Haruna at her moorings near Kure, Japan, under attack by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft, 28 July 1945
Wreck of Tone at Kure The Heavy Cruiser Tone, sister of Chikuma survived many battles and was sunk at anchor in Kure harbor by US carrier aircraft on July 24th 1945. Her hulk was scrapped between 1947 and 1948.
After Okinawa had been taken and with the rolling up of the Japanese empire in Southeast Asia progressing satisfactorily, the Americans decided to bring the war home to the Japanese people by carrying out a mix of attacks – massive carrier raids on air bases around Tokyo and the naval facilities at Yokohama; the bombardment by surface warships of principally iron and steel works on the main island of Honshu- and in southern Hokkaido; and bombing sorties on shipping found in the Tsugaru Strait between these two northern islands. In a series of attacks that began on 10 July and spread over eight days featuring no less than fifteen carriers, eight battleships, fifteen cruisers and fifty-five destroyers belonging to Admiral Halsey’s TF 38 and supported by three carriers, a battleship, six cruisers and fifteen destroyers from the BPF for the latter part of the operation on 16-18 July, extensive damage was done. Forty-seven naval craft of various kinds were sunk, the battleship Nagato was made inoperable, while the two new carriers Amagi and Katsuragi, the battleship Haruna and forty-five other vessels were damaged. In addition, well over 5,000 rounds of 5-16 inch (127-406 mm) shells rained down on industrial targets on the home islands.
This operation was followed by one led by Vice-Admiral Jesse Oldendorf at the head of TF 95 in which the principal focus was on shipping in the East China Sea, the Yangtze River estuary and the Yellow Sea. It lasted nearly a month (16 July-12 August) and was one of Oldendorf’s least successful and more frustrating ventures. He lost a destroyer sunk, another two damaged (one of them grievously) and the battleship Pennsylvania torpedoed, for little positive gain. It was not often that Japanese submarine operations became anything other than a by-word for frustration, but in what turned out to be their last sortie with kaiten torpedoes they at last showed what they might have been able to have contributed to the war effort had they been used properly in the past: I-53 armed with two kaiten sunk the destroyer escort Underhill and I-58 damaged the destroyer Lowry on the night of 27-28 July. A couple of nights later I-58 struck again – this time with conventional torpedoes – hitting the US heavy cruiser Indianapolis twice and sinking her. Unbeknown to Lt-Cdr. Mochitsura Hashimoto, his victim had already brought parts of the atomic bomb from San Francisco to Tinian and was on her way back to Leyte when he found her running alone east of Luzon and sent a salvo of six torpedoes in her direction. Only 316 out of the total number of 1,199 officers and crew survived the sinking. I-58 continued to use her kaiten to attack convoys but further success narrowly eluded her on both 10 and 12 August.
Although most of the naval action in the Pacific had been concentrated in the central and southwest regions in 1945, American task groups – usually consisting of a cruiser division and a flotilla of destroyers – had continued to make their presence felt further north by indulging in a series of periodic visits to the Kuriles where they would spend usually a couple of days shelling enemy positions around Paramushiro and Matsuwa without attempting any amphibious operations. One suspects these sorties were designed to be a monthly reminder to the Japanese military that the Americans possessed the strategic and logistical reach necessary to tackle all parts of the empire and that the physical damage wrought by these raids was if anything rather secondary in importance to the psychological blows they were administering to the defenders. An invasion could wait, their turn would come. When it did come, however, it was to be far sooner (18 August) and from a completely different source (the Soviet Union) than might have been expected.
Allied action elsewhere in the Pacific before the first of the atomic bombs was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August took in action against islands, such as Truk and Wake, which had been robbed of their former prominence. By mid-1945 the Japanese defenders on both of these former bases were left as isolated pockets of resistance and ones that remained utterly bereft of making any impact on a war that had passed them by. The Allies resorted to a combination of carrier raids and offshore shelling of both of these islands for much the same reasons as those advanced against the Kuriles – it reminded the Japanese of how much their stock had fallen and who now held the ascendancy in this ocean.
An illustration of just how dominant the Americans had become in this vast theatre was vividly shown on 21-22 July when a US task group of fifteen tankers, five transports and four freighters carried out the replenishment of both TF 38 and units of the British TF 37 whilst they remained on station providing them with roughly 60,000 tons of oil, 6,369 tons of ammunition, 1,635 tons of supplies, ninety-nine aircraft and 412 reservists, in what became the largest supply operation of the entire war at sea. This impressive logistical exercise was arranged primarily to keep the two fleets operational and in a position to launch a further series of attacks on Japan in the next few days. On 24 July, for instance, their carrier aircraft conducted 1,747 sorties along the shoreline of the Inland Sea attacking major naval bases such as Kobe and Kure. In these raids a significant amount of damage was done to the infrastructure of the ports and the warships that were caught at anchor in these harbours. By the time that the last Allied planes had wheeled away and headed back towards their carriers, the bases were littered with the wrecks of the fleet carrier Amagi, the three battleships Haruna, Hyuga and Ise, the heavy cruiser Aoba, the light cruiser Oyodo, and the training cruiser Iwate, along with over 22,000 tons of merchant vessels and auxiliary ships which had either been sunk directly or had become so badly holed and waterlogged that they had ended up by slithering to the harbour floor. In addition, bombs had struck a trio of carriers (Hosho, Katsuragi and Ryuho), the escort carrier Kaiyo, the light cruiser Kitakami, a destroyer, three escort destroyers, two corvettes, a target ship and a landing craft. These raids demonstrated most graphically that there was no longer any hiding place for naval vessels in Japan. Further raids on 28 and 30 July reinforced that impression by finishing off the heavy cruiser Tone, the training cruiser Izumo, as well as the escort destroyer Nashi, the large, but uncompleted, submarine I-404 and eight other assorted ships, while badly damaging ten other warships including a submarine, a frigate and five corvettes. Apart from deploying carrier planes to assist their Allies in the bombing of Japanese naval targets, the British also sent their battleship King George V and three destroyers to join forces with Rear-Admiral John Shafroth’s task group (TG 34.8) for a night’s bombardment of aircraft and other military related factories situated close to Hamamatsu in the southern part of Honshu-(29-30 July).
At the same time they were also planning another surprise for the Japanese in Singaporean waters. Two midget submarines, XE 1 and XE 3, were towed by the submarines Spark and Stygian into position off the island. They then left their mother ships and entered Keppel Harbour alone on 30 July with the intention of destroying the two Japanese heavy cruisers Myoko and Takao stationed there with explosive charges. They achieved only 50% of their objective with Takao being holed and sunk, while Myoko escaped unharmed.
While Patton’s Third Army was racing through Brittany and towards the south the U.S. First Army under Hodges continued its offensive in an easterly and south-easterly direction in order to widen the corridor of Avranches. General Hodges’s VII Corps took Mortain with its commanding high ground. A pivot had been established for the impending large-scale wheeling of the entire front towards Paris.
“Unless the door of Avranches is pushed shut again the German front in France will collapse,” General von Choltitz said to Colonel-General Hausser, the Seventh Army commander, early in August. But Army and Army Group were quite aware of the magnitude of the disaster. An attempt had to be made at all costs to seal the big gap of Avranches and to cut off Patton’s army from its rearward lines of communications.
