Operation Queen: The Western Allied November 1944 Offensive

In November 1944, German war production neared its peak. Satisfied with the speed of his Ardennes buildup, Hitler decided to make sure his offensive was not threatened by an American capture of Schmidt. He therefore reinforced Brandenberger and Schmidt with several new Volks artillery corps (equivalent to about a regiment of artillery) and Nebelwerfer (rocket launcher) brigades. He also temporarily assigned the 5th Panzer Army, under Gen. of Panzer Troops Hasso von Manteuffel, the task of defending the Stolberg Corridor and the sector east of Aachen to deceive the Allies into believing that it was already committed. Then the 5th Panzer was secretly with- drawn and sent south to assume its real mission: directing one of the two major drives into the Ardennes. Meanwhile, Gen. of Infantry Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army, temporarily dubbed Gruppe von Manteuffel, in accordance with the German deception plan, took charge of the northern wing of Brandenberger’s sector, including the LXXXI Corps in the Stolberg corridor and the northern tip of the Huertgen Forest. At the same time, Army Group B was reinforced with a new reserve: the XXXXVII Panzer Corps, with a tank and a panzer grenadier division. Model, who could not believe that the Americans intended to launch their main offensive in the Stolberg Corridor-Huertgen Forest sector, posted these divisions farther to the north on the Roer River plain.

The Allies’ November offensive against the Siegfried Line, dubbed Operation Queen, was a huge affair involving both the U. S. Ninth and First Armies, as well as the British XXX Corps on the northern flank-seventeen divisions in all. General Bradley said that it might be “the last offensive necessary to bring Germany to her knees,” and General Hodges expressed the same opinion in almost the same words. The main attack, which was launched by Collins’s VII Corps, began on November 16-the last possible date, according to Bradley’s timetable. It was proceeded by a carpet-bombing attack by more than 1,200 heavy bombers from the U. S. Eighth Air Force, which blasted the German assembly areas, field installations, and communications and supply lines, as well as the city of Eschweiler in the Stolberg Corridor and the town of Langerwehe in the northern tip of the Huertgen Forest. At the same time, more than 1,000 British bombers destroyed Dueren and other targets on or near the Roer River, while 600 medium bombers from the U. S. Ninth Air Force attacked smaller towns in the Stolberg Corridor. The ubiquitous fighter-bombers blasted the German front lines. In all, more than 4,500 airplanes took part in the attack, about half of them heavy bombers, and more than 10,000 tons of bombs fell on German positions and installations. It was the largest air attack in direct support of ground forces during the war.

The air attack was followed by an artillery bombardment by 1,246 guns, and then the main attack, which was supported by more than 300 tanks and tank destroyers. For his attack, Collins controlled the U. S. 1st, 9th, and 4th Infantry Divisions, as well as the 3rd and 5th Armored Divisions. The 4th Infantry, reinforced by Combat Command Reserve of the 3rd Armored Divison, was committed to the Huertgen Forest with the objective of clearing it and capturing Dueren. The other divisions were to push through the Stolberg corridor to the Roer.

To defend against this massive offensive, General Koechling’s LXXXI Corps had, from north to south, the 246th Volksgrenadier Division; the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division; and the 12th Volksgrenadier Division. General Schmidt’s 275th Infantry Division, still part of the 7th Army, was also subjected to massive attacks in the Huertgen Forest.

The 246th Volksgrenadier, which was to face the attack of the U. S. Ninth Army, was the worst of the lot, although it had been partially rebuilt after Aachen, absorbing the survivors of the now-defunct 49th Division. Under the command of Col. Peter Koerte, it was organized like most Volksgrenadier divisions and consisted of three infantry regiments of two battalions each, an artillery regiment, an engineer battalion, and an assault gun (antitank) battalion. Because many of its troops were seventeen-year-olds with only six weeks of training, it was rated fourth class-suitable for limited defensive missions only-in spite of the fact that it now mustered 11,141 men.

The 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division, under the command of Maj. Gen. Walter Denkert, had about 11,000 men, many of them Volksdeutsche, and was a third-class unit-suitable for unlimited defensive missions. It consisted of two panzer grenadier regiments, the 8th and 29th; a motorized artillery regiment, the 3rd; and a tank battalion, the 103rd, equipped mainly with assault guns. It also controlled the 103rd Panzer Reconnaissance, 3rd Tank Destroyer, 3rd Motorized Engineer, and 3rd Motorized Signal Battalions.

In the Stolberg Corridor, opposite the main U. S. attack, was the 12th Volksgrenadier Division, which had a strength of 6,381 men. Even though it had lost more than half of its men since September, the 12th was still rated as second class-capable of limited offensive action-because of its high state of morale and training. It was well led by Gerhard Engel, Hitler’s former army adjutant, who had been promoted to major general on November 1. The units of the LXXXI Corps were supported by sixty-six 105-millimter and thirty-one 150- millimter howitzers, plus an assortment of thirty-one other guns, including 122-millimter Russian howitzers. They also had fifty-four assault guns, eleven 88-millimeter antitank guns, and forty-five anti-tank guns of small caliber.

In addition to these forces, Lt. Gen. Max Bork’s 47th Volksgrenadier Division was just arriving in the corps sector by train and beginning the process of relieving the 12th Volksgrenadier at the front. About half of its men were former Luftwaffe and naval personnel recently transferred to the infantry; most of the rest were seventeen- and eighteen-year-old boys who had been rushed to the front with only six weeks’ training. Although its equipment and weapons were good, most of the troops were unfamiliar with them; the artillerymen, for example, had only one week of training with their guns before they were sent to the front. The antitank weapons would not arrive until long after the 47th was sent into battle.

The unlucky 47th, much of which was just getting off the trains when the American offensive struck, took the worst of the bombardment. One artillery battalion at Juelich was almost completely wiped out along with the city. The signal battalion and General Headquarters units were devastated in Dueren, which was so badly damaged that it was said to resemble a Roman ruin. Some infantry units were also marching to the front when the Americans air attack began and were pulverized by medium bombers and fighter-bombers. “I never saw anything like it,” one German sergeant later told his American interrogator. “These kids . . . were still numb forty-five minutes after the bombardment. It was our luck that your ground troops did not attack us until the next day. I could not have done anything with those boys of mine that day.”

The 12th Volksgrenadier, however, was in much better shape. Contrary to Allied expectations, it was relatively unhurt by the bombardment. Engel’s frontline troops had been in their positions for some time, had burrowed deep into the German earth, and were protected by bunkers and pillboxes. Prisoners later estimated that the forward regiments suffered casualty rates of 1 to 3 percent. Their communications were completely disrupted, however, and they would be without hot food for days, because the bombardment had destroyed most of their field kitchens, supply vehicles, and horses. Despite being outnumbered five to one in infantry, Engel’s troops managed to hold Hamich on November 16 and 17 against repeated American attacks. One U. S. infantry battalion suffered 70 percent casualties before it withdrew. The town finally fell on November 18, but the U. S. 1st Infantry and 3rd Armored Divisions still had to face persistent counterattacks from the 48th Infantry and 12th Fusilier Regiments.

German reactions to the offensive were both slow and incorrect. Zangen’s 15th Army had taken over this sector only on November 15, but Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army Headquarters had not yet departed. These two capable generals set up an informal combined headquarters and directed the battle as a team until November 20, when Manteuffel left for the Ardennes. Zangen and Manteuffel tried to create an army reserve by combining what was left of the 47th Volksgrenadier Division with a small kampfgruppe from the 116th Panzer Division, but Field Marshal Model ordered this force to counterattack and retake Hamich, despite the objections of Zangen and Manteuffel. Model still believed that the main Allied offensive would come farther north, near the boundary of the XII SS Corps and LXXXI Corps-not in the southern sector of the LXXXI Corps and on the northern boundary of the 7th Army. Model therefore committed the local reserves too soon and did not reinforce the threatened sector with his main reserve force, Gen. of Panzer Troops Baron Heinrich von Luettwitz’s XXXXVII Panzer Corps.

Shortly after nightfall on November 18, the remnants of the green 47th Volksgrenadier Division formed up into two battle groups. At 5:30 A. M. the next morning, they attacked the U. S. 1st Infantry Division and pushed it back to the outskirts of Hamich but could not eject it from the village. By now, it was obvious that the great break- through was not going to occur and that Operation Queen was not going to bring Nazi Germany to its knees, as Omar Bradley and Courtney Hodges had hoped.

To the north, the British XXX Corps was also in trouble. Its objective was to pinch off the Geilenkirchen salient and then push on to the small Wurm River, capturing the fortified villages of Hoven, Wurm, Mullendorf, and Beek in the process. At first everything went well. The green U. S. 84th Infantry Division advanced one and a half miles and took the village of Prummen while the veteran British 43rd Infantry Division on the left flank advanced two and a half miles, completely encircling Geilenkirchen and elements of the 183rd Volksgrenadier Division. The XXX Corps resumed its drive in the predawn darkness of November 18, attacking the thick minefields in front of the West Wall. This attack was spearheaded by elements of the British 79th Armoured Division and illuminated by “Monty’s Moonlight”- powerful searchlights shining on the clouds, which reflected the light downward onto the battlefield. The 79th Armoured’s specially designed tanks cleared the mines by using chain flails, which extended two yards in front of the tanks, causing the mines to explode harmlessly. Using this ingenious method of attack, the British breached the minefields within two hours, and by noon, the 43rd Wessex Division had been committed to the battle, attacking the forward line of pillboxes in the Siegfried Line. Then the trouble began. The American-made Sherman tanks with their narrow tracks bogged down in the mud, but the Germans, profiting from their lessons in Russia, had no such problem. Both the British 43rd and U. S. 84th Divisions were soon counterattacked by Lt. Gen. Eberhard Rodt’s veteran 15th Panzer Grenadier Division. “It was galling to see their tanks with their broad tracks maneuvering over muddy fields impassable to our own,” Brig. Hubert Essame, the commander of the 43rd, recalled. The American attack bogged down in the Siegfried Line, but the 43rd Infantry pushed on as far as the Wurm in four days of heavy fighting. “Years after the event,” the historian of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry wrote,

those who survived could recall the intensity of the enemy fire and the sloppy ground over which they had to move to reach their objective. What is difficult to describe is the physical agony of the infantryman. . . . The November rain seemed piercingly cold. After exertion when the body warmed, the cold air and the wet seemed to penetrate the very marrow of the body so that the whole shook as with ague, and then after shaking would come a numbness of hand and leg and mind and a feeling of surrender to forces of nature far greater in strength than any enemy might impose.  

On November 22, Horrocks, the commander of the XXX Corps, ordered one final effort, and the British spearhead, the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (DCLI), attacked the village of Hoven. But they were met by a hail of fire from Harmel’s 10th SS Panzer Division, which Rundstedt had hurriedly brought down from Holland on November 16. “They went down everywhere, the muddy fields littered with crumpled dead,” historian Charles Whiting wrote later. Despite its heavy casualties, the men of DCLI pushed into Hoven but were soon virtually surrounded by the SS, who broke through into their rear. The U. S. 84th Infantry Division on the right flank tried to help but could not break through a German bunker line on the heights around the village of Suggerath, which the men of the tough 15th Panzer Grenadier Division had been ordered to hold at all costs.

Inside Hoven, the DCLI was smashed by the 10th SS Panzer. The town was leveled by the panzers, and two British companies were overrun. The entire battalion would probably have been destroyed had it not been for their PIATs, a spring-loaded form of the bazooka. The battle was so intense that the DCLI ran out of ammunition but fought on with weapons taken from dead Germans. The battalion commander was killed and both remaining majors were wounded, but still the light infantry struggled for survival. By now, the cellars were full of British and German wounded.

The battle continued until the next day, when the survivors of the DCLI broke out of the encirclement, led by their two wounded majors. One company had lost 105 of its 120 men. The northernmost thrust had been blunted. “The steam was going out of the whole huge . . . action,” a British historian wrote later.

Between the British XXX Corps and the U. S. First Army, the U. S. Ninth Army advanced across a relatively open plain dotted with villages and strongpoints. Although the terrain in this sector was much less formidable than that over which the First Army advanced, resistance was also stiffer because Model expected the main Allied offensive to come in this zone and had stationed some of his best units here. The defenders were all under the command of Zangen’s 15th Army and included Gen. of Infantry Guenther Blumentritt’s XII SS Corps, with Colonel Landau’s 176th Infantry Division, General Lange’s 183rd Volksgrenadier Division, the 388th Volks Artillery Corps, the 301st Panzer Battalion (thirty-one Tigers), and the 559th Assault Gun Bat- talion (twenty-one guns). Immediately behind the XII SS Corps lay Luettwitz’s XXXXVII Panzer Corps-Army Group B’s main reserve- with the 9th Panzer Division, elements of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, and the 506th Heavy Panzer Battalion (thirty-six Tigers).

On November 16, the first day of the offensive, the 2nd Armored Division of the U. S. XIX Corps practically annihilated the 330th Grenadier Regiment of the 183rd Volksgrenadier Division and pushed to the edge of Juelich but lost thirty-five tanks in the process-fourteen to mines, ten to assault guns, six to artillery fire, and one each to mortar fire, mud, panzerfausts, and mechanical failure. Another was lost to a combination of mines and antitank gunfire. Elsewhere, the XIX Corps gains were limited to about a mile. The next day, the 2nd Armored Division was counterattacked by Maj. Gen. Baron Harald von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer Division, and a real tank battle ensued. By the end of the day, at least eleven Panzers and Tigers had been knocked out, but the Americans had lost eighteen Shermans destroyed, sixteen damaged and out of action, and nineteen Stuart light tanks knocked out or destroyed. In the end, the 2nd Armored retreated and was relieved that the 9th Panzer did not follow.

On November 18, the U. S. 29th Infantry Division joined the fighting around Juelich, and the tide of battle began to turn in favor of the Americans. The 2nd Armored continued to fight indecisively with the 9th Panzer, but the 29th Infantry Division managed to push forward and, by the end of the day, had taken the villages of Siersdorf and Bettendorf from the 246th Volksgrenadier Division and had bro- ken the first defensive ring around Juelich. By nightfall on November 21, it had cracked the second ring and was within a mile and a half of the Roer, where it was checked. On November 22, Zangen commit- ted two regiments of Col. Theodor Tolsdorff’s fresh 340th Volksgrenadier Division-one at Linnich and the other at Juelich. The third regiment of the division was committed at Juelich the next day, and the American advance was halted, despite the arrival of the U. S. 30th Infantry Division. On November 23, the 9th Panzer Division was withdrawn from the battle and sent to the rear to rehabilitate for the Ardennes attack.

On November 26, General Koechling’s LXXXI Corps launched a major counterattack in the Juerlich sector, using two grenadier regiments of the 340th Volksgrenadier, the 301st Heavy Panzer Battalion, and the 341st Assault Gun Brigade, all supported by fourteen artillery battalions. Fortunately for the Americans, the German artillery was hamstrung by a shortage of ammunition, which was being horded for the Ardennes offensive. The Americans fired an estimated 27,500 rounds against the Germans and broke the back of the counterattack. They were still bogged down west of the river, however.


Everywhere the story was the same: unexpectedly stiff German resistance, unexpectedly high casualties, and no major breakthroughs anywhere. The story of Combat Command B of the U. S. 3rd Armored Division was fairly typical. Led by Brig. Gen. Truman E. Boudinot, it jumped off at H-Hour, 12:45 P. M., on November 16 between the U. S. 1st and 104th Infantry Divisions. It attacked in the Stolberg Corridor-excellent terrain for armor-with the objective of capturing four villages on the western edge of the Hamich Ridge. None of the four were more than two miles from the combat command’s front line when the offensive began. The 89th Grenadier Regiment of the 12th Volksgrenadier Division defended the villages. Once it had captured the four villages, CCB was to be relieved by infantry and was to return to its parent unit in reserve in order to prepare for the next phase of the operation, the pursuit.

Struggling through the mud, CCB took all four objectives in three days of heavy fighting, but its losses were prohibitive. The armored infantry suffered 50 percent casualties, and tank losses were worse. Of the sixty-four medium tanks available at the start of the operation, only twenty-two were still operational when it concluded. Seven light tanks had also been knocked out, for a total loss of forty-nine tanks. Of these, German antitank fire had claimed twenty-four, panzerfausts had knocked out six, artillery fire had destroyed six, mines accounted for twelve, and an American airplane mistakenly attacked one. “These did not look much like statistics of a breakthrough operation,” the U. S. official history noted later. Certainly, CCB was no longer in any shape to undertake its next mission, but then it was no longer necessary. It was clear by now that there would be no pursuit. On November 19, the units of the U. S. First and Ninth Armies were, on average, no more than two miles from their jump-off points, and no unit had gained more than ten miles. The Ninth Army did not reach the Roer until November 28 and did not finish clearing the west bank until December 9, after a twenty-three-day battle in which it pushed forward twelve miles at its maximum point. Before the Siegfried Line, the west bank of the Roer, and the Huertgen Forest were cleared, the Allies would suffer more than 80,000 casualties.

Frederick Invades Austria a Second Time; Siege of Olmütz I

On March 15, 1758, the king marched from his winter quarters in Breslau. He started on the third campaign of this conflict, waiting until the frosts were gone and the cold winter winds had subsided. The headquarters was moved to Kloster-Grüssau and the army was encamped between there and Landshut. Frederick’s job was to keep the whitecoats quiet in Bohemia while his army descended on Schweidnitz to reclaim that fortress from its enemy garrison. This he meant to accomplish before the time of normal campaigning, and before the cautious Daun could interfere with his maneuver.

This was a bold plan, and very risky as the king’s plan placed great reliance on Daun being slow and methodical. The Prussian magazines at Jauernick and Sabischdorf were prepped to supply the needs of the forces preparing to besiege Schweidnitz. The bluecoats had been loosely investing the fortress during the winter layover. The storming of Schweidnitz was an essential preliminary to another invasion of the Austrian Empire. The king had already decided to carry the fight into the very heart of his greatest enemy for the second time in as many campaigns.

In any case, the elimination of the last major body of Austrian troops in central Silesia would give Frederick’s largely new troops the confidence they needed to face the enemy massing to their front. During the winter, Maria Theresa had been engaged in strengthening both the number and preparedness of the Austrian army. In addition to the effort to refine the command structure of the army, the numbers of men needed replenishment.

