. Howitzers were designed to fire special metallic message containers; smoke released on impact with the ground marked their whereabouts. Message runners remained the final recourse.
The Supreme Command also beefed up its air forces for the great push in France. The number of aircraft on hand – not counting 1000 machines with reserve formations – had more than doubled from 1200 in 1917 to 2600 in 1918 under the auspices of the so-called `America Programme’. On the eve of Michael, the German Air Force in the west consisted of 2000 active and about 1700 reserve aircraft organized into 80 attack squadrons of 12 planes each, 38 support squadrons of 12 craft each, and eight bomber squadrons of 18 machines each. An all-metal, single-wing Junkers craft constituted a significant advance over the usual wooden-framed aircraft that easily succumbed to fire. Reconnaissance craft could reach an altitude of up to 7000 yards in 45 minutes; fighters could do so in half the time at a speed of 100 miles per hour. Two-thirds of the Reich’s 2000 anti-aircraft guns were also positioned on the Western Front.
Alarmed by the increased activity of Allied spies early in 1918, the OHL in January instructed Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht to alert all units that spies most frequently landed or parachuted behind its lines between midnight and dawn in captured planes. They dressed in German uniforms, used forged documents to fool patrols, carried about 2000 francs to bribe French civilians, and brought hot pepper to throw police dogs off the trail. Once on the ground, they switched to civilian garb. Railroads were the spies’ primary objectives, and they sent their findings out by pigeons with messages scribbled in invisible ink.
Ludendorff’s staff developed a detailed `decoy plan’ to confuse the Allies concerning the actual deployments for Michael. On 24 February General von Loßberg instructed army-group commanders to increase their artillery bombardments, to send up additional observation balloons, to step up aerial reconnaissance and bombing and to withdraw their front units a few yards to occupy the enemy’s attention. Commanders were also instructed to send out numerous and meaningless radio messages, and to release hundreds of pigeons, including especially captured enemy birds, with false orders. Civilian populations were to be assembled in mass formations in non-assault areas behind the front to lead the Allies to believe that they were German reserves; elsewhere they were to be driven out of their homes for the same purpose. All front areas were closed to travel. Loßberg instructed his commanders to march their men in all conceivable directions by day to deceive enemy flyers, noting that this tactic was especially effective against `the cunning English’.
Tanks bedevilled the German Army throughout the war in two ways: it had neither developed an effective antidote nor built its own in numbers. Daimler in Berlin in the winter of 1914-15 had experimented only with light armoured personnel carriers with wheels designed for street use and ignored the American-designed caterpillar track. The OHL eventually realized the tank’s potential, and on 30 October 1916 had ordered the first prototype built. The tank was to be manned by a crew of six and powered by an 80- 100 horsepower motor capable of speeds of 7 or 8 miles per hour on roads and about 4 in open terrain. The unit was to weigh 4 tons and mount one machine gun each front and back as well as two on the side.
Thereafter, designers divided their attention among a heavier (150-ton) tank armed with four 7.7 cm and two machine guns, a medium (30-ton) tank mounting one 6 cm and six machine guns and flamethrowers, and a light (8.5- ton) model with only two machine guns. However, industry was fully taxed with producing ammunition, guns and U-boats and never gave tank development full attention. Nor was there any research-and-development synergy between industry and the Army. The net result was that the Germans used mainly about 20 captured British and French tanks; as well, they deployed nine of their only model, the A7V, on the first day of the Michael offensive. This medium tank had a best speed of 5 miles per hour on level surfaces, with a range of only 15 miles. The A7V tank lacked manoeuvrability and its crew of 12 proved too large for smooth operation of the vehicle. Daimler reported in February 1918 that it was still 8-9 months away from developing a new large tank, and that production could not start before 1919. Moreover, Daimler’s exorbitant prices – it demanded a 50 per cent increase in its car and tank costs in 1918 alone – in March forced the government after a bitter debate in the Reichstag to `militarize’ the firm, thereby further slowing tank production.
The Army published its first manual for tank warfare in January 1918. It depicted the tank as an `auxiliary weapon’ incapable of deciding battle on its own; its major function was to assist infantry in reaching enemy positions. On 18 January Ludendorff decreed that the few tanks on hand were to be used to reduce wires, to run over machine-gun positions, but thereafter to avoid enemy artillery fire by returning to their own lines. The tanks were not to spearhead infantry’s advance, but rather to support the first assault wave as mobile field artillery. Iron-cross markings on the tops or sides were to identify friendly tanks. Some units, such as General Bernhard Finck von Finckenstein’s 4th Guards Infantry Division, painted white death’s heads on the front of their tanks as signs of elite formations.
This rather simplistic approach to tank warfare should not obscure the fact that lower commands were intensively experimenting with the new weapon. Around the start of Michael, the Commander of Armoured Vehicles, Division III (Bornschlegel), summed up experiences to date for front commanders. It required at least 10 days to prepare a tank assault. The vehicles were best deployed in pairs, were to move up slightly behind the infantry as mobile artillery, and were not to advance more than 4-5 miles per day. Tank leaders were to train daily with infantry and to develop close communications with infantry leaders. Because signal lamps could not be read in fog and smoke, each tank was to be painted with numbers and flags for ready identification and be given a radio for communication. Canister-shot was most effective, but insufficient storage room for shells limited the tank’s assault capability. Revolving periscopes were dismissed out of hand as the tanks pitched and rolled too violently for steady observation and firing; notched sights remained the norm. Unfortunately, the tanks were front-heavy due to the placement of the large gun; there were no gun weights to offset this; and the constant pounding that the tank took off-road loosened the bolts on gun placements. Obviously, the tank required more development before it could play a decisive role in battle.