At the Führer’s headquarters, too, the danger of the open door of Avranches was by now realized. General Patton’s bold manoeuvre had been watched with dismay and amazement. “Just look at that crazy cowboy general,” Hitler grumbled, “driving down to the south and into Brittany along a single road and over a single bridge with an entire army. He doesn’t care about the risk, and acts as if he owned the world! It doesn’t seem possible!”
Why then was it possible?
If one remembered the triumphs of the once-so-powerful German Army it really seemed incredible that this American general could now be playing cat-and-mouse with it in this manner. How was it possible? Surely there were some strong Panzer divisions left in France? And were these divisions unable to cut off a bottleneck of sixteen to nineteen miles? Was the entire campaign in the West to depend on a mere sixteen miles? It seemed absurd. Surely this must be the great chance for the German Command? Surely this could become the great turning-point, just when the enemy had banked a little too recklessly and contemptuously on his run of good luck? That, at any rate, was Hitler’s idea. It was shared by Colonel-General Jodl, Hitler’s chief of staff.
On August 2, General Warlimont, the deputy chief of the O.K.W. staff, arrived at Field-Marshal von Kluge’s headquarters. He brought with him Hitler’s order for Operation Lüttich—a thrust from Mortain against Avranches. Hitler demanded that of the nine Panzer divisions engaged in Normandy eight should be got ready for the attack. The Luftwaffe, too, was to throw into the battle “all available reserves, including 1000 fighters.”
So far so good. But what about the date? Field-Marshal von Kluge wanted to strike at once. Hitler wanted to postpone the launching of the offensive until “every tank, every gun, and every aircraft have been rounded up.”
Kluge telephoned Jodl: “We’ve got to strike at once. The enemy is getting stronger every day. He’s already got an entire army through the Avranches gap!”
Jodl’s reply reflected an astonishingly over-optimistic assessment of the situation: “Don’t worry about the Americans who have broken through. The more there are through the more will be cut off.” An answer fit for a history primer. One is reminded of the reply reputedly made by Leonidas, the leader of the Greek troops at Thermopylae, when informed that the Persians’ volley of spears and arrows would darken the sun. “So much the better,” he said, “then we’ll be fighting in the shade!”
Field-Marshal von Kluge and Colonel-General Hausser did not share Jodl’s optimism. They knew that any further delay would be the death warrant for their army. They therefore decided to start the offensive during the night of August 6-7. The entire hopes of the Western front rested upon Operation Lüttich.
Four Panzer divisions—the 2nd under General von Lüttwitz, the 116th under Count Schwerin, some units of the 1st S.S. “Leibstandarte” under Brigadeführer [Rank in S.S. troops equivalent to major-general.] Wisch, and the 2nd S.S. “Das Reich” under Gruppenführer [Rank in S.S. troops equivalent to lieutenant-general.] Lammerding—as well as a combat group of the 17th S.S. Panzer Grenadier Division “Götz von Berlichingen” and the remnants of the Panzer Lehr smashed at Saint-Lo made up the offensive force which was placed under the overall command of 47th Panzer Corps.
General Freiherr von Funck, the corps commander, wanted to use the night for the first big armoured thrust. He hoped to cover half the distance to Avranches in darkness. His 120 tanks were ready to advance along a ridge of high ground between the valleys of the See and Sélune; these streams, as it were, providing natural flank cover against enemy interference.
The 2nd Panzer Division was ordered to move off at 2400 hours. But only the right-hand assault group was in fact moving. The attack on the left wing was delayed by a bad hold-up. The tanks of the 1st S.S. Panzer Division had not turned up. On its way to the jumping-off line the Panzer regiment had got into a sunken lane a mile and a half long. As bad luck would have it, an enemy fighter-bomber which had been shot down crashed on top of the leading tank and completely blocked the road. A bad omen. In reverse gear the tanks had to back out of the lane. The manoeuvre took hours. Not till daybreak was the left-hand assault group ready to move into action.
The right-hand group, meanwhile, had raced on ahead with two tank battalions, Panzerjägers, and 304th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. The Panzer grenadiers and engineers were riding on top of the tanks.
Then they came up against American anti-tank barriers on the roads. A quick burst of shell-fire. Attack by grenadiers on the American outposts. And forward again. The American main fighting line was overrun.
At Dove the 1st Battalion of the Panzer regiment ran into a mine-belt. Major Schneider-Kostalsky, the regimental commander, was killed by a mine. Engineers cleared the road.
Mesnil Dove fell. But there was an anti-tank gun left by the church, well under cover. That damned gun was holding up the entire attack. At last a 75-millimetre shell swept it away.
On again. Mesnil Adelee fell. The group was within four miles of its objective for the day. Once there, half the distance to Avranches would be covered. The armoured spearheads swept on towards the west.
Then the day dawned.
The left-hand assault group of Luttwitz’s Panzer division had not started out from its base line till shortly after 0200, because of the belated arrival of the S.S. “Leibstandarte” tanks. It thus lost the element of surprise. Soon it began to get light. True, a haze hung over the ground. The hills were shrouded in thick mist. Crossroads vanished from sight. But at least the fighter-bombers were being kept away from the battlefield.
Like Spectres, the massive Mark IVs, the sleek Panthers, and formidable Tigers materialized out of the mist in front of the American lines. The 2nd Panzer Grenadier Regiment took the stubbornly defended little town of Saint-Barthélémy by storm. A hundred prisoners were taken. But then the tanks of the “Leibstandarte” got stuck in front of a powerful barrier on the main road to Avranches. Strong formations of the 3rd U.S. Armoured Division refused to be dislodged.
Meanwhile the 2nd S.S. Panzer Division had broken into Mortain and overrun the anti-tank gun positions of the 30th U.S. Division. It was now storming the high ground outside the town.
But the heights could not be taken at the first rush. And then the momentum was lost. It became a tough struggle for every foot of ground. On the other wing, on the right flank of the offensive, the 116th Panzer Division ran into an antitank position of the Americans who had occupied the area around Périers on the preceding day. It could not make another yard’s progress.
Even so, by the time the morning haze lifted, Lüttwitz’s right-hand assault group was deep inside the Mortain-Avranches corridor. One more such push and the bottleneck would be sealed. Whether it could be kept sealed with the weak forces available was another question, but at least the vital artery of Patton’s army would be cut for a while. That might produce a sensational turn in the fortunes of war.
“Bad weather is what we need, Herr General. Then everything will work out all right,” Lüttwitz’s chief of operations said to him. But his wish was not granted. The early haze dispersed quickly. August 7 was ushered in with a cloudless sky. And in this sky, presently, appeared Eisenhower’s wonder weapons: fighter-bombers, Thunderbolt bombers, and rocket fighters. Innumerable swarms of them. They pounced on the columns of the 2nd Panzer Division at Le Coudray, half-way to Avranches. They swept over the roads and drove grenadiers, Panzerjägers, and engineers under cover. With uncanny precision the rocket-shells of the Typhoons smashed into their targets. Against this weapon even the otherwise invincible Tigers of 1st Panzer Division were helpless. Desperately the tank crews ducked inside their steel boxes. The grenadiers lay in the fields, motionless, so as not to become targets. Rarely had the absent Luftwaffe been cursed as much as along this road to Avranches.