The garrison of Schweidnitz had utilized the time given to build up the fortifications there to make any Prussian attempt to retake it into a major task. Yet, the men could not help but be affected by their isolation from the main Austrian lines. Of the original 8,000 men, only 5,500, some of those of questionable quality, remained available, and even most of these men were somewhat demoralized from the degree of the Prussian successes, most notably Leuthen, the previous year. These latter were under Lt.-Gen. Franz Ludwig Thürheim and Major-General von Gröttendorf.

In the final days of March, Frederick reached the vicinity of Schweidnitz and began deploying his army for the siege. The fall of the place seemed imminent. Rossbach had shaken the French, so much so the king felt he may not have to deal with them until perhaps mid-summer. The Austrians, still smarting and shaky from Leuthen—in spite of Maria Theresa’s best efforts—would not be able to launch any offensive operations on a major scale for most of the year. As for the Imperialists, they were still hungover from Rossbach. Neither the Swedes nor the Russians were as yet ready for marching. It was, in many ways, now or never for this second invasion of Austria. As per the old axiom, “First things first.” General Tresckow was given charge of the siege forces around Schweidnitz. He had nearly 10,000 men, 4,600 of whom were cavalry. This was by no means an overwhelming force.

Nonetheless, the Prussians made steady progress towards the siege. The siege guns were brought up, and, in the first two days of April under a soaking front of rain, the first parallel of the siege lines were completed. The whitecoats, under the miserable conditions, did not discover the Prussian effort until it was a done deal. The bluecoats made sure of having sufficient artillery in place to do the job. Forty-eight pieces of ordnance were employed by the Prussians altogether, including eight 24-pounders.

The weather was not very cooperative. Since the Austrians failed to detect the line until it was completed, by then nothing could be done about it. April 8, with Marshal Daun still deep in Bohemia, the first shots of the siege batteries opened on the fortifications. Galgen, as the main fortress, was heavily cannonaded day after day, and gradual progress was made, despite miserable weather conditions. The whole structure was intrinsically affected by its location. Schweidnitz was designed by “placing the main weight of the defence on a girdle of detached forts and lunettes.” This could only increase the suffering of the besiegers and the besieged alike. All of these factors made Frederick, who never favored siege operations under any conditions, want to wrap things up even more quickly.

In the meantime, operations elsewhere had begun. On the eve of the march towards Schweidnitz, the king detached two strong columns from the main army: (1) One, under Ziethen, was to take up post near Troppau; and, (2) The second, Fouquet to Glatz. Both of these detachments had the duty of sweeping away the remnants of the Austrian forces in southern Silesia and, more importantly, keep it clear. There had been no word of any activity from the vicinity of Marshal Daun and his still reforming army.

The irascible Laudon spent much time urging on the reluctant Daun to relieve Schweidnitz (a viewpoint which he shared with Chancellor Kaunitz), and he was kept busy with his light troopers engaged in isolated actions with detached bodies of bluecoats. Laudon here can certainly be commended for seeking bold action, but Marshal Daun was fully aware that his army was not ready to take on the very confident Frederick just yet. Especially after such a crushing defeat as had been inflicted on them at Leuthen.

Nevertheless, Daun left his winter quarters on March 13. He promptly moved on to Königgrätz. The marshal and his army were posted there even now, digging in with his vaunted defensive skills, as well as training troops and having even more equipment brought forward for the army. The agitated marshal still had the advantage, if nothing else, of superior numbers: 100,000 Austrians against the maximum of 70,000 Prussians he faced. If it had been his desire, Daun could certainly have proven to be a problem for Frederick’s plans. But the latter suspected his adversary’s slow, calculating character, and took a reasonable risk that nearly paid off. In the campaigns to come, Frederick would take many more risks with Daun as his chief enemy.

The Austrian commander had guessed (correctly) that the king meant an invasion of the Austrian Empire again this year. Daun was mistaken, though, in the route that invasion would take. The Austrians had spent the winter preparing the passageways into Bohemia for the Prussian intruders. Impressive defensive posts had been prepared—posts that would not be needed. This was especially ironic since the Austrians did a much better job of preparing for a possible Prussian invasion of Bohemia in 1758, when it did not occur, than they had done in 1757, when it did.

The Austrian army itself had been steadily reinforced during the winter layover by new blood, and at his impressive camp at Skalitz (occupied on April 19), Daun had carried forward heavy training exercises until the men were becoming proficient in their trade. Unfortunately for them, the Prussian king had decided to bypass Bohemia this time around, where Prague alone was still the lone Austrian vital point, and instead proceed directly into Moravia. Daun cooperated by not taking his army past Königgrätz and interfering with the Prussian siege of Schweidnitz. Rising star Laudon did his best, to no avail, to persuade the marshal to move to try to thwart the Prussian effort to retake Schweidnitz which would enable them to drive away the last Austrian toehold in Silesia.

The king considered it too risky to make further moves while Schweidnitz remained in Austrian hands. The fact Daun refused to help the garrison presaged what was to come. But there was some basis for this attitude. There were still many in the army who could not look past 1757. While Daun waited at Königgrätz, the impressive fortifications of Schweidnitz fell. After a week of steady progress, Tresckow and Colonel Johann Friedrich von Balbi, the chief engineer, both suggested that the place was ripe for the storming. Balbi saw to it that the besieging troops, which were hardly more numerous than the defenders, were kept supplied with meat and beer. As for the cost, he begged the king “not to look at the expense.” There was also some urgency to wrap the business up. With this thought in mind and purpose, the king summoned Marshal Keith to take over the direction of the besiegers. Accordingly, evening of April 15, the bluecoats made ready and, that night, assailed the Austrian lines.

Meanwhile, though, Thürheim’s batteries had been positioned in order to enfilade the enemy’s siege lines, beyond the town walls. On April 13–14, the Austrian ordnance was pulled back to the town walls, under the increasing Prussian pressure mounting against the works. About 0200 hours on April 16, bluecoat grenadiers, of Grenadier Battalion 21/27 (Colonel Bernhard Alexander von Diringshofen), Kreytzen’s 28/32 Grenadiers, and 41/44 (Beneckendorf), stormed forward. Galgen was taken, and so swiftly that the assaulting column lost 85 men. This was the crisis of the siege. With his best post gone, the Austrian commander, General Thürheim, surrendered before dawn (April 16), forestalling a general assault. The loss to the Austrians was again great: 51 brand-new guns, considerable monies and the garrison. The loss of the latter was approximately 4,841. The Prussians lost 102 men killed, and 261 wounded. Fortfeiting so many veterans in the garrison was a serious blow for Austrian fortunes, especially when we realize the hemorrhaging among both the rank-and-file and the officers going on just then.

This enterprise now out of the way, Frederick proceeded at once with the planned invasion of the enemy’s territory. For this new incursion, the army was to be divided into two columns: one, under Prince Henry, who was given charge in Saxony. Henry’s task was to move in the manner of a support rôle. The rest of the army, that section remaining with the king, was to perform the actual invasion. Henry was to threaten the left of Daun’s army in northern Bohemia while Frederick’s men were to march southeast across the front of the enemy force to Neisse and Jägerndorf. They were probing for Moravia, and the real destination, the city of Olmütz. The latter lay about 100 miles from the nearest Prussian frontier. Austrian Croats, Tolpatches, and Pandours were thick in the intervening country.

Daun had a large body of men put into position at Trautenau, under General Buccow, while Arenberg hitched into Nachod. The irregulars of Laudon (some 5,000 strong) stayed in close touch at Lewin, but there was certainly nothing special about the Austrian dispositions. Daun was clearly interested in covering the Austrian realm against Prussian invasion. Incidently, by the beginning of the new campaign, General Lacy was no longer in the field. He was back in Vienna, busy organizing and refining the very first office of an Austrian Chief of Staff. Lacy displayed an immediate bent towards meticulous planning, and careful consideration, although we should be careful not to use the term “bean counter,” which Lacy indubitably was not. Lacy’s contemporary on the staff, General Johann Anton Baron Tillier, helped in this build-up. The contributions of a well-run general staff would reap rich benefits for the whitecoats for the rest of the war and beyond. It is worth mentioning that Lacy was also personally involved in parts of the campaign in the field.

Meanwhile, Frederick’s intentions were plain; to his generals. He planned, once Olmütz was in Prussian hands, to press southward upon Vienna. Once there, he could threaten the very heart of the Austrian Empire. An outright occupation or siege of the Austrian capital might serve to induce one or more of the allies to seek peace. All being prepared, Frederick moved out on April 19. His march was confused deliberately, for the benefit of Daun, and the Prussians proceeded on Neisse and Jägerndorf. A six-day march (April 19–25) brought them to the frontier of Moravia. To make his intentions less clear, Frederick marched his army in two distinct columns.

In this way, the Prussians were able to slip past the formidable Austrian lines at Königgrätz with relative ease. At Troppau, the bluecoats turned southward, causing Daun to suspect Frederick might be heading into Bohemia from the east. The marshal kept his men idle until April 27, while Frederick took his men on their journey. The Prussians paused at Märisch Neustadt. General DeVille had thrown roving patrols out in the area. When the Prussians put in their sudden appearance, DeVille pulled up stakes and withdrew with some haste to Prossnitz. Without further ado, the king moved towards Prossnitz in a manner which threatened to bring DeVille to battle. Simultaneously, he detached Commander Werner—with two full regiments of hussars—to go occupy an enemy magazine at Olschan. The king’s move towards DeVille was interpreted by the latter (with some exaggeration) as a serious threat. The Austrian commander decided once again that discretion was the better part of valor, and promptly fell back upon Prödlitz. He withdrew, leaving behind 300 hussars at Olschan. The Prussians nabbed 40 as prisoners (May 5), and pressed on to Tafelberg, where the Austrians had a small garrison.

With Prossnitz vacated, Prince Eugene of Württemberg took a large command (about 8,000 men), and took up quarters there. With the arrival of General Fouquet at Krenau (May 16), Frederick rose from Littau and marched with some 10,000 men to link up with Eugene thereabouts. The latter had gradually moved from Prossnitz towards his new post, under close observation of Austrian reconnaissance patrols. At Prossnitz, the bluecoats encamped, with their headquarters at Schmirsitz. Fouquet held command of the Prussian center in this new post. The Prussian guns were placed on some of the local high ground; just in case the Austrians tried something daring. Such was not the case, and the foe did not bother the Prussian camp.

With nothing stirring on Daun’s side of things, Frederick decided to step into the rôle of aggressor again. He took a force of cavalry and rode through Prossnitz headed for another confrontation with DeVille, then ensconced at Prödlitz. DeVille one more time had no intention of staying put. He fled to Wischau. A Prussian effort at pursuit was effectively thwarted by Count St. Ignon. The latter repelled the pursuers at Driffitz, rather decisively. Locals rapidly carried the word to Vienna that DeVille’s men had scattered and that the enemy were now astride the road to the capital. This intelligence was incorrect. Still, it must have been patently obvious Frederick’s intentions were not directed at all towards Bohemia this time around.27 With all doubt thus removed, the king went to work out in the open. The various detachments of Prussians were immediately set in motion, with a siege of Olmütz as a short-term goal. The main force straddled the rises between Prossnitz and the Morave. General Fouquet threw a force into Glatz to stiffen the troops already there.

As for the second formation, Keith followed at a day’s distance behind. This separation was necessary because of the lousy road conditions as well as the quartering of the troops, which otherwise could have been a serious problem. Across the Morawa and Oder rivers and the little passes through the mountains, the invaders moved. Ziethen, with some 8,000 men, had been sent ahead, and detailed to keep the marching men screened from the enemy’s swarms of irregulars. Fouquet, who had charge of the provision trains and another 8,000-man force, staggered his convoys, under heavy escort, through the passes. The main army moved via Littau, Aschermitz, to Prossnitz—within 15 miles of Olmütz.

The Prussians were in Prossnitz by May 2–3. The news from other war fronts was encouraging and gave the king confidence that he would have the time he needed for his new mission. Ferdinand was preparing to carry the fight across the Rhine into France itself. There was no need to look for interference from that side this year at all for Frederick’s designs. General Dubislav Friedrich von Platen with a detachment was busy watching Fermor. January 16, the latter’s Russians had crossed the border into East Prussia, then, sweeping aside the feeble Prussian resistance, occupied Königsberg, forcing the inhabitants to swear a loyalty oath to Empress Elizabeth. However, there was little fear of a Russian movement against Prussia’s vitals until summer at least, given the state of their army’s supply problems and other difficulties.

As for Henry, his army of 32,000 men was even then in southern Saxony watching the Imperialists.30 Until he received word that Olmütz was in Frederick’s hands his primary purpose would be the defense of Saxony. Prince Henry was engaged in sending raiding parties deep into Bohemia and trying to keep Daun’s attention diverted to that province, and thus away from Moravia.

From the Northern Front, the news for the Prussians was still good. Although they remained some 15,000 strong, the Swedes had been held back from advancing by the muddy roads of Pomerania and the capable defense of Dohna. The latter held the shoreline against them, except at Stralsund. Now the spring thaw had come, but there was no effort to advance by the Swedish army. The latter’s chronic problems included the aged commander, Field Marshal Gustav Friedrich Graf von Rosen.

Back at the Southern Front, Daun had felled almost a whole forest to fortify and strengthen his post at Königgrätz, his defenses being so elaborate that it is no exaggeration to say Frederick might have found his task of invading Bohemia that year was impossible, had that been his design. Daun, nothing daunted, “refused to play the rôle assigned to him in Frederick’s plans.” When word arrived of the king’s advance into Moravia, the Austrians rose and sped out of Königgrätz eastwards to blunt his advance and save an important magazine—at Leutomischl—from the enemy’s clutches. Daun wasted no time, performing a direct march, as the Prussians had finally made their intentions clear. Frederick had a distance of some 150 miles, Daun only a little more than half that far. But the Austrians would not reach Leutomischl until May 5. Once there, Daun intended to take post, shielded by ever present thick bodies of Croats and Pandours.

Frederick Invades Austria a Second Time; Siege of Olmütz III

Of greater import, General Hülsen moved on Zschopau. Henry slowly and deliberately moved to join him, in the process leaving General Itzenplitz with eight battalions and seven squadrons, including two squadrons of the Szekely Hussars, at Zwickau. Itzenplitz was to play the spoiler to any effort in Henry’s direction that Dombâle might try. Henry’s command itself was 14 battalions and 20 squadrons, although this did not include Knobloch’s command. The latter had three full battalions; he set up shop at Freibergsdorf. Itzenplitz’ post was shadowed by Luzinsky, while Dombâle himself moved discreetly on Bamberg (June 20 1758). The latter was marching to join forces with Esterhazy. Dombâle’s forward elements did not even begin to reach Hof until July 1.

Daun’s task was not easy. Originally, it had been felt wise to give the marshal some leeway about how to relieve Olmütz. However, so soon as Vienna discerned Daun was merely marking time, with scarcely any action planned, orders were sent to him to relieve the garrison in Olmütz. So, while Henry was preparing something in Bohemia, in Moravia, the main Austrian army made ready to move. In mid–June, Daun rose from Gewitsch, detaching 1,100 men, from the command of Bülow, to cross the Morawa to bolster the garrison in the fortifications and make some feints. The detachment brushed Neustadt, and Frederick sent Ziethen to deal with the new intruders. Ziethen failed to intercept it, and the newcomers were able to slip into Olmütz while Daun, begging off, withdrew again into his old lines. The Austrian detachments, under Laudon, had been busy all this while. They regularly struck at the Prussian outposts under cover of night and frequently threw a scare or two into the escorts for the supply trains. Prussian provisions were running low, and in a remarkable twist of events, Prussian deserters began appearing regularly at the gates of Olmütz wanting to get into the city. These raids, however, did little to alleviate the suffering of the defenders of Olmütz, and such half-hearted attempts to draw the attention of the bluecoats elsewhere could not by themselves hope to drive Frederick’s men from the walls of the place.

The siege was making progress all this time. Inside Olmütz, supplies of food and powder were running low, but the Prussians suffered even more from the shortage of ammunition and powder. One final large convoy was to be made up and brought in with all the supplies that Frederick believed his men would need to bring the siege to a successful conclusion. He detailed Lt.-Col. Konrad Wilhelm von der Mosel with a 7,000-man force to escort this final convoy in. To provide additional security against Laudon, who was sure to make an effort to cut off this all-important supply train, the king saw good to detach Ziethen’s men to help shield Mosel’s force.

Mosel was to leave Troppau with the van of the wagons on June 26, according to plan. Ziethen sent Colonel Werner (with 200 dragoons, 300 hussars, and a full battalion of grenadiers) to meet Mosel. Werner moved out from near Olmütz on June 28 to greet the incoming train. Frederick could no more than hope for the best. With this last reinforcement, Balbi promised he could wrestle Olmütz from the enemy in a fortnight. Time was becoming critical now for the bluecoats, with enemies beginning to close in from all sides.

The march of the train started on schedule, but the movement of the double-teamed wagons over the windy narrow roads was slow and cumbersome. A group of 3,000 wagons altogether, with two civilian drivers (although military personnel would have made more sense under the circumstances, had that been the usual procedure) per wagon. As there had been no letup in wagons coming and going across the same routes, the pathways were worn. Heavy rains added further difficulties, and the wily enemy knew about the move almost from the beginning.

The trek was through some 90 miles of twisting, rolling countryside, in territory largely controlled by the enemy. The movement of such a large convoy was a haphazard affair at best, but the efforts required to attack it en route were also not without risk. The whole length of the train varied considerably, at some points being spread out to 30 miles or more from beginning to end, and at other places condensed into less than half that. The forces under the direct command of Mosel were divided into three separate groups: the van; the main body; the rearguard. What was worse, even in a situation where the wagons were close together, there were not sufficient men for a continuous front to provide support between these three bodies of moving men and equipment. The condition of the roads and rain degraded the further they went. On June 27, after just one day on the move, Mosel found it necessary to stop the front wagons of the convoy to give the rearward elements time to close up.