Anti-tank warfare also troubled the Germans. The first manual on how to deal with tanks was published in December 1916, and recommended machine-gun and howitzer fire against the mechanical monsters. In April 1917 Army Group Crown Prince Wilhelm encapsulated its experiences with British tanks during the Battle of Arras. The report, penned by Captain Bernhard Bronsart von Schellendorf, recommended close-support batteries as the best deterrent. Three to four shells sufficed to put a tank out of service; the best shots were through the side where they hit the lethal petrol tanks. Bronsart von Schellendorf bravely suggested that the German infantryman `generally has nothing to fear from the tanks’.
The Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, of course, proved otherwise and the search for an effective anti-tank weapon continued. In March 1918, two weeks before the start of the Michael offensive, the General Staff reminded soldiers that single hand-grenades were ineffective against tanks, and instructed them to tie several grenades together with wire and to hurl them at the tank’s turret. Roughly 200 former 2-cm anti-aircraft guns proved inadequate as tank defence, and hence the front received a new 13-mm anti-tank gun. It also remained of questionable value as single shots failed to puncture enemy armour. The gun was effective only if grouped with others and fired at close range (200-300 yards) as well as high angle (60-90 degrees) in order to penetrate the soft tops of tanks.
Having trained the assault troops for Michael, Ludendorff next turned his attention to doctrine. Unsurprisingly, he called on Captain Hermann Geyer, the Bavarian officer in the operations section of the General Staff, who in December 1916 had crafted the `Principles of Command for the Defensive Battle in Position Warfare’. In January 1918 Geyer completed `The Attack in Position Warfare’; it became the manual for Michael. The Bavarian had studied the last 3 years of `attacks with limited objectives’ to devise a method to `break through’ the enemy trench networks and thereby to regain operational manoeuvre. The Army had spent the winter of 1917-18 systematically honing its tactical skills; the question now was how to rupture enemy lines and, more importantly, how to exploit that rupture. Geyer acknowledged that the military instrument, in classic Clausewitzean terms, had been worn down by years of constant combat. Veterans in their thirties and forties, and especially Landsturm men in their fifties, would not do as `attack’ specialists or `storm-battalion’ troops.
Geyer, following Ludendorff’s suggestion, thus selected about 25 per cent of all soldiers – those between the ages of 25 and 35 – for special `attack’ divisions, and relegated the rest to `trench’ divisions comprised of older men with inferior equipment. Der Angriff im Stellungskrieg stipulated that small units were to infiltrate (durchfressen) Allied lines, bypass centres of resistance and `penetrate quickly and deeply’ into the enemy’s rear. Reserves were to be kept in forward positions and detailed by the Supreme Command to exploit ruptures in enemy lines. Individual units were not to halt and await reinforcements, but to drive forward until exhausted. Fresh formations would then leapfrog ahead of them. Storm troopers would spearhead the attack. Artillery would lay down fast and accurate barrages designed to neutralize rather than to destroy hostile positions. Training, surprise and uninterrupted forward movement were critical to success. `The surprised adversary should not be allowed to regain consciousness.’ Troops, in the words of General Max Hoffmann, were `to test various positions’ in the lines `one after another in order to ascertain where one encountered the enemy’s weakness’, against which `one would have to press the attack with all possible force’. Tactical virtuosity had replaced strategy at the OHL.
While the Rhodesian forces never really developed a successful antidote to the guerrillas’ mobilization of the masses, they displayed consummate skill in defeating the guerrillas in combat. Even low-calibre units such as the Police Field Reserve could easily repel guerrilla attacks, though the insurgents tended to be more aggressive against units such as Guard Force and Internal Affairs.
In the years 1966-72, guerrilla activity, no matter how small the group, would invite the full attention of regular units and the Rhodesian Air Force. Insurgents were rapidly followed up by helicopter-borne patrols, and if they failed to re-cross the frontier were almost invariably hunted down. But from 1972 both the size and geographical spread of guerrilla incursions rapidly expanded. From 1976 every area of the country became affected by guerrilla operations. There were simply not enough well-trained Rhodesian soldiers to cover all the ground, and as increasing reliance was put on reserves, the problem of pinning down guerrillas so that they could be eliminated by superior firepower and tactics became acute.
The answer devised by the Rhodesians from 1974 was Fire Force, an efficient way of stretching limited elite manpower and the RAF’s helicopter fleet. A typical Fire Force comprised four Alouette IIIs. At least one was configured as a ‘command car’ from which the Fire Force commander directed the action. One or more of the helicopters would be a gunship. Later in the war a DC-3 Dakota carrying a stick of 15 paratroops was a standard component of Fire Forces. Strike support was given by fighter-bombers in the early days of Fire Force operations until Lynxes were acquired. After this Hunters were available for particularly large or hard-fought actions.
The Fire Force was deployed from a forward air field (FAF) at the discretion of the JOC chairman or his representative on request from observation posts or ground troops in visual or combat contact with guerrillas. Initially Fire Forces were available almost immediately, but the vast numbers of guerrillas operating inside Rhodesia from 1978 caused delays of up to four hours in meeting requests. Fire Forces could expect two to three contacts with guerrillas each day at the height of the war. In 1978 a company-sized ‘Jumbo’ or ‘national’ Fire Force was created. This roved from one operational area to another, and routinely operated into Mozambique as well.
The Fire Force was talked on to its target by ground troops, who marked their own positions with smoke or white phosphorus grenades, and then began orbiting the guerrilla position. The gunships engaged the guerrillas and air strikes were called in by the Fire Force commander. At an early stage the ground troops were landed to cut off guerrilla escape routes by means of ‘stop’ groups. A combined air and ground action then ensued until the guerrillas had been either killed or had fled.
So effective was the Fire Force concept that it seemed to be the solution to winning the war. But the sheer numbers of guerrillas operating in the country and guerrilla counter-measures upset this extremely cost-effective tactic. Fire Forces became more and more stretched to cope with incidents. The guerrillas adopted evasion tactics based on lookout positions and scatter drills, and began to move about in small groups of less than five to avoid detection, concentrating only for meetings or operations. Air strikes were evaded by running at an oblique angle to the aircraft flightpath. Initially the arrival of a Fire Force meant certain death or capture, but effective counter-measures had been devised by 1978-9. One Territorial Force major described the difficulties of locating guerrillas as like trying to pick up a handful of microscopic, coloured beads off a thick-pile, multi-hued carpet.