“How can the Luftwaffe be absent from such a vital operation as this?” the commanders in the field were asking each other. The troops, in simpler words, asked, “If they’re not coming out for this, what are they waiting for?”
And why did they not come out?
Seventh Army knew, of course, that the offensive could not succeed without air cover against the enemy’s fighter-bombers. Air-General Bulowius had promised to make 300 fighters available. “In ceaseless sorties,” he had assured Hausser, “they will keep the skies clear above the area of operations.”
Yet not a single German aircraft showed up. Not, by any means, because Bulowius had gone back on his word. The fighter formations had indeed taken off from their airfields around Paris. But British and American fighters had intercepted them and engaged them in aerial combat immediately above their bases. Not a single unit reached the air space over the fighting front between Mortain and Avranches. With complete impunity the Allied airmen were able to hunt down the tanks, anti-tank guns, and grenadiers of the assault group of 47th Panzer Corps, and thus it came about that, for the first time in military history, a vigorous and successful land offensive was eventually halted from the air.
The German regiments were still defending the ground they had gained, contesting every patch of wood, every farmhouse, and every sunken lane. But the offensive had been broken—smashed from the air. Admittedly, General Bradley had to employ his entire VIII Corps against the German combat groups in order to exorcise the mortal danger; but exorcise it he did. After forty-eight hours the German grenadiers reeled back into their jumping-off positions, which they had left so hopefully during the night of August 6.
Excerpt from ‘Invasion! They’re Coming!’ New York: Dutton, 1963 ISBN 0887407161
Some interesting information from Swedish author Niklas Zetterling’s “Normandy 1944.” During the Mortain battle (7-10 August 1944) the British 2nd Tactical Air Force and the US 9th Air Force claimed 140 and 112 German tanks destroyed. Total German tanks deployed in all units was 177 (75 Pz.IV’s, 70 Pz.V’s and 32 Stugs). German documented losses were 46 tanks. They were examined on the ground by Allied teams and 9 of the 46 could be determined to have been hit from the air. 11 tanks were abandoned and 6 were lost to unknown reasons. Most of these were to lack of fuel or mechanical reasons. The others were lost to ground combat. The Germans did lose 86 other vehicles (SPW’s, trucks, prime movers, etc) and of those 24 were determined to have been destroyed from the air. During the period 6th Jun 1944 thru 16 Jan 1945 the British examined 223 Panthers. 14 were determined to have been destroyed from the air (11 by rockets and 3 by cannon). The evaluators said it was easy to determine an air hit from other losses. 63 were lost to AP hits, 8 to HEAT and 11 to HE. 60 were destroyed by crews and 43 abandoned (again was lack of fuel or mechanical). 24 were unknown but not air damage. During the battle of Normandy (June – August 1944) the British 2nd Tactical Air Force lost 829 fighter-bombers while the US 9th Air Force lost 897. But the author still concludes that the air weapon did its great damage to rail traffic which was the means by which the Germans moved troops, vehicles and supplies.
The lengths the Germans were going to in order to protect the battery, combined with the information provided by the Resistance, was enough to convince Morgan that the guns at the battery must be of 150mm calibre. When considering the significance of artillery, size matters. The circumference of the barrel dictates the weight and the explosive content of the shell, which in turn dictates its lethal effect. The weight of the projectile it fired meant that a shell bursting from a 150mm gun would have a lethal splinter distance radius of up to 200 metres. A salvo from four 150mm guns, firing in close proximity, could spread their jagged metal shrapnel over the area of a football pitch and would easily devastate a unit of infantry advancing over an open beach in a matter of minutes.
The existence of the battery, set back a mile from the coast, presented a significant threat to the landings and it was vital that it was eliminated before the troops touched down on the beaches. Bombing lacked precision and offered no guarantee when the casemates could withstand anything but a direct hit from the heaviest Allied bombs. Morgan therefore needed an insurance plan that the guns would be put out of action before the troops landed on the beaches. A pre-emptive attack launched from the sea entailed too much risk; getting a raiding party to the battery undetected would be no easy task and could alert the Germans in advance of the landing of the main invasion force.
Morgan’s bosses shared his concern and had no illusions about the hazardous nature of mounting an amphibious landing on a defended shoreline against fifty enemy divisions who were expecting an invasion. General Dwight Eisenhower’s appointment as Supreme Allied Commander of the invasion had been confirmed at the Tehran Conference in December 1943, where Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt decided to open the second front. Ike had arrived in Britain in January 1944 to assume command of the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) at the same time as General Bernard Montgomery returned from commanding the 8th Army in Italy to take over command of the British contribution to the landings. As well as commanding 21st Army Group, Montgomery had been selected to command all the Anglo-American land forces under Ike and was tasked with overseeing the planning for the entire operation.
The experience of Dieppe and near disaster of the invasion of Sicily and Italy a year earlier increased Ike and Monty’s apprehension of what the Allies were about to undertake. If the invasion failed the implications for the conduct of the war would be significant: an Anglo-American landing could not be reattempted for some considerable time, and defeat in France would allow Hitler to transfer the bulk of his divisions to face the onslaught from the Red Army in the east. Consequently, like the Germans, the Allies saw the success or failure of the invasion as a strategic decision point and agreed with Morgan on the need to eliminate as many risks as possible to get the maximum number of troops safely ashore.
While one of the risks centred on neutralizing the Merville Battery, Ike and Monty agreed with Morgan’s assessment that the risk of counter-attack by German mobile reinforcements into the flanks of the landing also needed to be reduced. But in reviewing Morgan’s plan they felt that his intended invasion frontage of three assaulting divisions in the first wave was too narrow. With Eisenhower’s agreement, Montgomery expanded the length of the invasion area to include the whole of the Cotentin Peninsula. He also increased the number of divisions in the first wave from three to five, landing on five separate beaches instead of three. Two US divisions would land in the western sector along two beaches codenamed Utah and Omaha. One Canadian and two British divisions would land to their east along Juno, Gold and Sword beaches.
The Allies had thirty-seven divisions stationed in England for the invasion, but it would take days and weeks to take them all across the Channel. To Montgomery, success depended on breaching the Atlantic Wall and getting enough troops ashore to consolidate the beachhead before the Germans could bring the combined weight of their panzer divisions against him. Like Rommel, he saw the first hours and days as critical. A successful breakout from Normandy could only come after the Allies had won the race to build up sufficient force ratios ashore to beat off the panzers as they moved to counter the landing.
In line with Morgan’s initial estimate regarding the risk of German attacks into the flanks during the early phases of the operation, the one aspect of the COSSAC planning work that Montgomery did not change was the simultaneous dropping of US and British airborne troops on the eastern and western ends of the invasion beaches. The east flank of Sword Beach where the 3rd British Division would land was a particular concern, given its proximity to the concentration of the majority of German formations around the Seine. Focused on responding to a threat of invasion in the Pas de Calais area, the panzers would come from this direction once the enemy realized that the real threat was in Normandy.
The quickest and most direct approach for German reinforcements moving westwards towards Sword Beach lay across the Dives and Orne rivers, which ran into the sea astride the wooded high ground of the Bréville Ridge. If the German mobile divisions were able to cross these rivers they would have an opportunity to roll up the flank of the invasion from east to west before the Allies had time to land sufficient numbers of their own armoured forces to counter such an attack.