Surprisingly, however, the progress of the trek proceeded much better than could have been expected. The convoy’s escorts hoped the train might be brought through before the Austrians had word of its advent. A forlorn hope! And, for a change, Daun had decided to do something about it. Heretofore, he had not simply ignored the pleas and requests he had received to break up the siege, but cautious Daun was just not willing to risk a major battle over this fortress. He had done precious little in the way of stopping the supply trains without which no siege, no matter how lengthy, could hope to be successful. Any firefighter knows the quickest way to put out a flame is at the source. In a way this analogy was fitting because these supply trains were the source of the Prussian effort before Olmütz; extinguish the source and Frederick’s designs would be ruined.

It was now two choices for Daun: (1) Give battle to relieve the pressure on Olmütz; (2) Stop that last convoy. Not wishing to force a fight with the eager king (at least on the latter’s terms), the cautious marshal chose the second alternative. His plan as formulated was quite simple. From the west end of the Morawa River, Laudon, with his various detachments, was to do all he could to intercept the convoy, while General Siskovics66 was to operate in the Littau-Müglitz country—east of the river—against the Prussians from that end.

Immediately upon giving Laudon and Siskovics their marching orders, Daun marched the main army from Gewitsch near Konitz southward. This latter maneuver caused Frederick to think his foe was at last coming out for a finish fight over Olmütz. The Prussians were encouraged to see Daun’s massed army on the rises across from Prossnitz (June 22) and the king ordered his men to realign their outer lines in preparation for battle. Did the Austrian commander intend to fight? He did not and Daun’s only aim was to send the reinforcements into Olmütz, as well as to divert Frederick’s attention while his subordinates went to smash the convoy.

Ironically, on that same day, the siege took a turn for the better in favor of the bluecoats. Balbi had made an indentation in the defender’s lines (incessant Prussian howitzer fire had opened a widening gap in the earthen fortifications), and was inexorably squeezing the enemy’s presence at the walls into a tightening vise. Daun, who had retired to the south again, crossed the Morawa to steer north to support the impending effort on the Prussian train. Siskovics had reached his appointed posts, and Laudon, moving by Müglitz and Hofberg, made a roundabout path on the western end of the Prussians. From there he moved towards Bautsch (specifically, Güntersdorf) where Laudon intended to perform an unexpected attack upon the supply train from the pass there. As a precaution, Laudon left a force of some 600 men at Domstadl itself, under Major von Goese, to hold a position through which the convoy would come.

Mosel made good progress the first day, but the following day, the halt we have looked at, while probably a normal procedure, gave Laudon the time he required to move into attack position. Otherwise, the Austrians might not have reached Güntersdorf in time. As it was, Laudon arrived there on June 27, and undertook the necessary preparations to ambush the foe in the defile beyond. The following morning, Mosel got on the road leading to Güntersdorf from Bautsch, where he had spent the previous evening.

On approaching the place, Mosel found the enemy drawn out ahead (on the wooded hills above and in the pass in front) intending to dispute his passage. The Prussian commander ordered the train to halt, and, taking his troopers, led a charge that quickly cleared the defile of its occupants. Laudon’s men lost many prisoners69 out of a total of about 500 altogether. The 1st Battalion of Young Kreutz led the initial stroke, pushing through the defile into the enemy’s fire. Once there, the men took up an exposed position hard by. Behind this body, the grenadiers of Billerbeck and Captain Pirch led a part of Prince Ferdinand’s men and the rest of Young Kreutz. Laudon’s most effective measure was to plant a battery confronting the Prussian left. It just so happened that Old Billerbeck was positioned directly opposite the offending big guns. The grenadiers wasted no time trying to silence the Austrian ordnance. The men pressed forward into the woods, overcoming in the process the light irregulars who were supposed to be “protecting” the approaches to the battery. The crew of the guns, and the regulars who were with them, were not so readily inclined to go. Billerbeck promptly put in a determined charge at the point of the bayonet, which drove off the enemy, took one gun from its desperate crew, and captured some 200 men.

With the offending Austrian battery silenced at last, the Kreutz and the Prince Ferdinand regiments took their turn. A most determined effort now ensued, in which the latter two Prussian units sought to match the achievement of Old Billerbeck. Laudon did all he could to shore up his lines, calling upon his men for a supreme effort. But, after losing another of his guns to the advancing bluecoats, Laudon saw the contest was lost. Reluctantly, he ordered his tattered men to fall back on Bährn. The Austrian commander’s behavior had been almost impeccable, but there was no denying his force had suffered a serious drubbing. Losses were nearly 500 men. Fifty-two men were dead, approximately 340 were prisoners, the rest wounded.

Mosel was in no condition to follow up his advantage, as he most correctly did not lose sight of his more important mission of the safe conduct of the convoy. There had been some ill-effects from the action. The sounds and smells of the spectacle of artillery fire had unnerved many of the civilian crews. Some of their number took to horse or feet and started back on Troppau, leaving some of the wagons without crews, while the Prussians were taking care of Laudon. This vacuum left the irregulars, those who had not been chased away, the opportunity to break into the train. The bluecoats who had just chased off Laudon’s men at the defile then had to return to chase away the irregulars from the convoy’s vicinity.

It occurred to Mosel the king needed to be informed about the progress of the supply train. He disptached a trusted aid, named Beville, to go to Prussian headquarters. Meanwhile, after the convoy had been righted again as much as was possible, Mosel pressed on for Neudörfel. When Ziethen momentarily joined up with the train, he discovered that much more needed to be done with the wagons. As it worked out, “every single wagon had been turned around to go back the way they had come.” This would simply never do. Calling off of the march for a day was a necessity. In the present state, the train would never have reached its destination even without further enemy interference.

Laudon would still have made his main attack there had he not known of a more appropriate defile not far from Güntersdorf. A short distance from the little village, there arose a short knoll to the right of the roadway. This gave way to a pair of hills protruding not far from the Domstadtl River; rises which were separated by a large wooded hollow which the pass went through.

This defile, known to history fittingly as the Pass of Domstadtl, was the place that Laudon now selected for the main effort against the convoy. Ziethen had recovered his detachment under Werner, which had only reached Gibau anyway, accompanied by the grenadiers of Manteuffel and General Kaspar Rudolph von Unruh. Ziethen, as soon as he reached Gibau, was rewarded with the bad news that Mosel’s forward progress had come to a virtual halt. The horizon showed smoke and there were sounds of a struggle of some sort in Mosel’s direction. Not more than half the wagons had caught up with Mosel, which had caused the day of rest. The horses were exhausted and many of their guides were either missing or else wished they were.

At dawn, June 30, the convoy moved out again. Ziethen and Mosel had decided to take precautions as they approached the Pass at Domstadtl, where they rightly assumed the foe would make another attempt to ambush them. Ziethen’s cavalry was on the right side of the convoy, this being the direction from which the enemy might reasonably be expected. The foot soldiers were on the left, and the escort forces were fanned out enough to maximize their efforts.

As quickly as the advanced wagons of the convoy drew within sight in the early afternoon of June 30, Laudon (who had been joined in the meanwhile by Siskovics and his men) opened on them with his small guns and massed musketry fire. The Austrian mounted men were ordered to block the pass itself. The Prussians approached with the infantry escort still strung out, and the train divided into separate groups. The advanced guard was under General Krockow. The latter promptly rushed forward, cleared the way of the enemy, and managed to push some 250 of the wagons through before Laudon and Siskovics could seal off the penetration. Then Krockow halted his wagons to await the outcome of the struggle.

The Austrian advanced batteries on the leftward rises promptly opened a heavy fire upon the desperate Prussian force below. The small arms fire concentrated on killing the horses, without which the convoy could not proceed. Ziethen’s men, led by the dogmatic Puttkammer, then charged the Austro-Saxon force. This fired up body crashed into Siskovics’s first line, which was sent reeling. Then an enemy force of dragoons burst forth, surrounding the Prussian force. In heavy fighting, the stunned grenadiers cut their way through the enemy and retreated to the “security” of the convoy. This was not a done deal. Laudon, with his force, suddenly emerged on the right. This latter body crashed into the convoy from a new angle. Laudon was particularly determined, and a most obstinate Prussian force was finally overcome by the combined efforts of both allied parties. Finally, the bluecoat force fragmented, allowing the enemy to break in upon the train.

Ziethen, meanwhile, charged again and again to puncture the enemy ring of defenses, with little success. He had the wagons formed into a square (a Wagenburg) to resist the allied strokes. Ziethen’s horsemen surged forward and swept back the foe from the hills, but lost his ground again to counterattacks. It was clear Prussian resistance was indeed stubborn, and the artillery that was at hand unleashed a heavy fire to try to force the allies from the ravine.

At length, Ziethen discovered he had Laudon on one side and Siskovics on the other, and the wagon train was hopelessly bogged down. The prospects for rescue were growing dim.75 In desperation, he abandoned the wagons and, cutting his way through the enemy’s lines, made for Troppau. The entire train was captured, save for that small group rescued by Krockow.

The latter determined to press on, so as to fulfill the mission to the extent now possible. As Ziethen was retreating in the other direction with most of the escort force, it was not long at all before the rather energetic enemy once again appeared, to complete the overthrow of the force trapped at the pass. Scouts reported that allied celebration of their success, which Krockow could do nothing about at the moment.

Any delay did nothing but risk another enemy effort to finish the job. So the greatly reduced supply train lunged forward. By evening, the convoy was near Bistrowan. At Heiligenberg, a new enemy effort indeed was made. This one was far less involved, but the attackers did snare one more wagon. The remainder reached the main Prussian lines.

Prussian losses for the escorting force were approximately 2,386 men; allied casualties were approximately 600.77 One of the most valiant tales associated with this action was the bravery of new recruits of the ranks of the Ferdinand Regiment. “Those inexperienced lads, varying from 17 to 20 years, defended themselves to the last.” Some 900 of these brave youths were at Domstadtl; only 67 passed into captivity. Except for a few wounded survivors, all of the rest perished that day at the pass, almost all of them fighting in a sustained action for the first time. Captain Pirch was among that number. The capping of the Prussian defeat in this melée was in the terrible execution of the Austrian guns, which speedily gained the upper hand.

The Ardennes 1914 Part I

Joffre’s plan had been to concentrate superior forces in the French 4th Army sector and attack the weak German centre, break through and cut off the German right wing. The 3rd Army would protect the 4th Army’s right flank. Upon learning that the French were advancing in its sector, the German 5th Army immediately attacked. Neither the German 5th Army nor its right-hand neighbour, 4th Army, were concentrated for combat; one corps in 5th Army and two in 4th Army were a day’s march behind the leading corps. Therefore, Joffre’s plan succeeded: five corps of the French 4th Army faced three corps of German 4th Army.

In the French 4th Army area of operations, II CA was stopped by a German brigade at Bellefontaine and a German regiment at Robelmont. This left the right flank of the 3 DIC exposed and the division was destroyed, as was the 5th Colonial Brigade to its left. XII CA, which was between the Colonial Corps and XVII CA, had been practically inert. In failing to reach its objectives, it had uncovered the flanks of both neighbouring corps. 33 DI of XVII CA had also been enveloped and destroyed. 34 DI, the second division of this corps, disintegrated. On the 4th Army left flank the XI CA had failed to inflict a decisive defeat on an outnumbered and exposed German division. Indeed, the second brigade of that German division had crushed three French brigades and forced XI CA to retreat.

On the left flank of the French 3rd Army, all four infantry regiments of 8 DI had taken such heavy losses that they were no longer combat-effective and one brigade of 7 DI had been wiped out. The next division on the right, 9 DI, had been defeated by 1100 hours. 10 DI had been ordered to retreat. Of the three VI CA divisions, 12 DI had been forced to retreat, 42 DI had retreated even further, and 40 DI had been smashed. All of the remaining divisions in both French armies had broken contact with the Germans and retreated during the night to escape destruction

Due to superior German reconnaissance and troop-leading procedures, the Germans had almost always seized the key terrain and deployed first. The German infantry and artillery gained fire superiority. French units were often caught in march column and the French artillery was slow in supporting the infantry. German units were able to manoeuvre on the battlefield; the French were not. The German reserve infantry units had proved themselves to be at least as effective as the French active-army units. The German units had proven themselves to be superior to the French in every regard.

The corps and army HQ on both sides lost control of their units. Many of the German units could have pursued on 22 August but never received orders to do so. The situation was unclear to German leaders at division level and above, and they preferred ‘safety first’. When the extent of French defeat became evident in late morning on 23 August, the French were out of range and recovering from their defeat.

French casualties overall had been three or four times higher than those they had inflicted on the Germans. Nevertheless, German losses had been significant and these, as well as the exertions of hard marching, combat and a night spent digging defensive positions, had worn down the German soldiers, who on 23 August were physically and mentally exhausted.

Army HQs, 22 August 1914

German 5th Army

Crown Prince Wilhelm wrote that the leadership of AOK 5 knew intuitively that they had won the battle on the entire front. But the tremendous tensions that arose during the day from the continual stream of messages, issuing orders, and the associated feelings of anxiety and satisfaction, had given rise to grave concern. The massive casualties suffered tempered the elation of victory. The intensity of the battle and lack of information concerning the French – AOK 5 did not know how badly the French had been hurt – left the possibility that the French might attack on 23 August. AOK 5 did not know the situation in the 4th and 6th Army sectors. It also wanted to await the arrival of five Landwehr brigades from the Metz garrison. AOK 5 was concerned that the French could have already massed a large force at Verdun to attack the 5th Army left flank. AOK 5 reported to OHL that it had won the battle, but that did not intend to advance on 23 August. The German 5th Army clearly felt that it had not decisively defeated the French. Given the high casualty rate in 5th Army had suffered, the possibility of a French retour offensif had to be guarded against.

French 3rd Army

The French 3rd Army, which opposed the German 5th Army, reported around noon on 22 August that it had taken heavy casualties but its situation was good and that the enemy had suffered just as severely. The GQG liaison officer to 3rd Army reported at 2200 that the 3rd Army commander, Ruffy, had briefed him on the situation. Ruffey said that the 3rd Army held the same line as it had that morning, from Virton to Joppecourt. The army had made only limited progress because 7 DI of IV CA and 9 DI of V CA had been surprised and taken serious losses. The situation had been stabilised by the French artillery, which had established a ‘significant superiority’ over the German artillery. The LNO praised the ‘calm and coup d’oeil of General Ruffey’. The 3rd Army attack had run into enemy troops ‘in solid defensive positions’. The enemy seemed to have intended to mask Longwy while turning the army right flank, that is to say, VI CA and 7 DC. Ruffey complained that the 7 DC had not covered the VI CA right flank. In addition, Ruffey complained that 54 DR had not covered the right flank of VI CA, as he had ordered. Closer examination reveals that the division’s leading elements were at Spincourt, exactly where Ruffey had ordered them to be, about 15km behind 40 DI. Ruffey’s mission for the reserve divisions had been to cover a German attack from Metz to the south. Only after the battle did Ruffey contend that he expected them to operate towards the east.

On 22 August 3rd Army reported that it had been engaged with the German VI AK, XVI AK and a brigade or a division of XIII AK. That the army (seven divisions) had taken such punishment at the hands of, at most, five German divisions would have been alarming.

After the war Engerand said the 3rd Army had fought outnumbered seven divisions against ten: Engerand was explicitly saying that the German reserve divisions were the equals of French active divisions. He maintained that the French 3rd Army had inflicted such heavy casualties on the German 5th Army that it was immobilised for 24 hours. This was incorrect. For most of the day the odds were practically equal, fourteen French active brigades against thirteen German active brigades and three reserve brigades. In the afternoon four more German reserve brigades appeared. At the end of the day many, perhaps most, of the German units were still quite capable of offensive operations; none of the French brigades were. What had been immobilised was not the German manoeuvre units but the mindset of German 5th Army HQ.

German 4th Army

For the entire day on 22 August the German 4th Army was in a precarious position. The army right flank was in the air. There was a gap between XVIII AK on the right and XVIII RK in the centre, leaving XVIII AK isolated. XVIII RK and the corps on the left, VI AK, faced superior numbers of enemy forces. It was absolutely necessary to protect the right flank and concentrate the army. At 1400 AOK 4 ordered VIII RK to push towards XVIII AK as far as possible. VIII AK was to swing south towards XVIII AK. 4th Army sent situation reports to OHL, AOK 3 and AOK 5. At about the same time, an order arrived from OHL, instructing AOK 4 to move its right flank units to the west, south of Dinant, to cut off the French forces facing the German right wing. This order bore no relation to the situation on the ground; AOK 4 disregarded it and VIII AK maintained its march south.

French 4th Army

Langle de Cary reported to GQG on the evening of 22 August that the results of the day’s combat were ‘not very satisfactory’. There had been serious reverses at Rossignol and Ochamps, which negated the successes gained by XI CA and XII CA. Nevertheless, at 2330 he ordered the Colonial Corps, XII CA and II CA to hold their present positions while XVII CA and XI CA resumed the attack to the north, supported by the newly arrived IX CA and 60 RD.

At 0130 on 23 August 4th Army sent a sobering report to GQG. In II CA the 3 DI was in good shape at Meix devant Virton, but the 4 DI had been thrown out of Bellefontaine and had been ‘sorely tried’. The 3 DIC and 5th Colonial Brigade had also been ‘sorely tried’. XII CA was in good shape and had not even engaged its corps artillery, but was falling back. XVII CA was in poor condition, 33 DI had lost its artillery, 34 DI had been thrown back. XI CA had pulled back to the Semois.

More French Fantasies

Both Ruffey and Engerand asserted that, had only the 54 DR and 67 DR attacked, and the 7 DC acted energetically, then the French 3rd Army would have turned the flank of the German 5th Army, perhaps cut it off from Metz, and the French would have won a great victory, which, Engerand maintained, would have had ‘the greatest consequences for the entire front’, and doubtless the entire German position in Belgium would have been shaken. At the very least, the right flank of the 3rd Army would have been secured.

That all this did not come to pass, according to Engerand, was due solely to GQG’s mishandling of the Army of Lorraine. GQG changed the organisation and commanders of the Army of Lorraine and removed it from 3rd Army control – without notifying 3rd Army – on the very day it launched the 3rd and 4th Army offensives. Simultaneously, GQG gave the Army of Lorraine a purely defensive mission, instructing it only to prevent the enemy from marching on Verdun, which contradicted the offensive mission it had been given by 3rd Army.