The tactical successes of the Fire Force system were also blunted by guerrilla measures against observation posts. Base camps were sited away from prominent features on which security forces might keep watch on the surrounding terrain. Guerrilla operations in the flat country of south-eastern and much of western Rhodesia were already facilitated by the dearth of high hills in those areas. Mujibas and herd boys on apparently innocent domestic chores were sent through likely OP positions to compromise their presence and booby traps were even laid in the more obvious sites. Guerrillas often wore two or three sets of civilian clothes to confuse watching security forces. By the later years of the war the Rhodesian forces were forced to move OPs well away from villages and to use telescopes with optical ranges of up to 5 km to maintain their secrecy. The Selous Scouts pioneered new, painstaking techniques for setting up OPs and keeping them secure. Teams of pseudo-guerrillas, usually Selous Scouts or Special Branch agents, including amnestied guerrillas, gathered intelligence on the locations of guerrilla bases. The guerrillas devised counter-measures, such as placing taboos on eating certain foods by their cadres. A kraal head who was suspicious of groups asking the whereabouts of their ‘comrades’ could test their identity by offering them prohibited foods. Another favourite identification was using certain brands of cigarettes. The stratagem needed to be spread widely, but at the same time changed frequently, to be proof against security forces’ interrogations of captured guerrillas.
Ground coverage and reaction to incidents were carried out by units like the RAR, the Grey’s Scouts, the territorial Rhodesia Regiment battalions, the Police Support Unit and PATU. The standard tactical sub-division was the company (except for PATU which always operated in small reconnaissance sticks), which set up a headquarters in areas assigned to it for patrolling and reaction. The company was deployed in sticks, and OPs were set up, ground patrols were sent out to sweep kraals and terrain, and to establish ambushes based on information supplied by the local Special Branch operatives or the Rhodesian Intelligence Corps.
A normal stick would comprise three or four riflemen armed with FN rifles and a machine-gunner armed with an MAG. The stick would also carry hand and rifle grenades. Every stick had a radio to maintain contact with its headquarters and other sticks in the area. The lavish provision of radios gave the Rhodesian forces the tactical flexibility they needed to cover vast areas of countryside. The guerrillas rarely operated radios (which they called ‘over-overs’) until the last two years of the war. Most Rhodesian equipment was locally made and maintained. The ground network of field radios was linked by a series of relay stations perched atop hills. These provided a vital service where granite outcrops and rugged terrain often severely limited the range of small, portable radio sets. Relay stations were also important for linking army and police units, which operated on incompatible sets of channels. In many cases sticks only a couple of kilometres apart were forced to communicate via relay stations on high features 20 to 30 km away.
Encounter skirmishes would be conducted by the unit itself, but OPs would usually call in Fire Force if it was available. Many of these units resented Fire Force. Since the measure of success for the Rhodesian forces was the number of guerrilla corpses produced, Fire Force was seen as snatching away the rewards of troops who had endured long marches and often painstaking work to locate guerrilla camps or positions. The fact that Fire Force rode to and from battle in helicopters merely added to the jealousy, but many of the ground troops, who considered they could handle these battles themselves, forgot that Fire Force was introduced because of the inadequacy of routine patrolling.
In 1978 it was decided to conduct ‘high intensity’ operations in specific areas severely affected by guerrilla operations. A whole battalion would be assigned to a district, often with the addition of the ‘Jumbo’ Fire Force, and would thoroughly scour it, attempting to kill the guerrillas there and break their infrastructure. These operations, a return to the old search-and-destroy pattern of the early years of the war, had great success in terms of body counts in areas where they were deployed. But the whole country could not be covered and once the high intensity force left for other districts the guerrillas began seeping back and resuscitating their network.
In areas in which PVs had been established, security forces destroyed crops found outside areas prescribed for cultivation around the PV itself. When people were moved into a PV the guerrillas tried to spirit away as many as possible to set up povo camps. These were treated as military targets by the Rhodesian forces. In areas where there were curfews any person moving about at night was liable to be shot by ambushes. Africans refusing to stop when challenged by security forces were shot as ‘suspicious persons’.
There were also exotic variations on these ground tactics, such as the use of ‘Qcars’ (military vehicles bristling with firepower and disguised as civilian or commercial vehicles) and booby-trapped radios. Other radios–nicknamed ‘roadrunners’–contained tracking systems. The Selous Scouts also developed a major interest in biological and chemical warfare. An organophosphate, Parathion, was used to impregnate clothing. The three most common types of clothing treated were underpants, T-shirts and denim jeans, the preferred dress code of ZANLA guerrillas. Usually sick guerrillas were left by their comrades to suffer a slow and agonizing death alone in the bush. Perhaps thousands of guerrillas were killed by this method. Such ‘kills’ were not mentioned in official Rhodesian communiqués, but they were frequently described in diaries recovered after contacts with guerrillas. Food was contaminated with thallium, especially canned corned beef, mealie meal (maize), tinned jam and beers. The thallium was injected into sealed tins, through bottle tops and into packets with a micro needle. Cartons of cigarettes were impregnated with toxins. Cholera and anthrax were also spread deliberately. In February 1978 the new Commissioner of Police, Peter Allum, gave a direct order to stop all covert poisoning operations, though poison manufacture and distribution by SB and the Selous Scouts continued until mid-1979.