The western side of the ridge, closest to Sword Beach, had the added benefit of the Caen Canal. Fed from the mouth of the Orne, it flowed beside the river along the bottom of the ridge towards Caen. There were only two bridges across the double water feature at the villages of Bénouville on the Orne and over the canal as it passed through Ranville. The bridges were the vital ground and the ridge was the key terrain to defending the left flank of the invasion. Whoever held the bridges would control the most direct access to Sword Beach, and whoever held the Bréville Ridge would have a marked advantage in controlling the high ground that dominated them.
Trying to take the ground from the sea by landing on the beaches to the east of the River Orne would bring the invasion fleet into the effective range of the Germans’ large-calibre naval guns at Le Havre. Consequently, Morgan’s plan to protect the left flank advocated using the British 6th Airborne Division to seize and hold the vital ground and terrain by dropping them behind the Atlantic Wall during the night immediately preceding the arrival of the main seaborne forces on the morning of D-Day. It was a daring and ambitious plan and not without its detractors, particularly among the British Air Staff.
Its leading opponent was Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. Following the catalogue of errors that had occurred during the Sicily landings, the chief air planner in COSSAC had profound misgivings. Leigh-Mallory pointed to the heavy losses of gliders in the Mediterranean and the inaccuracy of the parachute drops where many of the paratroopers had been dropped wide of their drop zones, or DZs. Leigh-Mallory doubted that the fate of airborne forces in Normandy would be any different. In fact he expected it to be worse. The troops landing by parachute and glider would be lightly armed and dispersed, whereas their opponents would be able to concentrate and bring their heavier weapons systems, in terms of tanks and artillery, against them. Given the circumstances, he forecast that the airborne troops would expect to incur 75 per cent casualties.
The more powerful voices of Eisenhower and Montgomery were convinced of the utility of airborne forces and the critical role they had to play in D-Day. Sicily had been the first mass use of Allied glider and parachute troops. While it revealed the need for many improvements, landing airborne troops in advance of the main seaborne force had made a significant contribution to the success of the landing and also convinced Churchill of its possibilities in Normandy. Endorsed at the highest levels, and as a subset of Overlord, the British airborne phase of the invasion would be called Operation Tonga.
Although backing the use of airborne forces, SHAEF’s final adjustment of the plan was one of timing. The shortage of assault landing craft for the invasion meant that the date was put back to 5 June. Delaying by another month allowed more time for the pre-invasion bombings to continue to soften up German defences, and would also align the date of the Allied assault on the beaches with the launch of the Red Army offensive in the east. Additionally, it would provide more time to build up the capability of the airborne forces and improve on the lessons from Sicily. Monty had wanted to increase the number of British airborne troops taking part in the operation, but had been frustrated by the lack of available aircraft to lift them. While the US 82nd and 101st airborne divisions could be lifted in their entirety and dropped on the right flank at the western end of the Cotentin Peninsula, the RAF had insufficient aircraft to fly in all of 6th Airborne Division. With a month’s delay Monty hoped that he might just get the additional aircraft he needed in time.
Two weeks after the photographs of the Merville Battery had been taken, the nominal head of British Airborne Forces was in less optimistic mood as he drove to the headquarters of 6th Airborne Division to give its commander his orders for D-Day. Lieutenant General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning was a bright young Guards general with a dapper dress sense who had spotted the potential of parachute forces as a brigade commander at the start of the war. His early interest in the development of the airborne arm had led to his rapid promotion, command of the first British Airborne Division and his further promotion as it expanded into a corps-sized capability. But he didn’t feel particularly bright about the message he would have to give to its commander, General Richard Gale.
In terms of appearance, Richard Gale, or ‘Windy’ as he was nick-named, was everything Browning was not. With his regulation military moustache, he had the look of a typical Indian Army ‘Poona’ officer or affable uncle, who would not have seemed out of place in an Evelyn Waugh novel. Although aged forty-three and without a trace of grey in his hair, he looked older and had a portly air about him, not helped by his incongruous style of wearing an open-zipped parachutist’s Denison smock and riding jodhpurs over standard-issue Army boots. He was awarded the MC as an infantry subaltern in the First World War, and might have ended his career as a passed-over lieutenant colonel had it not been for the outbreak of war in 1939. But by 1944, Gale had already worked on airborne staff matters in the plans directorate of the War Office and commanded a parachute brigade. Gale awaited Browning’s arrival with anticipation, eager to discover the role his division would play in the invasion. He was about to be disappointed.
Browning informed Gale that his division would be dropped at the British end of the beaches, around the Bréville Ridge and would then secure the left flank of 3rd Division prior to its landing on Sword Beach. But due to the shortage of lift for his two Para brigades and brigade of glider troops, he was told that he would have to accomplish it by providing only one of his parachute brigades under command to 3rd Division. For a commander who had built up his division from scratch since its formation in April of the previous year it was a bitter blow.
Gale’s single parachute brigade was given three principal tasks. The primary mission was to capture and secure the bridges across the Orne and Caen Canal and destroy the heavily fortified gun battery at Merville. These tasks were to be completed no later than half an hour before daylight on D-Day, prior to the start of the landing of the seaborne forces. The secondary task was to delay the movement of enemy reinforcements westwards by blowing the bridges over the River Dives not more than two hours after the landings, and then by holding key access points across the Bréville Ridge.
It was an ambitious undertaking for one brigade. Composed of 2,200 men formed into three battalion groups, each of approximately 750 soldiers, including supporting arms, such as engineers, signallers and medics, the units would be without the support of heavier conventional forces until the leading elements of 3rd Division landing across the beaches could link up with them. Until that happened, they would have to rely on naval gunfire support to bridge the gap in their limited firepower.
Gale was convinced that what he had been asked to do was beyond the means of one brigade. As he lobbied to be allowed to take his whole division, his staff began to make their plans for the mission with what they had been given. The majority of their planning took place in a heavily guarded farmhouse that had been requisitioned as the intelligence cell of 6th Division’s headquarters. The Old Farm at Brigmerston House was in the village of Milston two miles north of Bulford on the southern edge of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. It was ringed with a thick concertina barbed-wire perimeter and a detachment of military policemen; no one got in or out of the building without a specially issued pass.
The precautions taken at the farmhouse reflected the tight ring of security and secrecy regarding all the planning for D-Day. Operation Tonga was no exception. The circle of knowledge beyond COSSAC was kept to an absolute minimum of a few key officers on Gale’s staff and the commander of the 3rd Parachute Brigade, Brigadier James Hill, whose brigade Gale had selected for the mission. The rest of the division were kept deliberately in the dark about what was afoot. But as the war tipped irrevocably against the Germans and the inflow of Anglo-American manpower and materiel began to build up in England from January 1944, most people knew that the second front was coming. But like the Germans on the other side of the Channel, they knew neither when nor where. As the planning continued in the Old Farm at Milston the lives of thousands of men of the 6th Airborne Division were being irrevocably drawn into the events that would unfold on 6 June 1944.