It is curious that Engerand argues that Ruffey intended to use reserve divisions in an offensive role, while so many other French apologists claim that the French were beaten solely because they had not planned to use reserve divisions in anything other than secondary roles.

In any case, the leading elements of the of 54 DR were 15km behind VI CA; it was unlikely that 67 DR, which was even further to the rear, could have reached the battlefield on 22 August. Even if the two reserve divisions could have attacked, they would have run into the German 33 ID, supported by a cavalry division, which was waiting for just such a French operation, and the outcome for the French reserve divisions would not have been good.

23 August 1914


At 0730 on 23 August, Joffre sent his evaluation of the situation to the Minister of War, Messimy. He divided the front in half at Virton – Longwy. To the right of that line, the French were advancing slowly, although they enjoyed a significant numerical superiority. The French artillery had silenced the German artillery. On the left of this line the terrain was unfavourable and the French advance had met with ‘great difficulties’ in spite of a considerable numerical superiority. The French were attacking the Germans who were still in march column and the Germans must also be in a difficult situation. The French task was to continue the fight, utilizing their numerical superiority.

The 1800 intelligence summary said that GQG had no information concerning enemy forces on the 4th Army front. 3rd Army had made contact with the German VIII and XVI AK and elements of XIII and XXI AK. This report was mostly wrong: VIII and XXI AK were nowhere near the French 3rd Army sector, but V AK,VI AK and VI RK were.

GQG was completely out of touch with the real situation on the 3rd and 4th Army sectors. Had these armies been dependant on guidance from GQG, they would have been destroyed. The French troops, however, had taken matters in their own hands and as a matter of simple self-preservation had retreated out of the range of the German armies.

French 3rd Army

Ruffy’s orders for the night of 22–23 August instructed the 3rd Army to defend north of the Chiers. ‘The enemy had not followed V CA and had suffered as badly as we had’. At 0030 he ordered 3rd Army to resume the offensive on the morning of 23 August. When GQG expressed the desire at 0245 to have 3rd Army resume the attack, Ruffey responded that he had already given the orders to do so. At 0810 3rd Army submitted a situation report that showed how little the army HQ knew. It said that 40 DI had withdrawn to Nouillonpont; some elements had ‘arrived’ in Etain. IV CA was in good shape. General Trentinian was at the head of 7 DI (not dead), of which two regiments had been reduced to a battalion each (a rosy evaluation). There were no precise reports from VI CA, which was ‘strongly established’ on the Crusnes, but when these reports arrived 3rd Army would renew the attack with IV CA and V CA.

Then the reports from the corps began to arrive.VI CA said that its right flank had been threatened with envelopment and it had withdrawn to the Othain.V CA reported that the troops were incapable of conducting a defence and requested to withdraw over the Chiers. At 0930 Ruffey gave up the idea of attacking. Until 0930 on 23 August the 3rd Army HQ was divorced from reality and exercised no control over the situation.

IV CA reported at 1100 that the situation was ‘very good’. Both divisions were reorganising.  DI had already reconstituted five battalions (of twelve!), 7 DI had six battalions. It is hard to see how divisions that had lost half their infantry could be in good condition.

At 1300, 3rd Army sent a report to GQG: the army’s situation was good. The reconstitution of IV CA and V CA was proceeding well. The enemy had been ‘severely tried’. IV CA was behind the Crusnes to the east of Montmédy and not under pressure. 8 DI had reconstituted itself reasonably well, 7 DI had been ‘severely tested by the preceding day’s combat’. V CA was on the Othain to the west and south of Longuyon; most of the corps had been ‘severely tested’. VI CA was just north of the Othain, to the south of Longuyon. It too had been ‘severely tested’ but was ‘preparing to resume the offensive’. ‘The debris of the 40 DI were in reserve at Pillon (8km due south of Longuyon) ready to counterattack.’ 54 DR was supporting the VI CA right flank and ‘the counterattack by 67 DR, 73 DR and 75 DR was being prepared under favourable conditions’

But then harsh reality set in. In a telephonic report that the army gave GQG at 1330, 3rd Army said that ‘the debris of V CA was conducting a major withdrawal to the Loison’. The artillery was in good condition, but the infantry was no longer able to hold its ground due to casualties and fatigue. The enemy was not pursuing vigorously.

The 3rd Army intelligence summary sent in at 1700 shows that the army literally did not know what had hit it. It said that it had identified in its sector the German XVI AK, XVI RK, VI RK, XXI AK and elements of XIII and XII AK. This was mostly wrong. XVI RK did not exist; XII AK and XXI AK were not in the 3rd Army sector. The army had failed to identify V AK,VI AK and V RK.

French 4th Army

At 0500 on 23 August Langle ordered the 4th Army to withdraw to the Chiers, covered by 2 DIC. He reported to GQG that the morale in XVII CA was not good. Its retreat had forced XI CA to withdraw to the Semois, which was not an obstacle to a German attack. Both corps needed to be pulled out of the woods and into open terrain. XII CA had both flanks in the air and had to fall back to Florenville, but it and the Colonial Corps would also have to move even further back, and the whole army might well have to retreat to the Chiers or the Meuse.

Joffre replied at 0830 that according to the reports he had received, there were only three German corps on the 4th Army front. He told Langle to resume the offensive as soon as possible. Joffre was absolutely correct; on 22 August the French 4th Army had faced only three corps, and one of those was a reserve corps. Langle issued a pro-forma order for IX, XI and XII CA to resume the advance. Nevertheless, the 4th Army had been so badly beaten up that it was incapable of doing anything other than retreat.


At 1900 on 23 August Joffre reported to the War Minister that ‘the offensive between Longwy and the Meuse had stopped momentarily.’ This was due to the failure of several individuals who would be dealt with. Three divisions had taken particularly heavy losses. Joffre said he would attempt to resume the offensive.

Four French armies had taken the offensive and been badly beaten. Nevertheless, Joffre’s official explanation was that there were no systematic problems; all that was required was to eliminate some incompetent officers. Joffre had not mentioned that on 24 August the 3rd and 4th Armies would begin to withdraw to the Meuse.

German 5th Army

During the night of 22–23 August AOK 5 received reports from the corps which gave a picture of complete French defeat: the French units had been broken up, the French troops were retreating in great disorder, and French command and control appeared to have collapsed. AOK 4 reported that its fight at Rossignol and Tintigny was ‘not unfavourable’. A LNO sent to XVI AK reported that the French had been completely routed and that there were no signs of French troops west of Metz. Wilhelm wrote that these were ‘unforgettable hours’.

At 0600 5th Army received an operations order from OHL granting the army full freedom of movement, that is to say, the army no longer was required to maintain contact with Metz-Diedenhofen. OHL wanted the left wing of 5th Army – XVI AK – to push the French right wing to the north, away from Verdun. The AOK 5 operations order at 0625 23 August said that the French were in ‘panic flight to the Meuse’ and directed the corps to ‘energetically pursue the enemy, push him away from Verdun and transform yesterday’s victory into a catastrophe’. At 0730 AOK 5 reported to OHL a ‘Complete victory yesterday to the south of Longwy. I am pursuing…’

However, Wilhelm admitted that there was no effective pursuit by 5th Army on 23 August. The troops had been further exhausted constructing defensive positions during the night. The loss of so many leaders necessitated extensive reorganisation and this consumed time. The tactical leadership waited for reconnaissance reports to clarify the situation. Once that was accomplished and the advance began, it was stalled by French rear guards. The terrain gained was insignificant.

In the V AK sector, 9 ID defended in place and 10 ID gained little ground, but XIII AK attacked early in the morning and made the most progress, gaining 15km, an indicator of what it might have accomplished on the afternoon of 22 August. During the day it appeared that the French were going to make a stand on the Othain. The spook of a French counterattack from Verdun materialised again, as French columns were seen advancing towards Spincourt and Etain. The XVI AK commander stopped the corps at 1330, before it entered Spincourt, and began orienting it, as well as the 6 KD and two newly arrived Landwehr brigades, to the south, ending the possibility that the 5th Army would turn the French right flank.

German 4th Army

At 2040 on 22 August, 4th Army issued an operations order renewing the attack at 0500 the next morning with all five corps. At 0630 a similar order arrived from OHL. Air reconnaissance revealed that the French were withdrawing in good order to the Semois. On the army right flank VIII AK, which had hardly been engaged on 22 August, gained only 6km against French forces that had recently arrived. VIII RK attacked, supported by 21 ID, but 25 ID did not move at all. In the XVIII RK sector, 21 RD moved out only at 1200, 25 RD at 1400.VI AK began to advance at 0900, made contact with the 2 DIC, which was still relatively undamaged, and gained only 2km. Due to the heat and the exhaustion of the troops caused by combat and forced marches on 22 August, the 4th Army pursuit produced no results other than occupying terrain. At 1425 AOK 4 reported to OHL:

‘We were completely victorious! We have taken thousands of prisoners, including general officers and many guns. Army is in pursuit of the beaten enemy …The troops fought wonderfully. Many units had very heavy casualties.’

French 4th Army

4th Army reported at 0200 on 24 August that it had another hard day on 23 August. The sole remaining units of the Colonial Corps, 2 DIC and the corps artillery, had been attacked and driven out of their first position. In the afternoon, XII CA on the army left flank had been attacked and forced to retreat, which caused the Colonial Corps to abandon its second position. XII CA reported at 1800 that it needed to reorganise on 24 August and was unable to take the offensive. The corps also required several days rest and replacement officers and NCOs. IX CA on the army left, which had not fought on 22 August, reported at 2000 that it had been pushed back late that afternoon. The 33rd Brigade had ‘preserved its cohesion’ and the artillery had suffered few casualties but the 36th Brigade was no longer combat-effective. Both 136 RI and 77 RI had lost a thousand men and their morale was poor. 4th Army said that ‘under these conditions, the 4th Army offensive found itself temporarily suspended’. Langle reiterated that it would be necessary to fall back to the Chiers and Meuse.

The French View

Engerand’s book Bataille de la Frontières, published in 1920 on the basis of French primary sources, is broadly representative of the French view of the battle. He was critical of Joffre’s offensive strategy and therefore looked kindly on many of the generals Joffre relieved, including Ruffey, the 3rd Army commander and Trentinian, the 7 DI commander. According to Engerand, the 4th Army pushed into the dense forest of the Ardennes without conducting proper reconnaissance and ran into German forces ‘completely dug-in’. The French persisted in senseless attacks until the Germans counterattacked and drove them back. Engerand was, however, principally concerned with the 3rd Army sector. Engerand said that V CA in the 3rd Army centre launched three successive attacks, without artillery preparation, against German entrenchments, decimating three regiments. The corps commander, demoralised, ordered a retreat and was relieved (by Ruffy, presumably) in favour of his chief of staff, who stopped the retreat ‘and led the troops back to their positions’. The V CA commander also failed to cover the right flank of 7 DI on his left. Fortunately, Trentinian sent out a flank-guard detachment (II/101) and also personally ensured that his advanced-guard held the vital strongpoint at Éthe until 7 DI withdrew from the town on orders. The advance guard of 8 DI, 130 RI, ran into German troops which had been able to construct a defensive position just to the north of Virton without being noticed. 130 RI advanced ‘boldly’ and the division deployed to prevent being enveloped. When the fog lifted, the German heavy artillery forced 8 DI to abandon Virton. The IV CA commander massed the corps artillery, and the French 75s stopped the German advance. With their support, the French infantry retook Virton and an attack by 117 RI threw the Germans back into the woods. Engerand, like Trentinian, maintained that the withdrawal of V CA prevented IV CA from exploiting its victories at Éthe and Virton.

Langle, the commander of the 4th Army, writing in the mid-1930s, demonstrated a similar capacity for self-deception. He said that the Germans had been fortifying their positions since 20 August and were fully prepared to receive the French attack. II CA had its march delayed and exposed the flank of the Colonial Corps. The Colonial Corps had been engaged imprudently, with insufficient reconnaissance to the right and had suffered a ‘very serious reverse’. According to Langle, XII CA reached its objectives. XVII CA had encountered an entrenched and invisible enemy and suffered the same fate as the Colonial Corps, for the same reasons, although taken somewhat fewer casualties. The XI CA had pushed back the enemy but had sustained ‘appreciable losses’. The Germans had taken as many casualties as the French 4th Army and had not pursued. Langle said that the 4th Army had not been seriously hurt and remained capable of continuing its mission. XII CA made a successful counterattack on the afternoon of 23 August. 4th Army withdrew on 24 August only because 5th Army on the left and 3rd Army on the right were withdrawing. Langle said that the real problem was Joffre’s insistence that the enemy be attacked wherever he was found. This led to precipitate action. Langle maintained that he was an advocate of methodical, secure operations.

Langle was unable to distinguish between an attack on a prepared position and a meeting engagement. His repeated assertions that the Germans had been digging in for two days betray his complete ignorance of the German situation – 15 years after the battle. At the operational level, the French 3rd and 4th Armies did not have the luxury of a Langle’s slow, methodical advance, which would have negated Joffre’s strategy, indeed negated the entire Russo-French offensive strategy, as well as giving the German right wing the time to appear in the two armies’ rear. Langle’s complaint that the corps columns did not coordinate with each other is misplaced: ensuring such coordination was the job of the 4th Army HQ. On a tactical level, the 3rd Colonial Division and 33 DI were not destroyed because they were advancing rashly, but because the Germans counter-reconnaissance had blinded the French patrols, and the Germans manoeuvred at a rate of speed that befuddled the French division commanders.

Bastin says that at Bellefontaine 120 RI took heavy casualties because the German IR 38 was ‘well-entrenched’. In reality, it was no such thing. He also mentions French bayonet charges three times. In all three cases it is highly unlikely that any such thing occurred; French bayonet charges are never mentioned in the German sources.

The fascination, common to almost all French soldiers and historians, with German trenches and French bayonet charges has nothing to do with actual combat. It was a means of explaining French defeat that emphasised French heroism and avoided confronting German tactical superiority. For modern historians, German trenches and French bayonet charges provide exactly the correct explanation for French defeat, one that corresponds with the popular ‘heroes led by donkeys’ thesis, as well as the experience of the next four years of trench warfare.

The Ardennes 1914 Part II

Strategy and Tactics

The defeat of the French 4th Army by the German 4th Army in the Battle of the Frontiers spelled the failure of the French war plan. Combined with the Russian defeat at Tannenberg, the Entente strategy for simultaneous Russian and French attacks against Germany had also failed. French losses were far higher than German, and the resulting disparity in combat power meant that the French were not even able to hold the last significant terrain obstacle, the Meuse.

These victories were not accomplished by superior war planning or by operational excellence. The French had anticipated the German advance to the north of the Meuse and had devised an excellent means defeating it. The German advance through Belgium was hardly the thing of wonder that it has been made it out to be. That the French plan did not succeed, while the German plan did, had nothing to do with strategy, but was solely the product of German superiority at the tactical level.

There is a school of thought which maintains that the German ‘genius for war’ was the product of the excellence of the German Great General Staff, that is, German victories were due to superiority at the operational and particularly at the strategic levels. There is no evidence to be found for this proposition either in the Battle of the Frontiers as a whole or in the Ardennes on 22 August. The Chief of the General Staff, the younger Moltke, did nothing to give German planning operational coherence: the seven German armies acted virtually independently of each other. The German 5th Army attack plan for 22 August, written by a General Staff major general, left a corps-sized gap in the army centre that was not filled until late afternoon, and which nearly resulted in a French breakthrough, while the army right flank was hanging completely in the air. The 5th Army plan was not coordinated with the 4th Army. The 4th Army moved to the south on its own initiative at the last minute to cover the 5th Army right flank, in turn leaving the 4th Army’s own centre outnumbered and dangerously thin. Due to the 5th Army’s poorly thought-out attack, of the ten German corps in these two armies, two corps could only be brought into action late in the day and one not at all, while all the French corps were engaged. The only German senior officer to display sound operational ability in the Ardennes was the commander of the 4th Army, the Duke of Württemberg, a capable professional soldier but also the hereditary ruler of a German state and hardly the prototypical General Staff officer. But the real victors on 22 August in the Ardennes were the officers and soldiers of the divisions of the German 4th Army, which dealt the French 4th Army – the French main attack – the most stinging defeats in the entire Battle of the Frontiers.

The German Army in The Ardennes

The German army’s 1906 infantry regulation presented an effective tactical doctrine based on the need to gain fire superiority as well as on offensive action based on fire and movement. German training in this doctrine was realistic and thorough, and concluded every year by several weeks of live-fire gunnery exercises and tactical problems conducted at MTA. French doctrine did not include the concept of fire superiority and the French did not have adequate training areas. German doctrine and training also emphasised the meeting engagement and individual initiative at the tactical level; the French, on the other hand, emphasised linear engagements tightly controlled at the division, corps and army levels.

The German army won the Battle of the Frontiers because of superior peacetime doctrine and training. German patrolling and reconnaissance were vastly superior to the French. In almost every instance, German reconnaissance provided excellent reports on French movements while blinding French cavalry reconnaissance. French air reconnaissance was largely ineffective in the forested Ardennes; the French senior headquarters formed an entirely erroneous impression of German movements and intentions. On 22 August none of the French divisions had any idea that major German forces were in their immediate vicinity.

On 22 August the two French armies were advancing to the northeast, while the two German armies were attacking to the west. All of the subsequent battles were meeting engagements. German units moved quickly and deployed smoothly. French movements suffered from friction and their deployment was slow and uncertain. Once engaged the Germans smothered the French with rifle, MG and artillery fire and gained fire superiority. If the Germans were on the defence, this fire stopped the French attack. If attacking, the Germans then closed with and destroyed the French infantry by fire and movement. Widespread myths notwithstanding, there were no trenches, and the only barbed wire encountered was that which the Belgian farmers used to fence in their livestock.

German Infantry

Prior to the war there had been considerable concern that the nerves of the troops would not stand up to the terrors of modern combat. As Otto von Moser noted, these battles proved beyond a doubt that the German troops were equal to the task. To Moser’s observations it must be added that the French troops were often not equal to the requirements of the modern battlefield; after a few hours of combat, most French units cracked. This was due to inadequacies in French training.