The tactical objective was always the same: to pin down the elusive guerrillas and kill or capture them. Combat troops did not engage in any political indoctrination. Their function was purely military, and they discharged this function efficiently. Increasingly, however, the only way to find and destroy large concentrations of guerrillas was to raid across the frontiers. A network of observation posts spread into Mozambique and Zambia, and Fire Force operated into those countries as if they were extensions of Rhodesian territory. The first major cross-border raid was mounted in August 1976. An incursion of 900 guerrillas was imminent from Nyadzonya camp on a tributary of the Pungwe River about 40 km inside Mozambique. The camp was a standard guerrilla installation, a sort of ‘super-povo’ camp containing not only guerrillas but their normal ‘tail’ of women and children. The raid was carried out by the Selous Scouts wearing FRELIMO uniforms. They simply drove into Mozambique and entered the camp at the early morning muster of guerrillas, who were mowed down from vehicles with heavy machine guns. A number of FRELIMO troops who tried to intervene were killed, and the Rhodesian troops withdrew without severe casualties. The raid caused jubilation among whites in Rhodesia and outrage abroad. The United Nations claimed that the camp was a refugee centre and that more than 600 civilians were killed and more wounded. The Rhodesians countered with claims of only 10 civilians killed. The incident was ruthlessly exploited for propaganda purposes by both sides. The Rhodesians questioned the morality of stationing combat troops alongside civilians in base camps, while the guerrillas countered that, if there were any soldiers at all, they were there to protect innocent refugees against Rhodesian savagery.
The pattern of raids remained much the same over the next three years. Camps in Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique were attacked by different methods to keep the initiative in Rhodesian hands. Ground operations were preferred because of their more successful results. In 1979 an SAS intelligence officer complained that air strikes were not effective–although many direct hits were scored on the guerrilla camps, the high explosive and napalm bombs did not kill as many guerrillas as expected. Large-scale raids were designed to do two things: to kill guerrillas where they were concentrated outside Rhodesia and to destroy or disrupt their infrastructure, weapons and supply. A number of different tactics were used: troop-carrying, heavily armed vehicles drove across the borders, paratroops made low-altitude combat jumps, ground forces were landed by helicopter or walked in and were evacuated by helicopter. The SAS infiltrated raiding parties across Lake Kariba with the assistance of the army’s boat section. Small-scale raids became more frequent once the principle of striking across the border had been adopted. During one typical small operation in August 1979 a platoon of the Selous Scouts’Support Troop attacked a base camp deep inside Zambia. The ZIPRA occupants fled without resisting, but a combined guerrilla and Zambian army mobile relief column attempted to eliminate the withdrawing unit. A section-sized stop group ambushed and drove off the numerically superior column and then withdrew, laying land mines on the way back to Rhodesia. The guerrillas then set fire to the whole area in an attempt to burn down the retreating unit’s cover.
This sort of operation went on week after week in the closing two years of the war. The guerrillas often felt safer inside Rhodesia than they did in the border regions of their host states, for the marauding troops were the highly trained and motivated elite of the Rhodesian Army. Guerrilla offensives were often disrupted by timely Rhodesian spoiling attacks, and camps had to be moved back from the borders, dispersed and more heavily defended. The series of raids culminated in an attack on the massive guerrilla base at New Chimoio in September 1979. The Rhodesian blitzkrieg put significant pressure on the leaders of the Patriotic Front to remain at the Lancaster House conference which ended the war.
In a letter to The Times in January 1978 retired British General Sir Walter Walker wrote of the Rhodesian forces:
Their army cannot be defeated in the field either by terrorists or even a much more sophisticated enemy. In my professional judgement based on more than twenty years’ experience from Lieutenant to General, of counter-insurgency and guerrilla type operations, there is no doubt that Rhodesia now has the most professional and battleworthy army in the world today for this particular type of warfare.
The general was probably right. A further, backhanded compliment to the Rhodesian forces was paid by an official of the Mozambique government when he claimed that they had destroyed a vital bridge deep inside his country. ‘It must have been the Rhodesians,’ he said, ‘because it was done so well.’ But the ‘field’ in revolutionary warfare is not the same as that in conventional warfare. In a guerrilla war the battlefield is the political loyalty of the mass of the population. The Rhodesians did not develop tactics to win enough battles in that more subtle war.
I never used the word Blitzkrieg because it is a very stupid word.
Adolf Hitler, 8 November 1941
The Word “Blitzkrieg”
In sober military language, there is hardly any other word that is so strikingly full of significance and at the same time so misleading and subject to misinterpretation as the term blitzkrieg. Its early history is already hidden behind the fog of legends. It was asserted again and again that Hitler coined this evocative term. Some think that it was cooked up in the propaganda kitchen of Dr. [Josef] Goebbels. It is also assumed rather superficially that the word cropped up only after the surprising successes of the German Wehrmacht at the start of World War II. Allegedly, it was coined in the Anglo-Saxon language, where, as the very first piece of evidence, an article from the 25 September 1939 issue of Time magazine about the Campaign in Poland is quoted: “This was no war of occupation, but a war of quick penetration and obliteration— Blitzkrieg, lightning war.”
This assumption is based on an error. A more careful analysis of military publications proves that this word was already known in Germany before World War II. The word blitzkrieg was expressly mentioned in 1935 in an article in the military periodical Deutsche Wehr (German Defense). According to it, countries with a rather weak food industry and poor in raw materials should try “to finish a war quickly and suddenly by trying to force a decision right at the very beginning through the ruthless employment of their total fighting strength.” A more detailed analysis can be found in an essay published in 1938 in Militär-Wochenblatt (Military Weekly). Blitzkrieg is defined as “strategic surprise attack” carried forward by the operational employment of armor and the air force as well as airborne troops. But such choice references are rare in German military literature prior to World War II. The word blitzkrieg was also practically never used in the official military terminology of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) during World War II. It assumed significance only through propaganda journalism. Especially after the surprisingly quick victory in France in the summer of 1940, German papers were flooded with the word, as the following essay with the rather characteristic title “Blitzkriegpsychose” (Blitzkrieg Psychosis) shows:
Blitzkrieg! Blitzkrieg! Blitzkrieg! That word was flashed at us everywhere during the weeks between the defeat of France and the start of major air attacks against England. Whether in the newspapers or on radio, there was not a day when our enemies did not mention that word. It became so much a part of them that they did not even take the trouble of looking around for a corresponding word in their own language; no, the “linguistically skillful” Englishmen simply took the word “Blitzkrieg” from the German language and every Englishman knows what that means, he knows what he and his country face now, once Germany starts hitting hard and fast.