The 6th Airborne Division was one of two battle-ready airborne divisions stationed in England at the beginning of 1944 and had been raised specifically to take part in the invasion. Since its formation, Gale had worked the division hard to declare it ready for operations by the end of the year. It was a major accomplishment and although the division was still to be tested in battle, and regardless of the paucity of aircraft to lift it, the fact that the British could lay claim to having two airborne divisions in their order of battle was an impressive achievement in itself. Four years previously, the very existence of airborne forces was little more than a pipe dream in the minds of a few men and the vision of one man in particular was of seminal significance.
Tiger I of SS-Division “Totenkopf”, stands ready in a forest assembly area to move up to the front to neutralize a Soviet armoured incursion near Warsaw.
After the Soviet reconnaissance units reached Warsaw in late July, on 1 August 1944 the Warsaw Uprising started. Starting from an area south of Mińsk Mazowiecki, Major General Nikolai Vedeneev’s 3rd Tank Corps (part of the Soviet 2nd Tank Army) thrust northwest through Okuniew and Wołomin to Radzymin, reaching an area only three miles (five kilometers) from the strategic bridge over the Narew River at Zegrze.
In response to Soviet General’s Vedeneev’s thrust, the Germans started a tactical counter-attack near Radzymin on 31 July. The offensive, carried out by 4 understrength Panzer divisions, was to secure the eastern approaches to Warsaw and Vistula crossings, and aimed to destroy the three tank corps of the Second Tank Army in detail. Under the leadership of German Field Marshal Model, the 4th, 19th, Hermann Göring, and 5th SS Panzer Divisions were concentrated from different areas with their arrival in the area of Wołomin occurring between 31 July and 1 August 1944. Although the 3rd Tank Corps gamely defended the initial assaults of the Hermann Göring and 19th Panzer Divisions, the arrival of the 4th Panzer and 5th SS Panzer Divisions spelled doom for the isolated and outnumbered unit.
Already on 1 August, the leading elements of the 19th and 5th SS Panzer Divisions, closing from the west and east respectively, met at Okuniew, cutting the 3rd Tank Corps off from the other units of the Second Tank Army. Pressed into the area of Wołomin, the 3rd Tank Corps was pocketed and destroyed on 3 August 1944. Attempts to reach the doomed tank corps by the 8th Guards Tank Corps and the 16th Tank Corps failed, with the 8th Guards Tank Corps taking serious losses in the attempt. Although Model had planned to attack the 8th Guards Tank Corps next, the withdrawal of the 19th and Hermann Göring Panzer Divisions to shore up the German defenses around the Magnuszew bridgehead forced the remaining German forces around Okuniew to go on the defensive.
On 1 August, the freedom fighters of the Polish Home Army rose in rebellion. All over the city guerrilla fighters attacked German-held buildings and started to fortify “liberated” zones in the city and along the western bank of the Vistula, which cut Warsaw in two. In a matter of days most of the city centre had been cleared of German units. Isolated German positions were quickly seized by the Polish forces, using a mixture of captured and improvised weapons. The fighting was brutal, with little quarter being shown by either side, and soon one of the biggest street battles in military history was about to reach its tragic end. The Polish leaders depended on the swift arrival of Soviet tanks on the western side of the Vistula. However, the Home Army had failed to read the flow of the battle on the eastern bank of the Vistula between the Germans and the Soviet Second Tank Army.
As Soviet tanks cautiously entered Praga during the morning of 31 July, the eastern suburb of Warsaw, the prospects for an early liberation of Poland’s capital seemed high. Unknown to the Russians, they were about to encounter a whirlwind. The Totenkopf, Wiking and Hermann Goring Divisions were attacking, as well as two army panzer divisions. The German panzers moved southwards into the flanks of the Russian tank columns. All day the battle raged, with German Panthers knocking out scores of Russian T-34s. German troops worked their way around the flanks of the Soviet III Tank Corps. The latter’s troops, tired after almost six weeks of constant fighting, could put up little resistance. The corps only just managed to escape the German pincers, and by the end of the day the Soviets had been evicted from Praga. The attack was decisive and sealed the fate of the Warsaw Rising, even before it had begun. With the Germans now entrenched In Praga in strength, there was now no hope that the Russians would be easily able to link up with the Polish Home Army.
The Soviets now tried a wide encircling move to the north of Warsaw. By 4 August IV SS Panzer Corps, now with the Totenkopf and Wiking Divisions under its command, had already been ordered by Model to set up a blocking position north of the city, and was ready and waiting when the Soviet storm burst on 14 August. For a week the Waffen-SS formation held off 15 Russian infantry divisions and two tank corps. Human-wave attacks were repulsed on a daily basis, with thousands of Russian troops being killed in front of the German lines. The Soviets now poured in extra infantry divisions and hundreds more tanks. Heavy attacks, supported by hundreds of Stormovik fighter-bombers, added to the pounding, and by 26 August the Totenkopf had to fall back towards Praga under the deluge of firepower. A Waffen-SS counterattack on 11 September drove the Soviets back, and again defeated a link-up with the Polish Home Army.
The Totenkopf and Wiking Divisions were the linchpins of the German operation to crush the Warsaw rising, even though they did not actually take part in the fighting against the Polish Home Army. By preventing a link-up with the Red Army, they consigned the population of the city to two months of siege. Hitler was infuriated that the Poles, whom he classed “sub-humans”, had dared to challenge German rule
The direct aspect of that development began on July 11. It involved a still-overlooked operation that is arguably better evidence of the Red Army’s progress than the so frequently cited battle to the south. When all is said and done, Kursk, seen from a Russian perspective, was a traditional Russian battle. Echoing Zorndorf and Kunersdorf, Friedland and Borodino, it was a test of endurance intended to enable the Red Army to begin setting the pace. Operation Kutuzov, the assault on the German-held salient that began on July 12, was something fundamentally different.
The German and the Russian ways of war approached operational art from opposite directions. The Prussian/German army had developed its version of operational art as a response to the constraining of campaign-level tactics in an age of mass armies. The Russians came to it through a developing understanding of how Russia’s vast spaces could complement the metastasizing armies made possible by industrialization and bureaucratization. Large forces executing major attacks on a broad front, cavalry masses breaking deep into an enemy’s rear, field armies coordinating offensives over hundreds of miles—all were integrated into theory and practice between the Crimean War and the Revolution of 1917. The Red Army had added the concepts of deep battle, and had evaluated the use of mechanized forces to exploit initial breakthroughs and the value of consecutive operations: coordinated attacks all across a front that might cover the Soviet Union from Murmansk to the Caucasus, mounted in such quick succession that the enemy had time neither to recover nor to shift reserves from place to place.
Predictably, each of these concepts had their turns in the barrel and their time in the sun. The political infighting of the 1920s and the purges of the 1930s further complicated internal, professional disputes on force configuration and strategic planning. Operation Barbarossa caught the Red Army in the midst of a complex reconfiguration with many contradictory aspects. What David Glantz aptly calls its rebirth was a two-year process. But one thing that remained consistent was Stavka’s—and Stalin’s—commitment to consecutive operations. From the winter 1941 counteroffensive to the Stalingrad campaign, the USSR’s ultimate goal was on a grand strategic level: a series of timed, coordinated offensives that would turn Russia into the Wehrmacht’s graveyard.