This was not to say that everything went flawlessly. In particular, the infantry often attacked without waiting for the fire support of MG and artillery to soften the enemy up. Losses were even higher than the most sobering peacetime projections: in Moser’s units more than a third of the officers and nearly a third of the enlisted men became casualties on 22 August. But French casualties were even higher. As The commander of the 25 ID, speaking of IR 116 and IR 117 at Anloy, said:

‘In spite of these (terrain) difficulties, in spite of the casualties and the intense enemy fire our troops worked their way forwards. As was characteristic of our men at this time, they got the bit in their teeth and pushed forward, which cost us a great many casualties … Nevertheless! Who would dare to criticise the wonderful aggressive spirit of our soldiers?’

In the battle the general was describing, the terrain was very close and the action was taking place at 400m range or less. Artillery support was practically impossible. Using fire and movement, the German troops pushed back the French, one terrain feature at a time. There were no ‘bayonet charges’. The German infantry simply kept on battering the French, undeterred by casualties.

The performance of the German infantry on 22 August 1914 was exceptional, the result of high morale, intelligent doctrine, effective training and excellent leadership.

German Artillery

The commander of the VI RK listed the common complaints about the performance of the German artillery.19 The infantry pushed quickly forward and the artillery was too slow to keep up. The German artillery was especially slow in occupying covered positions. The result was that the German artillery often fired into its own infantry. The French gun had a maximum effective range 2,000m greater than the German gun. The French artillery was better trained and more tactically proficient; the French operated flexibly, by batteries, the Germans employed clumsy three-battery sections.

Most of these criticisms seem to have been coloured by experiences later in the Marne campaign. During the French withdrawal, their artillery was very effective as a rear-guard. During the battle of the Marne the French emptied their magazines, firing prodigious quantities of shells that smothered the German infantry.

But during the meeting engagements on 22 August in the Ardennes the German artillery was almost always superior to the French. If it was sometimes slow to get into action, the French artillery was slower. The Germans were usually able to fight combined-arms battles; the French infantry was often destroyed before the French artillery got into action. The Germans frequently brought individual guns right into the skirmisher line, where they provided highly effective fire support at point-blank range; the French never did so. The German light and heavy howitzers proved their worth.

Both the German and the French artillery soon discovered that frequently the terrain did not provide observation of enemy positions. Rather than do nothing, both artilleries employed unobserved area fire (Streufeuer) against suspected enemy locations.20 This was not provided for in either the French or German pre-war artillery doctrines, because it was felt to be ineffective and wasteful of ammunition. However, both sides used it from the first day of combat on, and to good effect.

German Cavalry

German doctrine emphasised that cavalry needed to be aggressive during the battle in developing opportunities to both participate in the battle as well as to operate against the enemy flank and rear. Doctrine also stated that cavalry was the arm best suited to conduct pursuit.

While the 3 KD and 6 KD had been very effective in the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance roles before the battle, during the battle they accomplished nothing. The 3 KD commander decided that the terrain prevented the division from accomplishing anything and resigned himself to inactivity. 6 KD was used to guard the army left flank. Neither division conducted a pursuit, either on 22 or 23 August, although the Colonial Corps would seem to have offered a fine target for 3 KD and the right flank of the French VI CA an even better target for 6 KD.

It appears that the cavalry learned during the approach march that a mounted man presented a fine target and that even small groups of infantry were capable of blocking cavalry movement. By 22 August the senior cavalry commanders were thoroughly intimidated: they avoided serious contact and were unwilling to attempt to move large bodies of cavalry anywhere that they might be subject to small arms or artillery fire. Coupled with the unimaginative operations of the 5th Army headquarters, the timidity of the cavalry leaders cost the cavalry the opportunity to have made a major impact in the battle.

Command and Control

The German army discovered that modern means of communications were unreliable, an observation that would be repeated by practically every subsequent army. This included the telephones that connected army headquarters to OHL, which utilised the seemingly infallible civilian telephone net. As Crown Prince Wilhelm complained, the telephones became so overloaded with traffic that the command and control system at times broke down completely.21 Nevertheless, German reporting was good and with the exception of the breakdown between V AK and XIII AK German senior HQs kept each other informed.

Liebmann’s Evaluation of German Doctrine and Training

In his study of how German doctrine and training withstood the test of combat in 1914, Liebmann concluded that ‘In 1914, none of our enemies possessed a doctrine which was superior in combat to that of the German army, even though we must acknowledge that German doctrine had weaknesses’.

‘Foremost among these errors was a failure to recognise the effect of firepower, even though German doctrine was based on firepower … It must also be recognised that even the most conscientious preparation in peacetime does not insulate against similar errors.’

‘The German infantry proved itself to be superior to that of the enemy. Its high morale and discipline and its powerful offensive spirit, the product of its traditions and decades of training, allowed it in many cases to simply overrun the enemy infantry’. But Liebmann said that this superiority applied only to mobile warfare, and contended that attacks later in the war against a prepared enemy defence failed disastrously.

Liebmann said that conducting the firefight with thick skirmisher lines was effective and that the casualties incurred were acceptable as were forward bounds by individuals or by squads. Casualties only became serious when long lines bounded forward or entire fronts conducted assaults. And although the German army emphasised fire superiority, gaining and using it in actual practice proved difficult. A much more serious deficiency in German doctrine and training was the failure to recognise the difficulties in infantry–artillery cooperation. In German exercises the problem was glossed over. On the other hand, the German cavalry performed its reconnaissance function everywhere with distinction.

The French army In The Ardennes

French Training and Doctrine

Thomasson listed the reasons for the defeat of the French 3rd and 4th French Armies.23 Several commanders failed. The cohesion, training, and spirit of sacrifice of some divisions and corps was not adequate. But most important was the insufficient training of certain units and their leaders. They were unable to match the ‘brutal and rapid’ combat methods of the Germans, in particular the German practice of immediately engaging all available artillery. The Germans engaged their infantry ‘progressively and economically’, while the French were unable to ‘develop the battle methodically’. Dense French formations were too often caught in the open by effective German fire. When French commanders lost sight of their units, they also lost control.

French Command and Control

French reporting was abysmal. The terrific shock effect of German fire and movement was so severe that the French commanders could make no sense of what was happening to their units. At the lowest tactical levels, reporting ceased altogether: so many French battalion and regimental commanders were quickly killed, and movement of messengers on the front line was so difficult, that brigade and division commanders were cut off from their troops. The French senior commanders also recognised that bad news was unwelcome at the next higher headquarters. French commanders always understated the seriousness of the situation and tried to put their units in the best possible light. Their fear that the bearers of bad news would be punished and that the most senior leadership would protect their own positions by sacrificing subordinates as scapegoats was fully justified: Joffre relieved general officers wholesale.

Inaccurate reporting was fatal to top-down French command and control system, which depended on timely and accurate information to permit division, corps and army commanders to form a picture of the battlefield, then conduct manoeuvre and commit reserves. The corps and army commanders were utterly ignorant of the tactical situation and their attempts to manoeuvre were fruitless, even counter-productive. Reserves were committed at the wrong place, too late or not at all. On 22 and 23 August the French troops took matters into their own hands and retreated out of range of German weapons, movements that the senior officers attempted to stop without success.

French Lessons Not Learned

On 16 August GQG had issued tactical instructions to the armies, which 4th Army passed almost verbatim to its subordinate units.24 In attacking fortified positions, the order said, it was essential to wait for the artillery to provide fire support and prevent the infantry from attacking impulsively. The infantry attack was to be kept under the tight control of general officers (brigade commanders and up) and needed to be carefully prepared.

It is therefore no surprise that by 0930 on 23 August the French 3rd Army had already decided why it had been beaten on the previous day, in spite of the fact that there is no possibility that at this time the army HQ had any actual knowledge of what had occurred at the tactical level.25 The army bulletin said that the attacks had failed solely because they had not been prepared by artillery fire, not even by infantry fire. It was essential that the infantry attack be preceded by an artillery preparation and that the artillery be prepared to support the infantry. The infantry could not be allowed to conduct bayonet charges without fire support, as it had generally done on the previous day. This evaluation was based on preconceived ideas and peacetime training critiques, not combat experience. The army HQ also needed an explanation for the previous day’s defeat that did not implicate the army leadership.

On most of the 3rd Army front (IV CA and V CA sectors) the decisive part of the infantry battle was fought in the fog, when artillery support by either side was impossible. The French had not been beaten because they had launched ‘bayonet charges’, but rather in hours-long firefights.

Writing in 1937, the French 7 DI commander, General Trentinian, who had been relieved of his command in 1914, drew conclusions from this battle which are representative for those drawn by both the French army and society, and which show that, like Grasset, he was unable to arrive at objective and useful lessons learned.26 Like most French commentators, Trentinian blamed the defeat of the French offensive on the offensive à outrance, that is to say, on Grandmaison and like-minded young officers as well as GQG and Joffre. The distinguishing characteristic ofJoffre’s Plan XVII was that it immediately assumed the offensive. This offensive war plan required offensive tactics. A better plan, said Trentinian, would have been that of Michel and Pau, in which the French armies remained on the defensive from the English Channel to the Swiss border until they had determined what the German plan was. Then, the French would go on the offensive.

Trentinian fails to take into account that French strategy was based on the alliance with Russia. Between 1911 and 1913 the French succeeded in convincing the Russians to attack East Prussia on the 15th day of mobilisation with the forces then available, without waiting for the entire Russian army to deploy. The corollary to this Russian offensive was that the French would attack on the 15th day of mobilisation also. Only after this agreement was in place did the French replace the old defensive-offensive doctrine of Bonnal’s Plan XIV and XV with offensive strategy of Plan XVII. Had there been no such agreement, that is, had the French adopted Michel’s defensive strategy, then the Russians would have been free to follow their own interests, which were to attack the Austrians and stay on the defensive against the Germans. The Germans would then have been free of any distractions in the east, such as the command crisis on 21 August. Nor would Moltke have felt the necessity to send corps to the east, as he did on 24 August.

It is doubtful that French tactics were significantly influenced by Grandmaison’s so-called offensive à outrance. The tactical manual that implemented this doctrine was issued in 1913, far too late to have any serious effect on training. On 22 August 1914 the French attempted to employ the tactics embodied in the 1904 regulation. It was this regulation and the training that went with it in that failed in 1914, and not the offensive à outrance. There is no evidence of the offensive à outrance in the tactics employed by Trentinian’s own division on that day. In fact, Trentinian’s conclusions were pure Bonnal – he says that what the IV CA should have done was to establish a small security detachment (two battalions, a cavalry squadron and an artillery battery) between 7 DI and 8 DI, and 3rd Army should have established a similar detachment between IV CA and V CA. This was exactly the sort of dispersion of strength that Grandmaison was opposed to.

Trentinian was convinced that his corps was victorious on 22 August 1914: ‘After vain attacks against the French IV Corps, the German V Corps retreated.’ Trentinian’s description of 7 DI’s victory degenerates into pure fantasy. Since 7 ID was victorious, there was no need to critically examine the division’s actions, and Trentinian did not do so. Like Grasset, Trentinian had not taken the trouble to determine, or did not care, what were the mission or actions of the German V AK.

French Army Politics

Trentinian generally faults young General Staff officers at GQG, 3rd Army and IV CA for any mistakes that may have been made. He was particularly bitter because Joffre, whom he regarded as the cat’s paw of the General Staff, relieved over 100 general officers from their commands, including Trentinian himself. These reliefs for cause were ‘usually improper, sometimes justified’. We have arrived at the real centre of Trentinian’s complaint, which has to do with his career, which he thought had been unjustly and ignominiously cut short by arrogant upstart General Staff officers.

Trentinian was supported in this opinion by Percin, who said that Joffre conducted these reliefs at the instigation of young General Staff officers, who were eliminating officers that stood in their way, principally those promoted by the left-wing Minister of War, André.27

Indeed, the argument that Grandmaison’s offensive à outrance was responsible for the French defeats in the Battle of the Frontiers may have initially been motivated by French army politics. Percin repeats the charge that prior to the war there was a power struggle between General Michel, whose plans were comparable with those of the left-wing politician Juares, and the young Turks and Grandmaison: Michel lost. It would appear that Michel’s supporters got revenge by blaming the French defeats in the Battle of the Frontiers on Grandmaison.


French strategy in 1939 and 1940 was determined in large part by the conclusions it drew from the Battle of the Frontiers. The most important of these was that the French army would never allow itself again to engage in meeting engagements or a mobile battle with the Germany army, and in particular not in the Ardennes. The critics of the offensive à outrance received full satisfaction: French strategy in 1939–40 would be based on linear defence.

The construction of the Maginot Line made this strategy perfectly evident; it advertised that the French would never attack from Lorraine towards the Rhineland. Since Belgium was again neutral after 1936, the French could not attack Germany through this avenue of approach either. In September 1939 the Germans were free to mass their entire army against the Poles and quickly destroy them without interference in the west, which the Germans defended only with second-rate divisions.

When the Germans attacked in 1940, mindful of the Battle of the Frontiers in the Ardennes in 1914, the French refused to engage the Germans in a mobile battle, conceded the Ardennes and held the obvious line in northern Belgium and on the Meuse River. The German 1914 intelligence estimate said that the French army was not strong enough to form a defensive line all the way to the English Channel, and if they did so, they would have to dangerously weaken their centre.28 The same calculation applied in 1940. Erich von Manstein based his famous Sichelschnitt plan for launching the main German attack through the Ardennes on the fact that the French would be weak in the Ardennes. French defensive strategy in 1939–40, drawing on erroneous lessons learned from the Battle of the Frontiers, was passive and predictable.29

Doctrine, Training, Combat and Military History

In modern armies, changes in military technology must be accommodated by changes in tactical doctrine, which then must be taught to the officers and men. In an early 20th-century mass army this was no small undertaking.

The German army mastered this process to a degree not equalled by any other modern army. It drew the correct conclusions from the weaponry revolution occasioned in the mid-1880s by the discovery of high explosives and smokeless powder, the effects of which became evident in the Boer and Russo-Japanese Wars. It codified the concepts of fire superiority and fire and manoeuvre in the 1906 infantry regulation and practiced these tactics at the MTA, and in a broad range of map exercises for the officers. No other army shared the German army’s passion for tactical excellence.

The German army did not allow doctrine to be shaped by irrational considerations; their doctrine came from careful observation of the military situation and training was effective and thorough. The French, on the other hand, followed all sorts of false paths, such as red trousers or the notion that racial characteristics and past glory, not good training, were the paramount factors in combat.

The superiority of the German system was evident by the third week of the First World War. The German army more than compensated for its inferior numbers by the fact that, unit for unit, it generated far more combat power than its enemies. In a mobile battle, contact with a German unit was fatal; the surviving Entente units were thrown in headlong flight. The German army had reached a military pinnacle – it knew how to fight outnumbered and win.

Once a military culture has established itself, it develops its own momentum and becomes Truppenpraxis – the habitual, instinctive way that an army operates. The German army’s culture gave it superiority in the war’s initial mobile battles and allowed it to innovate and remain superior to Entente units when the fronts solidified into trench warfare. Indeed, the German army maintained its passion for tactical excellence – and military superiority – for the rest of the century. The power of the German model was so great that even the American army, which had adopted a defective system of Truppenpraxis from the British and French in the First World War, when faced with the Cold War problem of fighting outnumbered, converted to some degree in the 1980s to the German system.

It would have been unthinkable for the French to acknowledge that the German system was superior, nor did they. Instead of rationally analysing the Battle of the Frontiers to determine the causes of their defeat, the French invented much more comfortable fictions of German trenches and the offensive à outrance, which allowed them to retain their fundamental sense of innate superiority: the Battle of the Frontiers was an aberration. Having corrected the errors of the offensive à outrance, the French imagined that their natural superiority could and did reassert itself. Unfortunately for the French, it was their system that was at fault, as later defeats in the First World War and the 1917 mutiny demonstrated. During the inter-war period, in an era of increasing mechanization and mobility, the French adopted a doctrine of static defence. The French myths concerning the Battle of the Frontiers prevented them from recognizing the advantages of German offensive manoeuvre and virtually doomed them to defeat in 1940.

These same French myths had a baleful influence on American and British military history, which uncritically accepted the French fantasies concerning the Battle of the Frontiers. It was never considered necessary to check the French story against German sources. This was reinforced by an Anglo-Saxon weakness for armchair generalship – little maps and big arrows – which is nowhere more evident than in discussions of the Marne Campaign. The result is a recipe for ill-founded but persistent myth.

Operation WOTAN Part I

The Panzer Thrust to Capture Moscow October-November 1941



By the Autumn of 1940, the nations of Europe’s western seaboard had been defeated by Germany, leaving only the British Isles unconquered and defiant, although weak. Knowing that Britain posed no real threat Hitler decided to wage war against the Soviet Union on the pretext that the eastern provinces of Germany had to be beyond the range of Red Air Force bombers. When that war was concluded and the Reich held an area of western Russia running from the Volga to Archangel, not only would eastern Germany be safe from air attack, but Russia’s bread basket, the Ukraine, would be within the German cordon sanitaire as would the Don basin’s industrial complexes. The remnant of the defeated Red Army would be on the eastern side of the Volga and Germany’s supremacy would be unchallengeable.

In September, Hitler briefed the leaders of the German Armed Forces and of the Army High Command (OKW and OKH). Those officers must have been surprised that the Führer did not name a point of maximum effort or Schwerpunkt, the strategic objective to be gained. Instead he named three targets, allocating one to each of the Army Groups which were to fight the war: Leningrad for Army Group North, the Ukraine for Army Group South, and for Army Group Center, Moscow—but only after the northern and southern goals had been gained. Hitler declared Moscow to be a geographical term with no military significance. His decision broke with the German Army’s basic precept that Field armies march separately but strike together. In Russia his Army Groups would march separately and would also strike separately. Such a policy might have been a recipe for disaster but, by a fateful paradox, the flawed strategy of the command hierarchy of the Red Army, the Supreme Stavka, saved Hitler from the consequences of this dilettante folly.

On 22 June 1941, the German armed forces attacked the Soviet Union. The opening operations were everywhere successful and the course of the campaign in the first months was marked by the encirclement of huge numbers of Red Army formations by fast-moving panzer forces. The scale of the Soviet losses in those first encirclements, together with the far greater casualties inflicted in the encirclements that followed in quick succession, convinced the German High Command that the Red Army had been defeated west of the Dnieper, as Hitler had planned. If there was any doubt felt at OKH it was that the advance of Germany’s armies was still being contested, and by previously unidentified Soviet military formations. These were, undeniably, fresh troops but were discounted by the High Command as Stalin’s last reserves. The war on the Eastern Front was as good as over.