There is just one appropriate word for the events in Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France, and that word is “Blitzkrieg.” With the speed and force of lightning, our Wehrmacht struck and destroyed every obstacle.
But there was already a break at the end of 1941 after the failure of the German blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union. Henceforth, this word was frowned upon, and Hitler, of all people, energetically denied that he ever used it. Instead, the German press maintained that this catchword was merely a malevolent invention of British propaganda: “It was the British who invented the term ‘Blitzkrieg.’ It is wrong. We never said that this mightiest of all struggles could ever take place with the speed of lightning.”
In the meantime, the Anglo-Saxons began to like this onomatopoeic German word and varied it in a farcical fashion. The German soldiers were referred to as “blitzers”; and there were phrases such as, for example, “out-blitz the Blitzkrieg.” The German air raids on London were also called “the Blitz.” The vocabulary of the British tabloid press today cannot get along without the term blitzkrieg when it comes to dramatizing surprisingly quick victories in sports.
After the campaign in the west, the term blitzkrieg also showed up along with the word Panzer (tank or armor) in most of the major languages of the world. At the same time, an attempt was made to transfer this word into the particular language concerned. This term was also used for the categorization of campaigns after World War II. For example, Iraq’s failed surprise attack against Iran in 1980 was referred to in the press rather ironically as “the slowest Blitzkrieg of all time.” But the epidemic spread of this word did not help clarify the concept that was presumed to be behind it.
The Concept of Blitzkrieg
In his essay “Blitzkrieg Ambiguities,” George Raudzens differentiates seven different meanings of this rather scintillating term. He complains of an “anarchy in interpretation” but in the end must admit that he does not have any pat solution. That shows that the blitzkrieg exegesis has gotten lost in a semantic labyrinth. Because there is obviously no way out, there is only one possibility, and that is to pick up the famous thread of Ariadne in order to find the way back to the entrance to the labyrinth.
But before we go into the confusing semantics of blitzkrieg, we first of all want to explain the triad of tactical, operational, and strategic echelons.
Tactics means true command in the context of “combined arms combat.” It is the responsibility of lower- and middle-echelon command.
Conduct of operations (that is to say, far-reaching military movements and battles) is the task of the higher command echelon. According to the criteria of the Wehrmacht, the operational level of warfare commenced at the army (in exceptional cases, at the corps), whereas today a corps (in exceptional cases, also a division) can take over such command assignments. Tactical combat operations are planned and conducted at that echelon in the context of a higher-level operation; the latter, again, is aimed at strategic objectives.
Strategy is the responsibility of the top command; that is the echelon where we encounter cooperation among political, economic, and military command agencies of a country with a view to the politically defined wartime objectives.
“Blitzkrieg,” this form of modern warfare, which today is discussed all over the world, is a tactic that shaped up only in the course of various German campaigns . . . but that cannot yet be expressed in fixed strategic formulas.
Weltwoche (World Week), Zürich, 4 July 1941
An analysis of German military publications before and during World War II clearly showed that the term blitzkrieg as a rule was used in a purely military context, in other words, as an operational-tactical term. This brings us to the following brief definition: By blitzkrieg we mean the concentrated employment of armor and air forces to confuse the enemy with surprise and speed and to encircle him, after a successful breakthrough, by means of far-reaching thrusts. The objective is to defeat the enemy quickly in a decision-seeking operation.
The blitzkrieg was no political-strategic inspiration on the part of Adolf Hitler that his officers then transferred to the operational level and finally to the tactical echelons. Quite the contrary, this idea sprang up long before Hitler seized power; it was crystallized from purely tactical necessity. As will be shown later, the term was already contained in the Stoßtrupp-Taktik (stormtroop or assault team tactics) that were developed during World War I. In that way, the Germans wanted to put an end to rigid front lines involved in positional (trench) warfare and to return to mobile warfare. Above all the successes of the German general Oskar von Hutier drew attention to this tactic that aimed at breaking through enemy field fortifications. Somewhat exaggeratedly, Anglo-Saxon authors later referred to him as the “father of Blitzkrieg tactics.” At any rate, the blitzkrieg, as described later on, is nothing but the further development of the original assault team idea. Oberstleutnant Braun, for example, in an article published in 1938, already compares blitzkrieg to a “large-scale, powerful ‘Stoßtrupp’ mission.” But Stoßtrupp is a term used on the lower tactical echelons and as a rule refers to a platoon or a company.
Generaloberst Heinz Guderian is also called the founder of the blitzkrieg idea. He took over this Stoßtrupp-Taktik, whose prescription for success was based on speed and surprise, and combined it with the elements of modern technology, such as the tank and aircraft. In so doing, he was not concerned with the implementation of strategic ideas or political programs; his goal, instead, was to find a way back to mobile operations. To that extent, the term blitzkrieg is extensively a synonym for the modern operational war of maneuver.
The phenomenon of the blitzkrieg, however, was also interpreted in a much more comprehensive fashion. Many historians used this handy term to characterize Hitler’s strategy of conquest. A characteristic feature of this theory is its close tie-in with the military economy of the Third Reich that many authors referred to as a blitzkrieg economy. This assumption, which is rather hotly debated among historians, can be described as follows:
The German blitzkrieg strategy was allegedly intended, in the endeavor for world rule, to bridge the deep chasm between far-reaching wartime objectives and inadequate power potential by overwhelming the enemies, one after the other, in a series of individual, successive campaigns that would last only a short time.
The foreign policy objective was to isolate the particular opponent and thus to localize the conflict. In that way it would be possible to avoid the risk of a long, drawn-out, multifront war of attrition.
The domestic policy goal was to motivate the population for war and to avoid long, drawn-out wars that would be too much of a strain on the endurance of the people.