The problem lay in implementation on the operational level: communications, logistics, coordination. To date, the Soviets’ greatest offensive successes had been achieved with assistance from the weather. Snow and cold, mud and rain, had been as important as the new generations of generals and weapons. At Kursk, the Red Army had demonstrated it could match the Germans in high summer when standing on the defensive. Now for the first time it would show that it could implement consecutive offensive operations when the days were long and the sun quickly dried storm-saturated ground.
Preparations for Kutuzov were overseen and coordinated by Zhukov, and by another Stavka representative: Marshal Nikolai Voronov, chief of artillery—the latter assignment an indication of the tactics to be employed. As at Kursk, the operation involved two fronts. On the left, General Vasily Sokolovsky deployed the Eleventh Guards and Fiftieth Armies in the front line, with 1st and 5th Tank Corps in support: more than 200,000 men and 750 AFVs. On the right-hand sector, General Markian Popov’s Bryansk Front had, from left to right, the Sixty-first, Third, and Sixty-third Armies, supported by two tank and a rifle corps—170,000 men and 350 AFVs.
The plan was for Popov’s Third and Sixty-third Armies to hit the front of the salient, with the Sixty-first Army conducting a supporting diversion on the right. Sokolovsky would go in where the northern bulge began, break through, and extend east toward Orel, coordinating as the situation developed first with the Bryansk Front and then with Rokossovsky’s Southwestern Front, which on July 15—at least in theory—would attack north out of its positions around Kursk. Behind the Western Front, as a second-wave exploitation force, Stavka concentrated the Eleventh Army and Fourth Tank Army, the latter with another 650 armored vehicles.
The senior command teams were solid. The tables of organization were complete. The men were relatively rested. The sector had been quiet for months, and the front commanders applied maskirovka comprehensively to keep Army Group Center unaware of what was concentrating against it. At the operational and tactical levels, arguably the major German advantage was flexibility: the ability to respond to Soviet initiative by organizing ad hoc blocking forces that on paper and on the ground seemed fragile but that time and again had proven all too capable of delaying or derailing the Red Army’s best-planned initiatives.
Timing was even more critical than surprise. Rokossovsky had to bleed and fix Model’s Ninth Army at Kursk to a point where it could not redeploy in time to do any good. But if Kutuzov jumped off too late, even by a day or two, the Germans might be willing to write off Citadel, cut their losses, and be in a position to counter each Soviet attack in turn. The possibility that the planned Allied invasion of Sicily might draw German troops westward does not seem to have been factored into Stavka planning. Even if the British and Americans finally chose to act, the prospect of a few divisions probing the remote fringes of “Fortress Europe” hardly impressed a Red Army that saw itself as fighting a war of army groups on its own.
In developing Kutuzov, the Red Army confronted an obliging enemy. In terms of force structure, the Germans obliged by treating Army Group Center as an inactive sector. This was more a matter of practice than policy. It had begun gradually, and months earlier: it involved replacing full-strength divisions with those worn down elsewhere, then increasing their fronts and lowering their priorities for replacements. It also involved transferring air assets and heavy artillery and reducing mobile reserves. Secondary defensive lines and fallback positions were constrained because neither the men nor the material to develop them were available.
The situation was exacerbated by the distractions occasioned because Army Group Center’s headquarters, itself physically isolated, was in late 1942 and early 1943 the locus of a serious plot to arrest and execute or kill Hitler when he visited in March 1943. Field Marshal Günther von Kluge was disgusted by Germany’s behavior in Russia and believed declaring war on the United States had been a disastrous mistake. Although ultimately refusing to support the conspiracy, he was sufficiently aware of it and involved on its fringes that making the best of his army group’s tactical situation took second place. Pressing the Führer for reinforcements scarcely appeared on the field marshal’s horizon.
Two years earlier, under Heinz Guderian, the Second Panzer Army had led the drive on Moscow. On July 11, that army confronted Operation Kutuzov with fourteen ragged infantry divisions, most composed of inexperienced replacements and recovered wounded, a panzer grenadier division, and, ironically, a single panzer division. All told, a hundred thousand men and around three hundred AFVs, with only local reserves available. The order of battle showed pitilessly how the balance of forces had changed on the Eastern Front. Divisional sectors averaging twenty miles and more made a “continuous front” that was no more than a line on a map; reality was a series of strongpoints more or less connected by patrols. As an additional force multiplier, the Soviets achieved almost complete surprise. In evaluating the Red Army’s maskirovka, it is appropriate to ask whether it was that good or German intelligence was that bad. By this time under Reinhard Gehlen, Foreign Armies East, as the German intelligence operation on the Eastern Front was called, was better at gathering information than at processing it, and not particularly good at either. Certainly Gehlen’s service failed to discover the Soviet concentrations on Army Group Center’s left and against the salient’s nose. As late as mid-May, Army Group Center and the Second Panzer Army increased alertness in the front lines and carried out extensive mine and wire laying, but only as a commonsense effort to improve its readiness. Aerial reconnaissance was limited by a lack of planes. The attenuated front lines inhibited aggressive patrolling in favor of something like a “live and let live” approach. Russian partisans and reconnaissance units were less cooperative and more informative. By mid-July, both Western and Bryansk Fronts’ assault formations had up-to-date information on what they faced where in the projected attack sector.
Kutuzov’s exact launch time was determined by the successful German advance on Oboyan and Prokhorovka. Early on July 11, patrols were replaced throughout the attack zone by battalion-strength strikes on German outposts. That night, Russian bombers attacked bases throughout the salient. Fresh rifle units took over the line at 3:00 A.M. At 3:30, the artillery barrage began: the heaviest and best coordinated in the history of the Eastern Front. Two and a half hours later, the first assault waves and their supporting armor took position and the initial bomber and Shturmovik strikes went in. At 6:05 A.M., the main attack began. On Second Panzer Army’s left, six Guards rifle divisions hit the previously reconnoitered junction between two German divisions, breaking through easily enough that by the afternoon, the Eleventh Guards Army committed its second line to expand the breach and the two reserve tank corps were readying to exploit southward.
Airpower played a major role in the shifting tide of battle. Believing the Western Front’s attack was only a diversion, the Luftwaffe kept most of its aircraft in Citadel’s sector, to the east. Initially, the Red Air Force owned the sky on Eleventh Guards Army’s front, and Shturmoviks hammered the Landser unmercifully. By the afternoon, when 1st Air Division began diverting sorties north, the Eleventh Guards’ leading elements were safely under the cover of heavy forests. But Stuka Gruppen hit follow-up elements to such effect that small-scale counterattacks mounted by 5th Panzer Division were enough to delay 1st Tank Corps. The Eleventh Guards Army doubled down and committed 5th Tank Corps. Its T-34S were more than six miles into the German rear by nightfall, when 5th Panzer managed to slow their pace as well.
With the Stukas concentrating on the few roads passable by tanks, the army commander decided against a further blitz and ordered a set-piece attack for the next morning. Ivan Bagramyan had had his ups and downs since June 1941. His vigorous advocacy of the abortive Kharkov offensive of 1942 had led to his temporary eclipse. Restored to favor and combat command, he led the Sixteenth Army so successfully that it was renamed the Eleventh Guards Army and given a key role in Kutuzov. Bagramyan had learned from experience that against the Germans, a closed fist was preferable to a broken arm. But his decision to trade time for shock reflected as well the processing of German radio reports, specifically from 5th Panzer Division, that stated that immediate reinforcements were required to avert disaster in the northern sector. The only source of those reinforcements was Model’s Ninth Army. Give Fritz a few hours to sweat, decide, and begin moving tanks. Then, Bagramyan calculated, strike before they reached the field.