The Führer Designs a Revolutionary Battle Plan

During the middle week of August 1941, OKH sent Hitler a memorandum urging that the German Army’s principal aim should be the capture of Moscow by Army Group Center. The Führer rejected that recommendation. He was working on Operation WOTAN, a revolutionary offensive, and saw from the dispositions on the map of the Eastern Front the strategy he would follow. Soviet main strength was concentrated to the west of the capital and could be easily reinforced, making frontal attacks to capture the city from the west both costly and time-consuming. The Führer recalled that during the Great War it became standard practice to infiltrate round the enemy’s flanks in order to attack an objective from the rear. His revolutionary battle plan would do just that. Faced by a strong defense west of Moscow he would withdraw the four Panzer Groups serving on the Eastern Front and concentrate them into a single Panzer Army Group. This he would unleash and send marching below Moscow and on an easterly bearing. At Tula it would change direction and thrust north-eastwards across the land bridge between the Don and Volga rivers before taking a new line and driving northwards to capture Gorki, some 400km east of the capital. After a short pause for regrouping, a coordinated attack by Army Group Center from the west and Panzer Army Group from the east would capture Moscow

Stavka would certainly react violently when the panzer hosts thundered across the steppes but the Führer would limit their ability to counter WOTAN. He would launch massive offensives using the infantry armies on the strength of the three Army Groups. These would tie down the Red armies and prevent Stavka from moving forces to challenge Panzer Army Group’s thundering charge.

The longer the Führer looked at the map the more confident he became that his plan could take Moscow well before winter. He knew that the terrain of the land bridge between the Don and Volga rivers was good going for armor. The roads in the area were few and poor but the General Staff handbook considered that the sandy soil of the land bridge allowed movement even by wheeled vehicles off main roads and across country. The one caveat was that short periods of wet weather could make off-road movement difficult and longer spells could make the terrain impassable. The presence of so many rivers might slow the pace of the advance but that difficulty could be overcome by augmenting the establishment of panzer bridging companies with extra pioneer units. A revolutionary battle plan demands a revolutionary supply system and Hitler was convinced that he had found one. Isolated even from his closest staff members he worked on the final details of Operation WOTAN.

Kesselring Becomes Commander of the Panzer Army Group

A telex sent on the morning of 23 August brought Field Marshal Kesselring to Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters. The commander of Second Air Fleet supposed he had been summoned to brief the Führer on the progress of air operations on the central sector, but Hitler’s first words astonished him.

“I have decided to mount an all-out offensive for which all four Panzer Groups on the Eastern Front will be concentrated into a huge armored fist—a Panzer Army Group. This you will command.”

To Kesselring’s protests that he was no expert in armored warfare the Führer replied that he did not want one. Such men were always too far forward and out of touch—Rommel in the desert was a typical example of the panzer commander. No, he needed an efficient administrator and he, Kesselring, was the best in the German Services.

The Luftwaffe commander then asked how the Panzer Army Group was to be supplied and was told “by air-bridge.” The entire strength of the Luftwaffe’s Ju-52 transport fleet, all 800 machines, would be committed, and each machine would not only carry two tons of fuel, ammunition or food but would also tow a DFS glider loaded with a further ton of supplies. Thus 2400 tons would be flown in in a single “lift.” Hitler maintained that each flight would be so short that the Ju pilots could fly three missions in the course of a single day and this would raise the total of supplies to 7200 tons daily; more than enough to nourish the Panzer Army Group in its advance.

“There will be losses. Aircraft will crash, others will be shot down …”

“And those losses will be made good.”

Hitler then went on to explain that in the event of a sudden emergency requiring even more supplies, every motor-powered Luftwaffe machine would be put into service as would also the giant gliders which had been built for the invasion of Britain. Supplies would be dropped by parachute or air-landed from the Ju transports. Hitler’s remarkable memory recalled that ammunition boxes could be thrown from slow-flying transports at a height of four meters without damage but warned Kesselring that there was a high breakage rate—one in five—among the 250 liter petrol containers, unless these were specially packed. Once the panzer advance was rolling the Ju’s would no longer need to para-drop or air-drop the supplies but would land and take off from the salient which the Panzer Army Group had created. As the salient area expanded lorried convoys would be re-introduced. Aware of the vast amount of fuel that would be needed for the forthcoming operation, Kesselring asked what Germany’s strategic fuel reserves were and was told that these were sufficient for two to three months, including the requirements of WOTAN.

Hitler’s hands, moving across the map on the table, demonstrated where the break-through would occur and then illustrated the drive towards Gorki. The momentum of the attack must be maintained by a pragmatic approach to problems and Kesselring was to ensure the closest liaison between the flight-controllers of both Services so that the pilots had no difficulty in finding the landing zones. It was the duty of the Luftwaffe to give total support to the Army by dominating the skies above the battlefield and ensuring that the ground units were protected from attack at all times.

Hitler assured the Luftwaffe commander that the weather forecast was for hot, sunny weather which meant that ground conditions would be excellent. Operation WOTAN should last no more than eight weeks so that the offensive would be in its last stages before the onset of the autumn rains, and would be concluded before winter set in. Long-range meteorological forecasts predicted that the present dry weather would continue until late in October.

The Führer explained that Supreme Stavka had moved the bulk of its forces to counter the blow which they anticipated would be made by von Rundstedt’s Army Group South.

“We shall fox Stavka by maintaining pressure in the south but using mainly infantry forces. Stalin will have to reinforce that sector, whereupon Army Groups North and Center will each open a strong offensive. While the Soviets are rushing troops from one flank to another your Panzer Army Group will open Operation WOTAN, will fight its way through the crust of Red Army Divisions and reach the open hinterland. From there the exploitation phase of the battle will begin and from that point you should encounter diminishing opposition. Of course, your advance will be contested but the presence of so great a force of armor behind the left flank of Westfront will unsettle the enemy. But the Russians, both at troop and at Supreme Command level, react slowly … so make ground quickly before they realize the danger you represent.”

Hitler then declared that once he had briefed the other senior commanders, planning for WOTAN could begin. Because the individual Panzer Groups were at present committed to battle they could not be withdrawn and concentrated in toto. X-Day for each Panzer Group would depend upon how quickly it could be removed and regrouped but he thought that they should all be ready to begin WOTAN by 9 September. In answer to Kesselring’s concern that the infantry armies would bear the brunt of battle without panzer support Hitler stressed that a number of armored battalions and, possibly, some independent regiments would still be with the three Army Groups. He did agree that those panzer formations would have to act as “firemen,” rushing from one threatened sector to another.

In farewell, Hitler grasped Kesselring’s hands in his own, gave him the piercing look mentioned by so many of those who met the Führer and told him that Operation WOTAN offered the armies in the East the chance of total victory within a few months, but only if each officer and man was prepared to give of his utmost for the duration of the offensive. National Socialist fanaticism, the Führer concluded, would produce the victory that was within the Field Marshal’s grasp.

“Remember, Kesselring. The last battalion will decide the issue.”

On 24 August, in the Warsaw headquarters of Second Air Fleet, Kesselring addressed the leaders of the formations he was to command and told them that for the opening assault Panzer Groups Guderian, Hoth and Hoepner were to attack shoulder to shoulder in order to create the widest possible breach. That break-through would be succeeded by the pursuit and exploitation phase which would produce a salient running up to Gorki.

“To create that salient,” said Kesselring, “Guderian and Hoth will form the assault wave, Hoepner and Kleist will line the salient walls, and in addition to that task will also defeat enemy attacks made against those walls and will replace losses suffered by the spearhead groups.”

“Each Division has Luftwaffe liaison officers but at Panzer Group and Panzer Army Group level there will be a Luftwaffe Signals Staff unit to ensure total success in the matter of locating and supplying your units.

“I need not tell you how to fight your battles. You have grown up with the blitzkrieg concept, so any words of mine would be superfluous. We know our tasks. Let us to them and achieve the Führer’s aim: victory in the East before winter.”

Hitler Briefs the OKH Staff

On Friday, 29 August, Hitler addressed the OKH staff. A summary of his briefing reads:

“The successes of the three Army groups now make Moscow the principal objective … Operation WOTAN will open on 9 September and will consist of separate offensives by the infantry Armies of each Army Group as well as by a Panzer Army Group working towards the capture of the Soviet capital … The Panzer Groups will concentrate into the Panzer Army Group as they conclude present operations …

“Speed is vital … no pitched battles … strong enemy resistance is to be bypassed and left to the infantry and the Stukas to overcome. Panzer Divisions will consist of fighting echelons only … No second echelon soft-skin vehicle supply columns … Troops to live off the land as far as possible. Once the first issues of petrol, rations, ammunition and spares are run down, subsequent supplies will be air-landed or air-dropped. The infantry formations serving with the Panzer Groups will foot march unless the railways can be put into operation to ‘lift’ them.”

The first withdrawals to thin out the panzer formations so that WOTAN could open on 9 September were halted abruptly on the 8th, when the armies of Marshals Timoshenko and Budyenny opened “spoiling” offensives. These were incompetently handled and were defeated so thoroughly that only weeks later Budyenny’s South West Front had been destroyed around Kiev with a loss to the Russians of 665,000 prisoners. That defeat was followed by others at Vyasma and Briansk. The intensity of the fighting and the vast distances over which military operations were conducted during those encirclements tied up the Panzer Groups so completely that OKH’s intention to thin them out could not begin again until mid-September. As a result concentration could not be completed simultaneously by all the Groups, and each went into what had now become the second stage of WOTAN on various dates. Those Panzer Groups, urged on by a jubilant Hitler, were unrested, unconcentrated, under strength and driving vehicles that needed complete overhaul but each advanced towards its start lines. It was Friday, 28 September, and it was fine and sunny.

Operation WOTAN Begins

On X-Day Panzer Group 1 was in action on the southern side of the encircling ring around Kiev; Guderian’s Group 2, leaving XXXXVIII Corps at Priluki, had disengaged from the encirclement’s northern side and had concentrated around Glukhov; while Panzer Groups 3 and 4 were still deeply committed to the battles at Briansk and Vyasma. The long advance to battle which they would have to undertake meant that they would enter late into the second stage of WOTAN. Guderian, impatient to march, decided that if the other groups were not in position by X-Day then he would open the operation without them. His formations moved forward, and at dawn on the misty morning of 30 September, the order came: “Panzer marsch.” Guderian named as his Group’s first objective the road and rail communications center of Orel. General Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Panzer Corps, with 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions in the line, advanced up the Orel road, while Lemelsen’s XXXXVII Panzer Corps, fielding 17th and 18th Panzer Divisions, flooded across the lightly undulating terrain to the north of the highway.

Guderian’s soldiers were confident. On the eve of the offensive Heini Gross, serving in one of the panzer battalions of 4th Division, wrote “Last evening the Corps Commander visited us. There were several speeches and then we all sang the ‘Panzerlied.’ Very, very moving. Tomorrow at 05:30 we open the attack which will win the war.”

Guderian’s first blows smashed the left wing of Yeremenko’s Front and within a day had crushed Thirteenth Red Army. Soviet counterattacks launched by two Cavalry Divisions and two Tank Brigades were flung back in disarray by 4th Panzer Division. Through the gap which had been created XXIV Corps struck for Sevsk, captured it and drove on towards Orel while XXXXVII Corps swung north-eastwards for Karachev and Briansk. To the north of Guderian, von Weichs’ Second Infantry Army brought about the collapse of Yeremenko’s right wing when it split asunder the Forty-third and Fiftieth Red Armies. Within two days Panzer Group 2 had driven 130km through the Soviet battle line against minimal opposition. A breach had been made between Orel and Kursk and Kesselring directed the other Panzer Groups to reach and pass through “Guderian’s Gap,” in order to begin the exploitation phase of WOTAN. That order drove Kleist’s Panzer Group 1 northwards from the Kiev ring and was to send Groups 3 and 4 southwards once the main part of their forces had been withdrawn from the Vyasma encirclement battles.

On 2 October, the first air drop was made to Guderian’s Group. Friedrich Huber in a Flak battery recalled, “Fighter aircraft circled above us to drive off any Russian machines. Then the Ju-52s flew in, approaching from the west at a great height, descended lower and circled. They roared low above our heads, the yellow identification stripe [carried by aircraft on the Eastern Front] glowing in the sunlight. A cascade of boxes and the first flight climbed, circled and flew back westwards. In less than ten minutes forty Ju’s had supplied us. Another flight of forty came in, delivered and flew off to be followed by a third wave. This is an idea of the Führer, of course. Simple and effective, swift and efficient …”

Stavka’s reaction to the 2nd Panzer Group attack was sluggish and the weak tank attacks against XXIV Corps were repulsed with heavy loss. Guderian’s Group gained ground at such pace that it was confidently believed the hard crust of the Soviet defense must have been cracked. But it had not. Supreme Stavka ordered that Tula, on the southern approaches to Moscow, was to be held to the last, and the fanatical Soviet defense of the area between that city and Mtsensk brought the first check to 2nd Panzer Group’s drive.

Kesselring, who had been elated at the fall of Orel on 3 October, intended to capitalize on that success by changing WOTAN’s thrust line. Hitler had ordered this to be north-easterly: Dankov-Kasimov-Gorki. That original direction Kesselring now changed so that it marched northwards from Orel, via Mtsensk and Tula, to attack Moscow from due south.

Guderian’s Panzer Group Checked at Mtsensk

It was Colonel Katukov’s armor positioned south of Mtsensk that checked Guderian. A post-battle report, by the staff of XXIV Panzer Corps described the first two days of battle:

“The unit confronting us on the Tula road was 4th Tank Brigade equipped with T34s fresh from the factory. We had met this tank type before but never in such numbers. It is indisputable that the T-34 is superior to our panzers. We overcame them by calling for Stuka strikes and by setting up lines of our 88mm anti-aircraft guns and employing these in a ground role.”

Kesselring’s disobedience of Hitler’s order forbidding Panzer Army Group to become involved in pitched battles had resulted in Guderian’s drive faltering. To retrieve the situation OKH moved Second Infantry Army from 2nd Panzer Group’s left flank to its right and gave the infantry force the task of capturing Tula. Guderian’s Group, relieved on 7 October, then raced for its next objective, Yelets to the north-west of Voronezh and some 160km distant. Its advance was still unsupported. The other Panzer Groups had still not yet reached the breached area.

Hitler had correctly forecast that Stavka’s slow reaction to WOTAN would allow the Panzer Army Group to gain ground swiftly and Guderian met little organized opposition en route to Yelets. It was principally ill-trained local garrisons reinforced by untrained factory militias who came out to contest the German advance. Lacking adequate training they were slaughtered.

The crossing of the Olym river might have delayed Guderian more than the Russian enemy, but Hitler’s insistence upon extra pioneer units to accompany the Panzer Groups had proved him right and six tank-bearing bridges were erected in a single day. On 11 October Guderian’s reconnaissance detachments entered the outskirts of Yelets and quickly captured the town. The leading elements pressed on: the next water barrier was the mighty Don where Panzer Group 2 could expect to meet serious resistance unless the river could be “bounced.” For the Don crossing Guderian demanded the strongest Stuka support. His Divisions moved towards the river ready to cross on 14 October.

At dawn on that day the Stukas, the Black Hussars of the air, flew over the battle area and systematically destroyed everything which moved on the Don’s eastern bank. Yelets came within the defense zone of Voronezh and was ringed by deep field fortifications and extensive mine fields. “We attacked under cover of a smoke screen across a vast, flat and open piece of ground towards the Don,” explained Hauptmann Heinrich Auer. “On our sector the bluffs were over 100 meters high but upstream where they were almost at water level the Pioneers constructed bridges. We motorized infantry crossed in assault boats, then scaled the bluffs to storm the bunkers and trenches. The Stukas had bombed the Ivans so thoroughly that they were ready to surrender …

“It is not true that the crossing was easy. It was not but at its end we had broken the Don river line. Our panzers crossed the first bridge at about 1400hrs and came up to support us. Together we fought all that night and most of the next day. By the afternoon of the 15th we had reached the confluence of the Don and the Sosna, to the west of Lipetsk, and dug in there. The panzers left us at that point and wheeled north towards Lebyedan …”

Operation WOTAN Part II

Kleist Moves North

On 3 October, Kesselring ordered Kleist’s Panzer Group 1 to advance on a broad front, “… left flank on Kursk and the right on Gubkin … to drive north-eastwards to gain touch with Guderian at Yelets.” Once he was in position on Guderian’s right Kleist was next to strike south-eastwards and capture Voronezh before changing direction again, northwards to create the western wall of the salient.

Kleist’s Group, like Guderian’s, had not had to cover such vast distances as either Hoth or Hoepner but its advance had been slowed by deep mud and by a surprising fuel famine. A mechanical defect in Elekta, the ground identification signal apparatus, caused the Ju transports to overfly Kleist and to airdrop their cargoes over Guderian. It took nearly four days to identify and to rectify that fault, by which time Kleist was so short of fuel that his Group’s advance was reduced to that of a single Panzer Company. Drastic shortages call for radical action and Kesselring’s solution was direct. Every Heinkel III in VIII Air Corps was loaded with fuel and ammunition and the massed squadrons touched down on the Kursk uplands at Swoboda where Kleist’s Group had halted. A single mission was sufficient to replenish it and the Divisions resumed their drive across the open steppe-land.

On 14 October Panzer Group 1 forced a crossing of the Olym downstream from Guderian, and in the area of Kastornoye the point units of 1st and 2nd Groups met. Later that afternoon the main force of both groups linked up and a solid wall of armor extended from Gubkin to Yelets. Kleist Group moved out immediately to capture Voronezh but that city was not to be taken by coup-de-main. It was a regional capital with half a million citizens, most of whom worked in its giant arms factories. As in the case of Mtsensk, Stavka ordered Voronezh to be held at all costs, intending that Mtsensk be the northern and Voronezh the southern jaw of a Soviet pincer. Those two jaws would be massively reinforced and, when the Red Army opened its offensive, they would trap the Panzer Army Group and destroy it.