The economic objective was to mobilize the country’s own power potential in the context of a quickly available armament in width (coupled with a rather risky renunciation of any armament in depth). The indispensable prerequisite for a blitzkrieg, in other words, a strategic first-strike capacity, was to be created by at least a temporary armament lead over the enemy who was to be attacked by surprise.
The military objective was to overrun the enemy, after exploiting the element of surprise, by using fast, mechanized forces with air support; the encirclement of the enemy’s armies, in the course of broad-ranging encirclement operations, was to bring about a quick and decisive victory.
According to this theory, the blitzkrieg was a strategy of limitations and calculability of the following:
In the view of quite a few historians, this “ingenious blitzkrieg strategy” that Hitler allegedly invented always made it possible to mobilize the country’s manpower and material resources only to the extent that was believed necessary to defeat the next particular foe. The alternation between short campaigns and pauses to exploit the newly conquered territories thus determined the rhythm of blitzkrieg strategy. The objective of this stage-by-stage procedure was supposedly to broaden continually the country’s own wartime economic base. Total mobilization was to be started only once the country’s own potential for conducting a world war seemed adequate. But when the blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union failed at the end of 1941, it was necessary to do that which was to have been avoided at all costs—namely, the premature switch to total war.
The theory of the blitzkrieg strategy turns up as an almost ideological, tightly buttoned up model of thinking. Alan S. Milward, one of its best-known advocates, had this to say in 1975: “Today it is generally recognized that the military strategy of National Socialist Germany can adequately be described as a ‘Blitzkrieg’ strategy.” That theory had already been developed in the United States in 1945 and was formulated mainly by Burton H. Klein. In the end, it also prevailed in Europe. For example, Andreas Hillgruber fell back on it and tied it in with his theory of the step-by-step plan, which he thought expressed Hitler’s program in the endeavor to achieve world power: “This was to be done in two big stages in the context of a ‘program’ that had been spelled out conclusively during the twenties: First of all, the important thing was to erect a European continental empire via the defeat of France and, subsequently, the conquest of the European part of Russia. This was followed by another ‘stage’ to build up a German ‘world power’ position with colonial territories in Africa, oceanic bases, and a strong sea power that, during the generation after Hitler, was to build the base for a decisive struggle between the ‘world power’ Germany and the ‘world power’ the United States of America.”
But a number of critics criticized Hillgruber’s step-by-step plan as being too deterministic and inadequately documented. According to Erdmann, the step-by-step plan suggested “a system that it is doubtful can be used in adequately characterizing Hitler’s visions and improvisations.” Hillgruber tackled the thesis of the blitzkrieg strategy rather gingerly and used it only to back up his step-by-step plan model, which Marxist historians above all increasingly exaggerated. As a result, this heavily overloaded term blitzkrieg finally drifted away from its military roots and was extensively shoved into the alien atmosphere of social-economic matters.
According to a more recent assumption, the idea of the blitzkrieg does not primarily go back to Hitler but was allegedly conceived in the executive suite of IG Farben, a market-dominating chemical corporation. In the stiff competition among the monopoly groups of the heavy and chemical industries, the latter prevailed in 1936. In this connection, IG Farben proposed to produce chemical substitutes to compensate for the shortage of Germany’s armament-related raw materials. According to this thesis, the resultant autarky was to make it possible for Germany to pursue limited blitzkrieg campaigns. This supposedly was the objective of the four-year plan that was adopted in 1936 and bore the signature of IG Farben.
In spelling out his expansion objectives, the dictator was also allegedly guided by a three-stage expansion program that reportedly had been drafted long before by industry. First of all, an economic core region in central Europe was to be created, and it was then expanded into a large-scale European region. But the traditional objective of world rule was to be the very end of this entire endeavor.
The theory of blitzkrieg strategy has been subjected to increasing doubt in recent years. In this connection, it can be argued that this involves a fiction that was put together by historians only after the fact. According to Timothy Mason, the blitzkrieg successes were based on a “fatal combination of domestic policy compulsion, foreign policy accident, and extreme adventurousness on the part of Hitler. The successes then gave the whole thing the appearance of a system although it was not.” Hew Strachan expresses this particularly clearly: “Blitzkrieg, therefore, may have had some meaning at a purely operational level, but as an overall strategic and economic concept it was non-existent.”
The Campaign in the West and the Origin of Blitzkrieg
Because of Germany’s unfavorable geographic position in the center of Europe, the German general officer corps was always trying to conduct so-called quick wars to force an immediate operational decision. Moltke had gained such a victory in 1870 in the Sedan encirclement battle. But, at the start of World War I, the Schlieffen plan, based on this same principle, simply failed. It gradually became clear that the nature of war had changed dramatically. On account of the enhanced effect of weapons, firepower dominated movement. Far-ranging operations were often nipped in the bud before they got started; they froze in the firestorm of machine guns and in the steel thunderstorm of the artillery. This was followed by a long, drawn-out positional war that was fought in the course of battles of attrition. Reluctantly, the generals had to admit that the significance of the art of conducting operations increasingly faded into the background because the decision had shifted from the battlefields to the factories. The struggle of hostile peoples took place in the form of a lengthy economic war in which the Western sea powers cut Germany off from its raw material sources by a blockade.
The German generals learned their lessons from the loss in World War I; they no longer believed that quick wars could be won against opponents of superior strength. In 1937, Oberst [Georg] Thomas, Chef des Wehrmachtswirtschaftsstabes (chief, War Economy Staff), made the following assertion: “The mistaken fixation upon a short war has been ruinous for us; we should therefore not be guided by the illusion of a short war in the age of air and Panzer squadrons.”
A scenario drafted by Großadmiral (Grand Admiral) [Erich] Raeder in 1937 indicated what ideas prevailed within the Wehrmacht high command as regards the nature of a future war: “and so, there can only be a kind of fortress warfare that boils down to alternating tactical successes and failures. In the cycle of changing fortunes arising from these tactical successes, final victory will then go to the state that has the larger population but, even more so, the state that has unlimited material and food. . . . Just exactly how this kind of warfare can affect Germany, if the missing raw materials cannot be procured continually, needs no special explanation considering our geographic location.” This is why he warned against the illusion of “seeking the decision in a single large operation.”