In the salient’s nose, Bryansk Front found the going tougher. The Germans there belonged to XXXV Corps, under Major General Lothar Rendulic. Rendulic paid attention to intelligence reports and aerial reconnaissance that confirmed a concentration against the junction of his two frontline divisions. He redeployed his infantry, concentrated his artillery and antitank resources, and on July 12 made Bryansk Front pay yard by yard for its gains.
Fourteen Soviet rifle divisions on an eight-mile front seemed ample for the task of breaking through—especially when supported by heavy tanks. These were KV-2s: a prewar design, obsolescent by 1943 standards, underpowered and undergunned for their weight. But their fifty-plus tons included enough armor to make them invulnerable to any gun smaller than three inches. Instead, the KV-2s ran onto an unreconnoitered minefield. By day’s end, sixty Soviet tanks were destroyed or disabled. The Germans had been forced out of their forward positions but were still holding the main line of resistance. They owed a good part of their success to the Luftwaffe. German fighter pilots were consistently successful in separating the Shturmoviks from their escorts, then scattering the escorts. Stukas and medium bombers struck repeatedly and almost unopposed, with VIII Air Corps diverting more and more aircraft from Oboyan and Prokhorovka to the Orel salient. The price was familiar: further overextension of already scarce ground-attack aircraft and already tired crews. One dive-bomber pilot flew six attacks in twelve hours. That kind of surge performance could not be continued indefinitely.
It was correspondingly obvious from Rendulic’s headquarters to Kluge’s that the sector could not hold without immediate reinforcements on the ground. That meant panzers. And the nearest concentration of panzers was in Ninth Army. In two sectors in a single day, Kutuzov confronted the Germans with a game-changing situation and very little reaction time. Model responded to the new crisis with a rapidity his principal English-language biographer, Steven Newton, calls suspicious. Newton argues that Model and Kluge were both expecting a major Soviet attack in the Orel salient, especially after the failure of Ninth Army’s attacks in Citadel’s northern sector. Rather than challenge Hitler and the OKH directly, they agreed, with a wink and a nudge, to commit to Citadel armor that would be more badly needed elsewhere in a matter of days. Certainly the divisions Kluge offered deployed slowly. Certainly, too, Model did not push the attack of XLVI Panzer Corps in the Ponyri sector on July 11. Late in the afternoon of July 12, Model flew to the headquarters of the Second Panzer Army and assumed its still-vacant command without relinquishing command of the Ninth. He and Kluge had previously agreed on this arrangement, which made Model directly responsible for the Orel salient and half the Kursk reentrant. It also gave him as free a hand to transfer forces over as wide an area as any senior officer of the Third Reich could expect.
Thus, on the morning of July 13, 4th Panzer Division’s commander was ordered to cancel his planned attack, shift to defensive mode, and take over the positions of his neighbor, 20th Panzer Division, which was redeploying north. Recent communication between Model and Kluge had been carried out by unlogged telephone calls and confidential face-to-face meetings. Kluge, Newton asserts, could thus tell Hitler he had not ordered the abandonment of the offensive against Kursk. Model was just doing what he was recognized for doing: responding decisively to an unexpected development, living up to the reputation as a “defensive lion” he had earned in the crisis winter of 1941.
It all makes for another fascinating and unprovable story among the many spawned in the Third Reich. What the records show is that by the night of July 13–14, Ninth Army’s 2nd Panzer Division and 8th Panzer from the high command’s reserve were moving into Rendulic’s sector. The 12th, 18th, and 20th Panzer were backing the sorely tried 5th Panzer against Bagramyan. That simple statement had a backstory. Emergency German redeployments on the Eastern Front might have become routine, but the process was anything but. The 12th Panzer had spent a week vainly seeking a breakthrough in the direction of Kursk. At 12:45 A.M. on July 12, it was ordered to the Orel sector. The order was a surprise, and its timing could not have been worse for all those trying to catch some sleep in the four hours before sunrise. But by 1:00 A.M., the 5th Panzer Grenadier Regiment and the reconnaissance battalion were on their way—eighty miles on dirt roads pounded to dust by weeks of military traffic. An hour later, the leading elements were taking position around Bolkhov, the previously anonymous spot on the map where army headquarters deemed their presence most necessary.
The tanks took longer. So did the rest of the division. The 12th Panzer moved ad hoc, by small improvised groups each going all out, each eroding as fuel tanks emptied, transmissions failed, and engines quit. To drive with windows and hatches open was to choke on the fine dust. To shut them was to broil in the heat. Vehicles were loaded and dispatched almost at random. Rest stops were equally random. A company commander took an unauthorized twenty-minute halt in Orel to check on the well-being of his aunt, a nurse in the local soldiers’ home. Roads were blocked by collisions and breakdowns. Tanks, each hulled in its own dust cloud, lost contact with one another. Less than half of 12th Panzer’s original starters made the finish line.
Model, predictably, lost his temper with the regiment’s commanding officer—and just as predictably gave him command of one of the battle groups the field marshal and his staff officers were throwing in as fast as they could be organized. By this time, everyone in Second Panzer Army’s rear areas was seeing Russians everywhere, and 12th Panzer was risking dismemberment as rear-echelon officers demanded tanks and men to restore their situations and calm their nerves.
The 5th Panzer Grenadier Regiment had been on the front line from the war’s first days. Poland, France, Barbarossa, Leningrad: its men had seen as much combat as any in the Wehrmacht. So when its veterans spoke of Bolkhov as “the threshold to battle hell,” it was more than retrospective melodrama. The regiment reached its assigned sector around midnight on July 12, and began advancing at 9:00 A.M. on July 13. At first all seemed routine: a steady advance against light opposition. Then suddenly “all hell broke loose.” Bryansk Front had sent in the Sixty-first Army and its supporting 20th Tank Corps. The strength, intensity, and duration of the supporting fire exceeded anything the regiment’s veterans had experienced: a “fire ball” that enveloped the entire front. Under the shelling, the panzer grenadiers’ advance slowed, then stopped, then inched forward again. First the Stukas, then twenty or so of the division’s tanks, sustained the momentum for a time, until dug-in tanks and camouflaged antitank guns drove the infantry first to ground, then to retreat.
As in the other sectors of the offensive, there was no breakthrough, but limiting the Soviet advance nevertheless took its toll on the defenders. Thus far, they had held—but for how long could another large-scale tactical stalemate be sustained? The reports and the recollections of the divisions that fought first in Ninth Army’s attack on Kursk and then in the Orel salient convey an unwilling, almost unconscious sense that this time there was something different about the Russians. It was not only the intensity of their artillery fire. It was the relative sophistication. It was not only the depth of the defensive positions or the determination of their defenders. It was a more general sense that the Red Army’s mass and will were being informed by improving tactical and operational sophistication—the levels of war making most likely to influence and frustrate German frontline formations directly, and in ways impossible to overlook.