Hoepner Struggles to Reach Guderian’s Gap

Hoepner’s Panzer Group 4 had been so heavily engaged in the encirclement operations at Smolensk and in the continuing fighting around Vyasma that it could only withdraw individual Panzer Regiments from the battle line. Acting upon Kesselring’s orders these marched southwards to gain contact with Guderian now driving hard for Yelets.

On the Mtsensk sector Vietinghoff grouped his XXXXVI Panzer Corps in support of Second Infantry Army which was fighting desperately against the heavily reinforced Fiftieth Red Army. Stalin had ordered that Soviet formation in order to hold Mtsensk and Tula and form the northern pincer of Stavka’s planned counter-offensive. When Stumme’s XXXX Corps reached Vietinghoff he handed over the task of supporting Second Army and struck eastwards across the Neruts river, passed south of Khomotovo and halted at Krasnaya Zara where he positioned his Corps on Guderian’s left flank. Detained by the Vyasma battles and slowed by mud, neither Stumme’s XXXX nor Kuntzen’s LVII Panzer Corps had gained touch with Vietinghoff by the evening of 14 October, but late that night, to the west of Guderian’s Gap, the first elements of both Corps reached their concentration areas and were promptly struck by the first heavy Autumn rainstorm.

“That night it rained,” wrote Lt. Col. Brentwald of LVII Panzer Corps Staff. “We have had some rain since the beginning of September but this was not like anything we had experienced before. This was a monsoon which lasted all night and throughout the next day with no let up … The mud it produced was knee-deep … the soil soaked up the rain like a sponge. A primeval force of nature and not the might of the Russian enemy holds us fast …”

Throughout 15 October, although XXXX and LVII Corps were held fast in the mud, XXXXVI Corps was still moving over ground that had not yet been churned up. Vietinghoff swung towards Yefremov where his advance struck and dispersed the Twenty-first and Thirty-eighth Red Armies, both reinforced by workers’ battalions armed with Molotov cocktails and other primitive anti-tank devices.

Hoth Reaches Guderian’s Gap

Like Hoepner’s Group, Hoth’s Group 3 disengaged piecemeal from the Vyasma operation, then concentrated and began to march southwards, en route to “Guderian’s Gap.” Its passage, already slow across torn-up battlefields and Army Group Center’s supply routes, was further delayed by clinging mud as it struggled forward to gain touch with the other Panzer Groups.

“Thank God for Russian forests,” commented Panzer Captain Wolfgang Hentschel. “Their tree trunks are the material from which the Pioneers build corduroy roads across the mud. It is over those slippery, undulating, wooden paths that our vehicles slither forward. The pace of our advance, and remember this is without any enemy opposition at all, has sunk to less than 20km a day where once it had been 240. We all pray for hot, dry weather.”

During the second week of October the ground dried sufficiently and Hoth drove his Group forward at top speed. Kesselring’s dispositions for the advance of Panzer Army Group to Gorki had long been redundant, but a rearrangement brought Panzer Groups 2 and 3 shoulder to shoulder forming the assault wave with 4 and 1 preparing to line the eastern and western salient walls respectively.

On the evening of 14 October Hoth’s Group gained touch with the others and halted at the junction of the Sosna and Don rivers with Hoepner’s Group on one flank and Guderian’s on the other. “Our pioneers worked all night bridging those rivers,” said Hentschel, “so that the advance could press ahead.”

Panzer Army Group Drives on Gorki

Early in the morning of 16 October, Kesselring set up his Field headquarters in Yelets and coordinated the great wheeling movement which would bring the Panzer Groups in line abreast ready to advance towards Gorki, some 650km distant. WOTAN was behind schedule and it worried him, for every day’s delay served the enemy’s purpose. When his subordinates demanded time to rest their men and to service their vehicles he could give them only three days. WOTAN’s third phase had to open on 18 October. Military Intelligence had indicated that the Soviets were about to carry out a major withdrawal and Panzer Army Group had to be ready to exploit any weakness shown by the Red Army during that retreat.

On his flight to Yelets the Field Marshal had seen below him little blobs of armored vehicles still held fast in mud produced by the rain of the previous days. Those imprisoned panzers were a terrible warning of what could happen—what was in fact to happen when snow fell early on the 18th covering the battlefield to a depth of 10cm. During the afternoon a thaw cleared the snow but produced mud compelling a postponement of Stage 3. During the night temperatures fell hardening the ground and raising the spirits of the panzer troops who knew that soon they would be able to move again. Working by floodlight the crews smashed off the mud clods that clogged the tracks so that by 0200hrs columns of armor, with headlights blazing, were rumbling across the frozen ground.

The series of battles leading up to Gorki created a period of bitter fighting, of relentless attack and desperate defense; a time in which mud held fast the panzer formations until hard frost freed them. Weeks in which the sable candles of smoke rising in the still autumn air marked the pyres of burning tanks. In essence, the course of operations from 18 October to the end of the month was characterized by the Soviets being confined to the towns along the salient walls from which they mounted furious attacks against the panzer formations ranging across the open countryside and destroying such opposition as they met. In its advance from Yefremov via Dankov to Skopin, Panzer Group 1 was so fiercely attacked by Red forces striking out of Novmoskovsk, that Guderian was compelled to detach Geyr’s XXIV Corps to support Kleist until an infantry Corps reached the area. A similar action was fought at Ryazan against an even heavier offensive, supported by troops of the Moscow Front, switched on internal lines from the west to the east flank. Panzer Group 1 was fortunate in being aided by nature on the Ryazan sector. The river Ramova was not a single stream but a mass of riverlets running through marshland—a perfect barrier against Soviet armor striking from the west and from the north-west. Kleist needed only to patrol on his side of the river and concentrated the bulk of his force on the high ground between the Ramova and the Raga, the latter river forming the boundary between Panzer Groups 1 and 2.

Guided by reconnaissance aircraft and supported by Stukas the panzer formations of each Group dealt with any crisis which arose on a neighbor’s flank. An analysis of Russian tank tactics highlights the difference between the Red Army’s highly skilled, pre-war crews and its more recently trained men. A post-battle report stated:

The enemy’s second attack (on the right flank) made good use of ground, coming up out of the shallow valley of the river and screened by the low hills on the eastern side of the road. This wave of machines got in amongst the artillery of 3rd Panzer Division which was limbering up ready to move forward. Hastily laid belts of mines and flame throwers drove back the T 26s … The third attack was incompetently mounted and a whole tank battalion moved on the skyline across a ridge. Our anti-tank guns picked the machines off and destroyed the whole unit …

Kesselring’s handling of his Army Group was masterly and he coolly detached units to bolster a threatened sector or created battle groups to strengthen a panzer attack. His energy and presence were an inspiration to his men.

Guderian’s Group, bypassing towns and crushing opposition, moved so fast that on 27 October, Kesselring was forced to halt it at Murom until Hoth and Hoepner had drawn level. The towns of Kylebaki and Vyksa fell to Panzer Group 3 on the following day and Hoth detached his LVI Panzer Corps to help take the strategic road and rail center of Arzhamas against the fanatic defense of a Shock Army specially created to hold it. With the fall of Arzhamas on the 29th, the Soviet formations opposing Panzer Group 4 broke. As they fled Hoepner sent out his armored car battalions to patrol the west bank of the Volga, while 2nd and 10th Panzer Divisions went racing ahead to pursue the enemy and to gain ground. Wireless signals advised Hoepner that Bogorodsk had been taken, then that the advance guard had seized Kstovo and later that day had pushed on to the Volga. But Hoepner desperately needed infantry reinforcements and Kesselring sent in waves of Ju-52s, each carrying a Rifle Section. Within five hours two battalions of 258th Division had been flown in. The 5th and 11th Panzer Divisions of XXXXVI Corps moved fast to support Stumme’s XXXX Corps while LVII Corps continued with the unglamorous but vital task of strengthening the salient walls. By 2 November the Panzer Army Group was positioned ready to begin the final advance to Gorki. Group 1, on the left, had reached the Andreyevo sector and Guderian was advancing towards Gorki supported by Hoth’s Group 3. Meanwhile Hoepner’s Group 4 crossed the Volga against fanatical resistance and massive, all-arms counter-attacks, and went on to establish bridgeheads on the river’s eastern bank.

On 4 and 5 November a vast air fleet, under Kesselring’s direct control, launched waves of raids upon Gorki. Stukas bombed Russian strongpoints and gun emplacements, until there was no fire from Soviet anti-aircraft batteries to deter the Heinkel squadrons which cruised across the sky bombing Gorki and the neighboring town of Dzerzinsk at will. The impotence of the Red Air Force is explained in a Luftwaffe report covering the period from the opening of WOTAN: “Soviet air operations were made initially on a mass scale but heavy losses reduced these to attacks by four or even fewer Stormovik aircraft on any one time … [they were] nuisance raids which had little effect …” The total number of enemy aircraft destroyed during the period was 2700 but the report does not state aircraft types: “… the Soviets could produce planes in abundance but not pilots sufficiently well trained to challenge our airmen …”

Resistance to the infantry patrols of 29th Division which entered both towns on the following day was weak and soon beaten down. Opposition on the eastern flank had been crushed and when Kleist Group secured Andreyevo, to the south-east of Vladimir the western sector was also firm. A German cordon, with both of flanks secure, extended south of the Gorki-Vladimir-Moscow highway.

On 6 November Panzer Army Group Headquarters ordered a defensive posture for the following day in anticipation of massive Russian attacks which would mark the anniversary of the Revolution. Those assaults came in on the 7th and 8th, employing masses of infantry, tanks and cavalry supported by artillery barrages of hitherto unknown intensity. Furious though those assaults were they were everywhere beaten back by German troops who knew they were winning: as one German major put it, “Thank Heaven for Ivan’s predictability. He attacks the same sector at precise intervals. Once his most recent assaults have been driven off we know things will be quiet until the stated interval has elapsed. When that new attack comes in we are ready for it. His tactics are almost routine. A very long preliminary barrage which ends abruptly. Then a short pause and the barrage resumes for five minutes. Under its cover his tanks roll forward and as they come close our panzer outpost line swings round and pretends to flee in panic. The Reds chase the ‘fleeing’ vehicles and are impaled on our anti-tank line … It never fails …”

But those days had been ones of deep crisis causing a signal to be sent to all units on the 9th for the defensive posture to be maintained throughout the following two days. Where possible, the time was to be spent in vehicle maintenance so that when the attack opened against Moscow, every possible panzer would be a “runner.”

Causes for Concern

On 1 November, the Field armies reported to OKH that losses from casualties and sickness were not being made good. Statistically, each German Infantry Division had lost the equivalent of a whole regiment and that scale of losses was also reflected in armored fighting vehicle strengths. When WOTAN opened only Panzer Group 4 had been at full establishment with Groups 1 and 3 at 70% and Panzer Group 2 at only 50%. To OKH the worrying question was whether Kesselring’s Army Group would be so drained of strength that it would be too weak to fulfil its mission. On the same day a memo from Foreign Armies (East) advised Hitler that the Red Army in the West had 200 front-line Infantry Divisions, 35 Cavalry Divisions and 40 Tank Brigades, with another 63 Divisions in Finland, the Caucasus and the Far East. That memorandum went on to warn that “… the Russian leaders are beginning to coordinate all arms very skillfully in their operations …” The warning was clear: WOTAN should be cancelled. Hitler ignored that warning. The operation would continue.

The first week of November was highlighted for the infantry and panzer forces around Mtsensk and Voronezh by a series of major Red Army offensives. In Voronezh as in Moscow a military parade was held to celebrate the Revolution. Marshal Timoshenko took the salute, and the Siberian Divisions which marched past him in Voronezh went, as those in Moscow had also done, straight up the Line.

The Intelligence Section summary of 12 November reported, “The Siberian troops first encountered (on 7 November) maintained their attacks until yesterday morning. These attacks were bravely made but badly led. Prisoners stated that they had been foot marching for six weeks … There are 36 Divisions still in the Far East preparing to move westwards …”

Supreme Stavka had indeed commemorated the anniversary of the Revolution by launching major offensives. Those at Mtsensk and Voronezh, made to close “Guderian’s Gap,” were the major ones. Whole Divisions of NKVD (KGB) troops were concentrated in both areas and swung into action with such élan that their initial attacks forced the German infantry to retreat. But Stavka had made two errors. Firstly, so great a concentration of men in the cramped Mtsensk appendix restricted the armored formations, and secondly, although at Voronezh there was room for maneuver the garrison was equipped with only undergunned, light, T-26 tanks. The fighting at both places was bitter and both sides knew that its outcome would depend upon which of them broke first. It was the Soviets, bombed from the air, pounded by artillery and facing the fire of German soldiers fighting for their lives, whose morale cracked. Although the NKVD still marched into machine gun fire as unwaveringly as the Siberians or the cadets of the Voronezh military academies, the German troops soon sensed that the enemy’s spirit was gone. General Lothar Rendulic, commanding 52nd Infantry Division, wrote “Stava recognized … that the standard Russian infantryman’s offensive quality was poor and that he needed the prop of overwhelming artillery and armor.” In the Mtsensk and Voronezh battles the Red Army’s armor and air support was eroded, and without those buttresses the Soviet infantry lost heart and were slaughtered. This paradox—initial fanatical struggles followed by a sudden and total collapse—was a feature encountered during the subsequent stages of WOTAN. The failure of the NKVD and the Siberians to crush the Germans affected the morale of the ordinary Red Army units encountered by Panzer Army Group.

The presence of the Siberians on the battlefield was countered, politically. Messages between Berlin and Tokyo were followed by belligerent, anti-Soviet editorials in semi-official Japanese newspapers. These alarmed the Kremlin, which halted abruptly the flow of Siberian Divisions to the west, for these might be needed to fight in Manchuria. The surge of reinforcements from the central regions of the Soviet Union also slowed as Panzer Army Group’s advances and Luftwaffe air-raids cut railway lines forcing the Red Infantry to undertake wearisome foot marches to the battle front.

The Westward Advance to Capture Moscow

On 11 November, Sovinformbureau announced “The battle for Moscow has resumed with attacks … by the fascist Army Group von Bock … Despite heavy snow falls waves of [enemy] troops made one assault after another …” On the same day OKH also reported that Maloarchangelsk had been captured without resistance and that German formations were within 7km of Aleksin. It concluded “Weak enemy attacks indicate that the Red Army’s resistance is beginning to crumble …” A Swiss news agency wrote that the frost-hardened ground had freed the panzers from the grip of the clinging mud.

Concurrent with the opening of Army Group Center’s offensive against Moscow, the leading elements of the Panzer Army Group having spent two days regrouping and replenishing, began their westward drive. Hoepner created a strong battle group from units lining the salient’s eastern wall and sent it out to gain the area between Kstovo and Balaxna. Battle group Schirmer not only enlarged the bridgeheads on the Volga’s eastern bank but also cut the main east-west railway line.

While Panzer Groups 2 and 3 completed their regrouping, Panzer Group 1, echeloned along the salient’s western wall, was defending itself tenaciously against the Red Army’s fanatical assaults. Pioneer detachments working at top speed repaired the railway line between Michurinsk and Murom so that Infantry Divisions could be “lifted” by train to release the panzer formations for more active duties; and one Corps of Kleist’s Panzer Group promptly struck and seized Krasni Mayek to protect Panzer Army Group’s southern flank.

On 11 November, under a lowering sky, Panzer Group 2 on the right of the Moscow highway and Panzer Group 3 on the left, moved from Gorokovyets to open WOTAN’s final phase. The number of “runners” with each Group had sunk considerably in the bitter fighting but the Field workshops had repaired damaged vehicles and had cannibalized those too badly wrecked to repair. The first waves of Panzer Group 2 disposed 200 machines and Group 3 nearly 240. Throughout the two days of inactivity relays of transport aircraft brought in only shells and fuel. With petrol tanks filled to the brim and covered by a rolling barrage the two Groups advanced side by side westward towards Moscow. At midday the November gloom vanished to be replaced by cloudless blue skies. The Stukas which had been grounded re-entered the battle, taking off from advanced airfields outside Murom, Kylebaki and Vyksa. Opposition to the German advance, light to begin with, grew despite the dive bomber raids, and the combined forces of XXIV and XXXXVII Panzer Corps were able to advance only slowly on the northern side of the highway. The two Corps of Panzer Group 1 made better progress along the southern flank bouncing across marshland hardened by severe frost.

Panzer Group 4’s war diary entry of 13 November records that 2nd Panzer Division (XXXX Corps) was attacked south of Kstovo by what was estimated to be a whole Division of Cavalry. The horsemen’s assaults to break through the Group’s front were crushed with almost total loss, but that series of charges had unnerved many German soldiers who saw with horror wounded horses galloping across the battlefield screaming in pain. Shrapnel had disembowelled others who dragged their entrails across the snow leaving swathes of blood on the white surface.

Panzer Group 1 reported minimal opposition on 16 November, not the furious assaults out of Vladimir and Sudogda that had been anticipated. 1st Group’s right-wing Corps, amalgamated with the left-wing Corps of Panzer Group 3, attacked and gained ground quickly. The front-line soldiers realized that the weak opposition they were meeting indicated that the Red Army was all but defeated. One of these soldiers, Sergeant Strauch, said “ November was bitterly cold. The first issues of winter clothing helped to keep us warm but more warming was the fact that Ivan seemed to be breaking up. We found the bodies of a number of their Commissars, all shot at point-blank range. If the Party isn’t executing them then the rank and file are …”

The recce battalions of Groups 2 and 3 approaching Vladimir met the phenomen of large, organized bodies of Red Army troops standing, lining the roads, waiting to surrender. The officer commanding one group told General Geyr von Schweppenburg, who was riding with the recce point detachment, that revolution had broken out in Moscow, the government had been overthrown and its leaders shot. Von Bock’s soldiers were already in the capital’s inner suburbs. A flurry of signal messages confirmed the story. General Vlassov, a former dedicated communist, whose Twentieth Army had up to now staunchly defended the north-western approaches to Moscow, was leading a military junta which had sued for peace terms.