The general officer corps was definitely skeptical toward such military adventures. As indicated in a lecture note, General der Artillerie [Ludwig] Beck, Generalstabschef des Heeres (army chief of staff), made the following comment to Generaloberst [Walther] von Brauchitsch, Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres (commander in chief of the army), during the Czech crisis in July 1938: “The idea of a Blitzkrieg . . . is an illusion. One should really have learned from the modern history of warfare that surprise attacks have hardly ever led to lasting success.”
A study published in 1938 made the following categorical statement: “The possibilities of defeating an equivalent opponent by means of a ‘Blitzkrieg’ are zero. . . . In other words: It is not military force that is strongest; instead, it is economic power that has become the most important power in the modern world.” But then the miracle of Sedan happened in May 1940. The lightning victory during the campaign in the west triggered a radical change of opinions within the German general officer corps. That campaign was decided in a single operation that essentially lasted just two weeks, Operation Sichelschnitt (Sickle Cut). Like an earthquake, the campaign in the west caused numerous outdated doctrines to collapse; the nature of war was revolutionized on the battlefield. But it is such times of rapid and radical change in long-held ideas and concepts that constitute fertile soil for novel key words and slogans, as was stated so aptly by Goethe: “Where terms are lacking, a word crops up at the right time.”
The word that cropped up at the right time in the summer of 1940 was blitzkrieg. Rarely in military historiography has a term been so over-interpreted as this one. Upon closer examination, it is indeed a semantic trap. The word Blitz-Krieg (lightning war) promises more than it can deliver—looking at it in historical terms—because the term Krieg (war) suggests the presence of an overall strategic concept of war. But that concept remained mostly stuck on the lower operational echelon. It would have been semantically more correct to speak of Blitzoperationen (lightning operations) or Blitzfeldzügen (lightning campaigns). Of course, the idea was to achieve a strategic objective, in other words, to bring the war to a quick end; but the means were provided only at the operational and tactical levels.
In an exaggerated form, blitzkrieg signifies an attempt to turn strategic necessity into operational virtue against the background of shortages in economic resources. But this operationally construed strategy, with its strategically construed operations, contained an inherent contradiction. Now Hitler and some generals indeed believed they had found the secret of victory in blitzkrieg, in other words, an operational miracle weapon that could be used to defeat even an economically—and thus strategically— far superior opponent by means of quick battles of annihilation (Schlieffen). The enemy, superior in the long run, was to be defeated by a surprise attack, that is, a knockout in the first round. This thinking was illusionary in an age of industrialization and had a fatal effect later on when it came to designing the campaign against the Soviet Union.
The submarines of the Japanese Navy consisted of some of the most capable in the world at the beginning of World War II. All the submarines built from the outset for operations in the war significantly outranged the submarines of the Allies navies. The range advantage provided the ability to operate at extreme distance from home port or maintain a long on-station time in a given area. Subsequently, the Japanese were able to apply their influence further and longer than other submarine forces. Along with the superior operational reach of the submarines, excellent torpedoes were provided that had a long range and powerful warheads.
The Japanese technological advantage did not wane during the course of the war. It diverged to three different branches: large, small, and fast. The Japanese used their skill to build the largest submarines in the world (Sen Toku Type) as well as some of the most capable small submarines (kaiten and other midgets). Most impressive of all of their designs, however, is the Sen Taka Sho Type medium attack submarine that had an acceptable cruising range coupled with outstanding underwater speed. Had more of these submarines reached operational status earlier, the American forces would have had a unique foe on their hands.
Even with the technological advantages of their designs, the Japanese submarines did suffer from a lack of resources that placed limits on the number of submarines that could be built and on the timeliness of the build process. Also, the Japanese did have a significant delay in developing and installing radar on their submarines. While it was a deficiency, it would not have had significant influence if the focus on operational security had been stronger.
The training of Japanese submarine crews was without equal. The submarines spent long periods of time out at sea constantly practicing elements of the plan for a decisive battle. The intense training periods had such a level of realism that three submarines were lost in prewar training accidents. The training was not without fault however. The overarching focus on the submarine role in the “decisive battle” limited the growth of submarine force capabilities. The overall training gave minimal consideration to key aspects of submarine operations: surveillance, commerce raiding, and sea control (area denial).
Based on the mystique of the German Submarine Force and the results of the American Submarine Force, it would be easy to jump to the idea that had the Japanese Submarine Force strictly applied a strategy of commerce raiding it would have had a greater impact on the war in the Pacific. This argument is too simplistic and discounts the enemy that each respective country was targeting. Japan and Britain, as targets of America and Germany respectively, were island countries dependent on long lines of communication for necessary resources and forces to fight the war. These lines were vulnerable to the focus of intense submarine efforts. Both America (in the Pacific) and Germany were also faced with the lack of a strong surface fleet to conduct offensive operations. The Germans were held in port by a combination of factors, and the American Pacific Fleet was attempting to rebuild after Pearl Harbor. As such, commerce raiding against fragile lines of communication was their only recourse.
The Japanese faced a far different situation at the outset of the war. They had built a large fleet focused on a single strategy. They had a single opponent to be concerned with and that same opponent did not have the immediate ability to attack their nation. The Pacific Ocean provided a strategic safety buffer from American forces. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor reduced the effective combat power of the American Fleet and put them immediately in a defensive posture. The American Navy was not altogether prepared to face the Japanese and an early focus on commerce raiding would have not been able to have an influence similar to that which the American submarines achieved. The Japanese, for all of their superiority in submarine technology, would not have been able to influence the American East Coast. While forces could be moved to act against the West Coast, the force size was too small to carry out effective operations to limit commerce or other operations on the East Coast. Further, there was no method to influence the natural resources available in America proper.
While the focus on a single decisive battle that was unattainable was short-sighted, the understanding that the Japanese Navy needed to focus on American military strength was not improper. The submarine force, as well as the rest of the Navy, was constructed for naval engagement not commerce raiding. The true failure of the force was not to focus its efforts on the opportunities that presented themselves. Pearl Harbor, Midway and Guadalcanal all presented themselves as opportunities for potentially decisive actions. In all three actions, the number of American aircraft carriers available in the Pacific was limited and the ability of the American Navy to conduct continued combat operations was at risk. The Japanese submarine force, based on direction from the Navy Staff, scattered its units to various other theaters away from the major battles, mainly the Aleutians and Indian Ocean.
Had the Japanese submarine force maintained the full cordon around Pearl Harbor after the 7 December attack, they could have effectively maintained ten or more submarines on station continuously when based out of Kwajalein. The size of the Japanese submarine force (capitalizing on significant operational range of the large designs) could have significantly slowed the resupply and rebuilding of Pearl Harbor and denied the American Navy its last key strategic outpost in the Pacific forcing them to extend their lines of communication and operation for any effort against the Japanese a few thousand more miles all the way back to the American West Coast. American operations from the West Coast would have been more vulnerable to the Japanese fleet.
An effective blockade of Pearl Harbor had the potential to expose it to an amphibious invasion which would have further challenged the American ability to recover from the initial attacks and generate offensive initiative.
Had the Japanese submarine force applied the principles of mass and unity of effort to their employment of forces at Midway and Guadalcanal, the operational submarine units in the areas of these battles would have been tripled posing a far greater risk to the American forces. The larger number of units at Midway would have increased the opportunity of early detection of American forces, specifically the aircraft carriers, potentially allowing the Japanese carriers to focus their effort against the American task forces prior to attacking Midway proper. This employment would have more closely met the training that the submarine force underwent during the interwar period potentially raising effectiveness as well.
The Japanese submarine force continued to deny the principle of mass in operations during the American invasion of Guadalcanal. Submarines were still deployed to various marginally important areas rather than the area of Guadalcanal. The small number of submarines assigned to the Guadalcanal area was further diverted from the potential decisive battle by being tasked to conduct supply operations instead of attempting to thwart the invasion and buildup. The respect shown by the American forces for the submarine threat could have been taken advantage of by a larger effort focused on them. Instead, the opportunity to stall the American advance in the South Pacific was given little direct attention while effort was applied to meaningless supply operations and Aleutian and Indian Ocean excursions.
Even as the opportunity for the handful of critical battles passed and the Japanese were placed firmly on the defensive, proper employment of the submarines could have still brought considerable results. The Japanese submarine force consistently showed the ability to complete complicated approaches and attack challenging targets. The sinking of Yorktown at Midway and Wasp at Guadalcanal are proof that the prewar training and exercise experience developed a skilled force that could find success in operations against a determined opponent. Had the Japanese focused their effort against the American offensive, the submarine force had the ability to influence operations. Unfortunate choices to hinder the submarines’ tactical freedom limited their influence as the Americans advanced through the Central and Western Pacific.
The final, and most perplexing, failure of the Japanese submarine force was its inability to learn and adapt to the conduct of the war. From Pearl Harbor through the operations in the Marianas in 1944, Japanese submarines were employed in rigid scouting lines and consistently failed to intercept and report on American fleet movements. Not until the force had suffered the loss of even more submarines in the Marianas did the staff shift their employment to patrol areas where the boats would be able to more freely search for targets. That late in the war, the shift was meaningless. Because the force was so decimated, there were not sufficient boats available to mount a solid defense of the Philippines. The employment of scouting lines failed in every instance that it had been used. The lines were not maintained intact around Pearl Harbor to maintain the cordon.
They were late to take station and then moved without an overriding plan or effect at Midway. They were haphazardly strung around the Solomons, Gilberts, Marshalls and Marianas and shifted without operational thought. Only late in the war were submarines released to freely stalk for prey. At this point the force size was too small to have any influence. Submarines were regularly removed from offensive or defensive operations to support grandiose airborne reconnaissance or nuisance strike missions. Submarines were committed en masse to both K Operations as well as reconnaissance and strike flights over Ulithi. The bombings had little effect. The support of reconnaissance missions, by acting as refueling platforms or navigational aids, discounted the ability of the submarines to do the jobs themselves. The submarine force had provided the first photographic intelligence of the results of Pearl Harbor as well as prescient intelligence of preparations at Midway, but the opportunity for later use of submarines as the primary operator in this key role was ignored.
The Japanese submarine force was undoubtedly a technologically superior force at the outset of the war. They were highly trained and well organized to support a distinct form of battle. The training and experience gained in interwar exercises provided a force that was ready to directly face the American Navy. The planning and execution of the war strategy failed to capitalize on the specific skill set of the submarines that were available. Had the submarines been employed as anything more than an adjunct force supporting other efforts, they could have exerted a strong influence and produced costly losses for the American Navy opening the Pacific to further Japanese operations.
The Japanese submarine force was uniquely prepared for operations against enemy combatants and did not need to resort to commerce raiding to have an influence. In fact the early successes of the Japanese Navy made commerce raiding unnecessary. Unfortunately, the Japanese did not capitalize on early successes by maintaining their forces forward and massed for further strikes against American forces. Once the paradigm of the Pacific War changed to a protracted conflict with American forces operating on extended lines of communication, the Japanese failed to adjust their employment strategy and shift to concerted commerce raiding efforts. The failure to learn from the experiences of the German and American submarines as the face of war changed left the Japanese unprepared to have any influence as the war came to an end.
Properly employed, the Japanese submarine force could have been the key to a very different war. Instead, their misemployment only aided in allowing the quick rebuilding of American forces due to their industrial dominance. As such, the actions of Japanese submarines only became footnotes to most major naval battles in the Pacific Ocean.