“Our battalion and two others were ordered from the armored personnel carriers and into passenger trains. Russian officers, many with Tsarist cockades, escorted us … After several hours we reached Moscow’s West Station and marched to the city center. Units of Bock’s Army Group were already there and in Red Square an SS detachment was blowing up Lenin’s tomb. At dusk massed searchlights lit up the flag staff over the Kremlin and deeply moved we saw the German War Standard flying at the mast head …”

The war in Russia was over. Now there would be a period of tidying up, politically, socially and economically. The population had to be fed, the Red Army demobilized and Russia incorporated into the Reich’s New Order. Hitler was triumphant. His battle plan Operation WOTAN had won the War on the Eastern Front.


In fact, the Germans left it far too late to go to Moscow. The weather closed down upon them, their logistic support was inadequate and the Russians were given time to reinforce Moscow, stop the Germans and throw them back. Never again would the Germans attempt to capture Moscow.


Erickson, J., The Road to Stalingrad (London, 1975)

Haupt, W., Heeresgruppe Mitte (Dorheim, 1966)

Morzik, F., German Airforce Airlift Operations (Alabama, 1954)

Munzel, O., Panzer Taktik (Neckargemünd, 1959)

Rendulic, L., Soldat in Sturzenden Reichen (Osnabrück, 1965)

Seaton, A., The Russo-German War: 1941–1945 (London and New York, 1971; Novato, CA, 1990)

Seaton, A., The Battle for Moscow (London, 1971)

Trevor-Roper, H., Hitler’s War Directives (London, 1964)

Operation Compass I

Stroke and Counter-Stroke

On the surface, Mussolini’s Italy was firmly in the ascendant in the Middle East by the second half of 1940. In the Horn of Africa, the conquest of British Somaliland by the Duke of Aosta’s forces presented a potential threat to British sea traffic accessing the southern end of the Suez Canal, and Italian forces also occupied key locations in northern Kenya and Sudan. To the west, the Italian forces in Libya were poised to invade Egypt; in conjunction with their incursion into Sudan this raised the prospect of a concerted attack seizing the Suez Canal and thus severing the most direct British line of communication with India, the Far East and the Antipodes. In addition, Italian air and ground forces in both locations were more numerous than their British and Commonwealth opponents, and also better equipped in many instances.

The reality was somewhat less positive, however. A combination of British naval superiority and geography meant that Italian East Africa’s isolation from reinforcement or outside assistance outweighed the threat it presented to British Imperial communications, and the same could be said of the Italian occupation of the Egyptian coastal border zone. The latter appears to have been driven less by strategic vision or desire for further colonial expansion than Mussolini’s feelings of inferiority and consequent desire to match Hitler’s achievements and keep his place as a belligerent at future peace tables. This explains his insistence that the Italian move into Egypt coincide with the German invasion of Britain, to which all other considerations were subordinate; on 10 August 1940 he explicitly made this point the paramount concern of the senior Italian commander in Libya, Maresciallo Rodolfo Graziani, in a letter that stated ‘The invasion of Great Britain has been decided on, its preparations are in the course of completion and it will take place…the day on which the first platoon of German soldiers touches British territory, you will simultaneously attack. Once again, I repeat there are no territorial objectives, it is not a question of aiming for Alexandria, nor even for Sollum. I am only asking you to attack the British forces facing you. I assume full personal responsibility for this decision of mine.’

With such poor to non-existent strategic direction from the top Balbo and Graziani’s tardiness in embarking on an invasion of Egypt is arguably excusable and certainly understandable, and this also goes some way to explaining the relative incompetence and lack of push displayed by the Italian forces in British Somaliland and subsequently in Egypt. All this ought to have made the Italians relatively easy meat for a competent opponent, but the British were initially unable to capitalise upon them. The key factor was simply numbers, for the Army and RAF contingents in both locations were simply too badly outnumbered to offer more than token resistance, as the fighting in British Somaliland had clearly shown. This was a puzzling and serious omission given the importance of the region to the efficient running of British Imperial trade and communications, and it is therefore germane to establish how such a state of affairs came about before moving on to examine the British reaction to the attacks on their territory.

As we have seen, while the Italians saw their Libyan colony as an extension of their domestic territory, the British presence in Egypt was focussed primarily on safeguarding the Suez Canal as a communications link between Britain and the Empire.

Consequently, prior to the emergence of Italy as a regional threat, the principal role of the British ground and air forces stationed in Egypt and across the wider Middle East was imperial policing. Operations of this type are frequently regarded as something of a soft option, but the reality was somewhat different. Dissident tribesmen and indigenous populations were just as capable of inflicting death and injury as conventional military forces, and service in the reaches of the Empire also involved coping with extremes of geography and climate as a matter of course. Carrying out even the most basic of military operations under such conditions thus required a high level of operational competence and flexibility.

Troops operating in the Western Desert, for example, had to contend with extreme heat by day and near-freezing cold by night as a matter of course, as well as sandstorms that reduced visibility to zero and the khamsin, a hot wind blowing from the Sahara between February and June that routinely raised the temperature to in excess of 104 degrees Fahrenheit; according to local lore murder was justified when the khamsin blew. Even routine tasks like patrolling in the arid, largely featureless terrain required strict water discipline and navigational skills of a high order. Keeping weapons and equipment functioning amidst the ever-present sand and gritty dust required constant and diligent cleaning, and mechanisation increased the maintenance load manifold. The dust shortened the life of engines even when equipped with special filters, and the rough terrain took a similarly heavy toll on suspension components, tyres and tracks. Vehicle and aircraft maintenance was complicated yet further by the paucity of sheltered facilities; an RAF report on air operations in the Western Desert noted that it took up to twenty-four hours’ work to restore aircraft on forward bases to a flyable condition after sandstorms, with instrument intakes and constant speed propeller mechanisms being especially troublesome.

Relations between the Air Ministry and War Office in the inter-war period and Second World War were frequently acrimonious at best, not least because the RAF had justified its existence after 1918 by cutting into the Army’s traditional function to create an imperial policing role for itself by ‘…substituting air power for land power in the more inaccessible corners of the British Empire.’ After contributing an eight-aircraft strong detachment codenamed Z Squadron to suppressing the ‘Mad Mullah’ in Somaliland in 1919–20, the Air Ministry was given responsibility for Iraq on 1 October 1922. However the practical limitations of Air Control, as the policy was labelled, rapidly became apparent when the RAF were obliged to form a ground support unit equipped with Rolls Royce armoured cars. In fact, Air Control had always been something of a fiction, given that there had been a substantial Army involvement alongside Z Squadron and that the then Secretary of State for War and Air, Churchill, who had played a major role in the implementation of Air Control, nonetheless considered that policing Iraq would also require at least 14,000 Army troops. Despite this, the inter-service hostility diminished with distance from London, if only for reasons of pragmatism and operational necessity; hence the comment from Sir Gifford Martel, one of the British Army’s armour pioneers, while serving in India in the 1930s: ‘the Air Force is a good show out here; I wish the Army was as progressive.’

The result was an extremely high level of co-operation between the Army and RAF at the operational level in the Empire. The evacuation of casualties by air began with Z Squadron, which deployed the world’s first custom-built air ambulance, and rapidly became a staple feature of British imperial policing operations. Over 200 men were airlifted from Kurdistan for treatment in Baghdad following a serious outbreak of dysentery in 1923, and by the mid-1930s an average of 120 patients per year were being airlifted to hospitals in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq. There was also a regular medical shuttle to Port Said and Jaffa for cases requiring repatriation to Britain by sea. Aircraft were also pressed into service for more routine military transport tasks. In September 1920 two Handley Page 0/400s lifted a dismantled mountain gun complete with crew and ammunition from Heliopolis to Almaza in Egypt, and a complete company of infantry was lifted from Baghdad to Kirkuk in May 1924 in response to an outbreak of civil disorder. A similar operation from Palestine to Cyprus in October 1931 was the world’s first troop airlift over the open sea, and the following year the RAF mounted its largest airlift in the interwar period, using twenty-five Vickers Victoria aircraft to move a complete infantry battalion the 800 miles from Egypt to Iraq in the period 22–27 June 1932. By the late 1930s such large-scale operations were routine; during the Waziristan campaign a total of 5,750 troops and 400 tons of supplies were lifted in the period between November 1936 and May 1938.

However, operational co-operation and flexibility were of little use against a threat arguably more insidious than desert dust or inter-service rivalry. Government fiscal parsimony toward the British Armed Forces was and remains something of a perennial, as demonstrated by the debate about overstretch and equipment shortages in Afghanistan and Iraq at the time of writing. The root of the problem at the beginning of the Second World War dated back to the military drawdown immediately after the First World War. In August 1919, within a month of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, a Government memo declared that ‘non productive employment of manpower and expenditure, such as is involved by naval, military and air effort, must be reduced within the narrow limits consistent with national safety.’ This policy resulted in a series of military budgets that were barely sufficient to cover the Service’s existing commitments. The Army had its budget reduced every year between 1919 and 1932 despite a parallel raise in its commitments, for example, and pay cuts prompted by a £5 million cut in the Royal Navy’s budget in 1931 sparked a mutiny in the Atlantic Fleet at Invergordon. The situation continued until the mid-1930s, when a Government statement in Parliament admitted that the situation was ‘approaching a point when we are not possessed of the necessary means of defending ourselves against an aggressor.’ As events in 1939 and more especially 1940 were to show, subsequent measures to reverse the situation came barely in the nick of time. That was of little immediate solace to those charged with safeguarding the Empire, for Home defence requirements were the first priority and the former were thus obliged to accept whatever of modern equipment or obsolescent hand-me-downs could be spared.

This was not initially seen as a matter for concern because Italy was not considered a threat to British interests in the Middle East, and this remained the case even when Mussolini embarked on an extensive re-armament programme in 1933 and invaded Abyssinia two years later. Although the British Mediterranean Fleet was substantially reinforced in September 1935 in anticipation of enforcing League of Nations sanctions against Italy for her aggression, Italian vessels carrying supplies and munitions for their forces in Abyssinia were still permitted to transit the Suez Canal, in line with the 1888 Treaty of Constantinople that guaranteed access to the Canal for all and prohibited warlike activity within three miles of the Canal’s entry points. Indeed, the possibility of conflict with Egypt itself was a more pressing concern, as relations had been ambiguous between the abolition of the British Protectorate over Egypt in 1922 and the signature of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in August 1936. The Treaty bound the British to withdraw from Cairo within four years, to restrict its military presence in the country to the area immediately adjacent to the Suez Canal and the RAF airfield at Abu Sueir, seventy miles from Cairo, and to train and equip the Egyptian Army and Air Force. In return the Egyptian government was to improve and/or increase road and rail links, permit British military training in designated areas and provide unlimited access to all Egyptian facilities in time of war. In return the British sponsored Egypt’s election as an independent member of the League of Nations in May 1937.

In the meantime relations with Italy had deteriorated, and the British initially tried to address the situation with diplomacy, leading to the Anglo-Italian Joint Declaration signed in Rome on 2 January 1937. Popularly dubbed the ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, the Treaty debarred both parties from interfering with the sovereignty of states in the Mediterranean area and guaranteed mutual free movement in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, the Declaration quickly failed to live up to expectations, and the British government was obliged to extend its policy of military renovation to the Middle East from July 1937, beginning with a modernisation programme for port defences in the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Limited measures to counter possible Italian attacks were also authorised, with the caveat that they should be discrete and unprovocative.

British concerns initially centred on naval matters, and specifically secure basing for the Mediterranean Fleet. Traditionally this had been provided from Gibraltar and Malta, but the former was too distant from the likely seat of future operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Malta was too close to the Italian mainland. Alexandria was selected as the best option in April 1937, not least because it had undergone modernisation during the Abyssinian Crisis in 1935, and permission was obtained from the Egyptian government to extend docking and repair facilities. The situation was more serious with regard to air and land defence, for most of the army units were based away from the Libyan border and were significantly under their official War Establishment strength, while there were no RAF fighters or army anti-aircraft units based in Egypt at all. Nonetheless, the British were able to mount some semblance of defence during the Sudeten Crisis in September 1938 with the army occupying defensive positions at Mersa Matruh, two thirds of the way between Alexandria and the Libyan border, and the RAF deploying to forward airfields in support. By that time some of the more glaring deficiencies had been addressed, at least to an extent. An anti-aircraft brigade equipped with twenty-four 3-inch guns and the same number of searchlights had been despatched from Britain in December 1937 along with a battalion of light tanks. This was followed by a twenty-one strong squadron of Gloster Gladiators and twelve Bristol Blenheims in February 1938. More reinforcements followed. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade arrived in Egypt in July 1939, followed by a New Zealand brigade in February 1940, and the Indian presence was expanded to form the 4th Indian Division by the arrival of a second brigade eight months later.

By the outbreak of war with Italy in June 1940 the British were thus in a better, if not comfortable position to defend Egypt. At the top, the clumsy and arguably unworkable triumvirate system created in June 1939, which relied on the local Commander in Chiefs of the three Services to co-operate voluntarily whilst beholden to their individual Chiefs of Staff and Ministries in Whitehall, had been modified with the appointment of a Commander-in-Chief Middle East on 15 February 1940. The officer selected to fill the new post was Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Wavell, who had been commanding the army’s Middle East Command from July 1939. Wavell was a highly experienced and competent soldier who had seen service in the Boer War, India and as an observer with the Russian Army before 1914; during the First World War he served initially in a Staff position, was wounded and lost an eye at Ypres in 1915, was seconded to the Russian Army in Turkey as a liaison officer the following year, and ended the war on General Allenby’s staff in Palestine. The RAF contribution to defending the Libyan frontier was No. 202 Group, commanded by then Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw DSO and Bar, DSC, DFC. A Canadian by birth and also a First World War veteran, Collishaw had begun his career flying fighters with the Royal Naval Air Service and was the third highest scoring British ace at the end conflict, with sixty victories. No. 202 Group consisted of six squadrons, the Gladiator equipped No.33 Squadron, Nos. 45, 53, 113 and 211 Squadrons equipped with Blenheims, and No. 208 Army Co-Operation Squadron equipped with Westland Lysanders. The army contingent in Egypt numbered 36,000 men, but not all were organised into complete formations, and the formations that did exist were understrength in addition to overall shortages of artillery, transport and ammunition. The Western Desert Force tasked with defending the border with Libya was commanded by Major-General Richard O’Connor, who arrived from Palestine to take over on 8 June 1940. O’Connor’s Force consisted of the understrength 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions; the former lacked two of its constituent armoured regiments and the latter a complete infantry brigade, although this was offset to some extent by the presence of the 6th Infantry and 22nd Guards Brigades.

This was a fairly respectable force, but not in comparison with the Italian 10° Armata facing them across the border in Libya. However, there was more to the matter than bald numbers, and the British possessed a qualitative advantage that to an extent offset Italian numerical superiority. There were two aspects to this advantage. The first went back to 1935, when elements of the Cairo Cavalry Brigade were formed into a Mobile Force and began training for mechanised desert operations. This was a new concept and thus very much a matter of trial and error. At the beginning it took a squadron from the 11th Hussars three days to reach the oasis at Baharia, 200 miles south of their base at Cairo, thanks to navigation difficulties, vehicle suspension failures, flat tyres and bogging in soft sand, and it took a further two days of intensive maintenance before the return trip could begin. Within ten months the same unit was capable of sallying forth south across the coastal plain from Mersa Matruh to the Siwa Oasis on the rugged plateau that separated the plain from the Great Sand Sea and back in the same time, a round trip of almost 400 miles as the crow flies. The experience garnered in the process was converted into a formalised training programme for all British mechanised units in Egypt that taught the importance of vehicle loading, field maintenance and repair, desert driving techniques, how to use the terrain for movement and concealment, and navigation by the sun and stars as well as with the magnetic compass. The end result was a number of units capable of operating in the harsh conditions of the Western Desert as a matter of routine. The second aspect was turning these trained units into a cohesive mechanised force, and that was down to the involvement of Major-General Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart DSO MC.

Hobart was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1904 and after service on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia during the First World War, transferred to the Royal Tank Corps in 1923. A disciple of Colonel J.F.C. Fuller and an armoured theorist in his own right, he was promoted to command the 2nd Battalion, Royal Tank Corps in 1928. In 1933 he became Inspector Royal Tank Corps, and after promotion to Brigadier the following year formed and commanded the 1st Tank Brigade, the first armoured formation of that size in the British Army. A single-minded and difficult character, Hobart made more than his fair share of enemies in the army establishment, but avoided being edged out of the army like his fellow armour pioneers Fuller and Liddell Hart and was appointed Director of Military Training at the War Office in 1937, on the understanding that he would be given a command more in line with his expertise in the event of war. That circumstance came with the Munich Crisis, and Hobart was despatched to form an armoured division in Egypt on 25 September 1938. His appointment was not universally popular as his difficult reputation appears to have preceded him; the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Gordon-Finlayson, greeted him with the immortal words ‘I don’t know what you’ve come here for, and I don’t want you anyway.’

Despite this inauspicious start, Hobart set to work reorganising and expanding the Mobile Force into the Mobile Division at his base at Mersa Matruh. The new formation consisted of three parts. The Light Armoured Brigade was created by the simple expedient of renaming the Cairo Cavalry Brigade, which was made up of the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars equipped with a variety of Light Tanks, the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars making do with 15 cwt Ford trucks in lieu of tanks, and the 11th Hussars mounted in Rolls Royce Armoured Cars. The Heavy Armoured Brigade consisted of the 1st and 6th Battalions, Royal Tank Corps, the former equipped with Light Tanks and the latter with a mixture of Light and Medium. The third part, dubbed the Pivot Group, was intended to provide the armoured striking force with infantry and artillery support. It consisted of 1st Battalion, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), and the 3rd Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) equipped with 3.7-inch howitzers. Hobart also managed to form a divisional HQ with personnel located through his parallel responsibility for Garrison Troops in Cairo, including increments from the Royal Corps of Signals and a complete company from the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). The latter proved invaluable in locating supplies of ammunition and spare parts, and more modern replacement equipment slowly became available over the winter of 1938–39; this permitted the 6th Royal Tank Regiment to replace some of its venerable Mk. II Medium Tanks for more modern A9 Cruisers, and the 3rd RHA to re-equip with 25-Pounder guns. In parallel with all this Hobart instructed and drilled his command until its disparate components were capable of operating smoothly together in offensive and defensive manoeuvres. By the end of 1939 Hobart had largely achieved his mission, as is clear from Major-General O’Connor’s comment that the Mobile Division was the best trained division he had ever seen.