That the German front in the Orel salient held more or less together reflected in good part Model’s disregard of Hitler’s order that no secondary defensive positions be established. Even before Kursk, Model had initiated the preparation of a series of phase lines that by the time of Kutuzov were more than map tracings. Model handled his sparse reserves with cold-blooded skill, committing them by batteries and battalions in just enough force to blunt and delay Soviet attacks. The decisive tool in his hand, however, was the Luftwaffe.
The 1st Air Division mounted over eleven hundred sorties on July 18 alone, almost half by Stukas and ground-attack planes. The next day, Bagramyan’s lead tanks emerged from the forest and the Germans struck at dawn. The Stukas, Henschels, and Fw 190s bored in at altitudes so low that one Hs 129 pilot flew his plane into the tank he was attacking. By this time, experience and rumor had taught the Russian tankers all they wished to know about German attack planes. Some crews undertook random evasive maneuvers, scattering in all directions. Others simply abandoned their vehicles. The 1st Air Division claimed 135 kills on July 19 alone. Soviet records admit that by July 20, 1st Tank Corps had only thirty-three tanks left. The pilots credited themselves with preventing a “second Stalingrad.” Model, never an easy man to impress, wired congratulations for the first successful halting of a tank offensive from the air alone.
On July 19, Bryansk Front threw the Third Guards Tank Army into the attack. Over seven hundred AFVs, supported by the full strength of the Fifteenth Air Army, advanced almost eight miles by nightfall and kept hammering. Despite Stalin’s direct “encouragement,” what was projected as a breakthrough became a battle of attrition. Model used his aircraft to compensate for steadily eroding ground strength. Luftwaffe medium bombers were flying as many as five sorties a day, and 88 mm flak guns pressed into antitank service claimed more than two hundred tank kills. Russian and German fighters grappled for control of the air, with one Soviet report describing a pilot landing near a downed Me-109 and capturing the pilot himself. What counted was that as 1st Air Division’s planes were ruthlessly shifted and ruthlessly committed, pilot judgment diminished and aircrew losses increased. A disproportionate number of them were among the veteran flight and squadron leaders, correspondingly irreplaceable at short notice.
As far as high-speed mechanized troops are concerned and their location on the forward zone, one has, in general, to see the threat of their sudden concentration in the mere fact of their existence. These motorized troops, having carried out a march of up to 100 kilometers on the day before or even during the last night, turn up on the very border only at that moment when the decision has been taken to cross the border and to invade enemy territory.
Georgii Isserson, New Forms of Combat
To this day, the coordinated diplomatic and military planning at the heart of Unternehmen Barbarossa remains a model of how to confuse a future enemy with assurances of nonaggression while simultaneously planning a surprise attack. For this reason, among others, Barbarossa warrants careful study, certainly by military planners. The stamp of Barbarossa can be found not only on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and some of the closing campaigns of World War II—the Normandy landings in June 1944, for example—but also on the Israeli-Arab Six-Day War (1967), the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968), Soviet plans to attack NATO across the inner-German border during the Cold War, and Operation Desert Storm (1991). Other questions arising from Barbarossa are these: Why was the Soviet regime caught unprepared (complicated in part by the sensational claims of Viktor Suvorov)? And how did Hitler influence the decision whether to make the capture of Moscow the highest priority?
There is, of course, one major difference between Unternehmen Barbarossa and the D-Day landings in 1944: there was no nonaggression pact between Britain and Germany that might have led one side to miss the threat. The Germans knew that a landing would be attempted at some stage and were able to take various measures to prepare for it. For their part, the Anglo-American planners were aware that the enemy—an enemy that had repeatedly demonstrated astonishing powers of recovery on all fronts of the European theater of operations—awaited their arrival. Unlike the British army that had exited the European continent in the summer of 1940, the Wehrmacht in France was not psychologically weak in the summer of 1944; it was ready and resolved to fight. The critical problem facing the Allies was therefore how to deceive the enemy concerning the time and place of the landings. In terms of the intelligence battle, the Allies played a masterful hand, confusing and misleading the enemy intelligence services such that total surprise was achieved on 6 June 1944. Even after the Normandy landings, the Germans continued to believe that they were just a diversion. One outcome was that some German units were held in reserve; if they had been deployed on D-Day, they could have affected the success of the landings.
With regard to the period immediately before the outbreak of hostilities in the Six-Day War and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, there are some elements that bear a resemblance to the state of German-Soviet relations before the launch of Barbarossa. If the preemptive strikes against Egypt and Syria were to stand any chance of success, Israeli planners knew they had to maintain the fiction that Israel was unprepared for war and willing to negotiate, while simultaneously preparing to seize the initiative. To undermine the resistance of Czechoslovak leaders, Soviet negotiators talked publicly of socialist solidarity and fraternity while mobilizing the forces of the Warsaw Pact for intervention. Even allowing for this unequal confrontation, Soviet deception and intelligence measures, refined in the invasion of Hungary twelve years previously, were impressive. By the time Czechoslovak politicians recognized the truth, it was too late.
Soviet planning for an attack across the inner-German border to defeat NATO forces in a molnienosnaia voina owed much to Isserson. All forces, certainly the armored and mechanized infantry divisions, along with their support services, were located as far forward as possible. This concentration of forces had taken place over years, and once established, it was regarded as the norm. Then, all that was required was an escalation in diplomatic and political tension—ideally, outside the main zone of intended operations, possibly the Middle East—and the Soviet shock armies would be deployed, taking NATO forces in Germany by just enough surprise to ensure the necessary momentum to bring Warsaw Pact forces to the French coast.
With regard to Desert Storm, the situation was more akin to the D-Day landings. In this case, the occupier had considerably less military expertise than the Anglo-Americans’ opponent in Normandy, but Iraq was expecting an attack and had to be taken by surprise. When the advantages of technology and training so overwhelmingly favor one side, as they did in Desert Storm, tactical surprise is not essential, but it is desirable. In the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the role played by intelligence data was crucial, as it was in Barbarossa. Whereas Stalin chose to ignore reliable intelligence material pointing to a German invasion, senior Anglo-American politicians and military leaders were accused of tampering with intelligence material in order to justify military action against Iraq to a skeptical public. These charges have yet to be fully investigated. Mindful of what happened to those individuals who crossed Stalin, Soviet intelligence officers justified telling the boss what he wanted to hear. American and British intelligence officers had no such excuses. Highlighted in both cases—the Soviet Union in 1941 and the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003—is that leaders who exert too much pressure on their intelligence agencies court national catastrophe (in the case of Stalin) or policy disaster (in the case of the US-led coalition). Hitler’s arrogance about what would happen after the start of Barbarossa anticipated the arrogance and unbridled optimism of the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq. Both invaders were taken aback by the insurgencies they unleashed, and both struggled to contain them.
Barbarossa and Stalin
As David Glantz states in his operational analysis of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, “The most vexing question associated with Operation Barbarossa is how the Wehrmacht was able to achieve such overwhelming political and military surprise.” There were, he argues, a number of plausible reasons for Stalin to reject the possibility of a German attack: warnings and hints from the British that Hitler was planning to attack were seen as an attempt of the British side to foment a war between Germany and the Soviet Union, and the Soviet side had succumbed to the Germans’ deception plan. However, even allowing for the fact that “the purges had decimated Soviet intelligence operations as well as the military command structure,” Soviet intelligence assets were performing very well, judging by the material in the two volumes of 1941 god. There was plenty of evidence from a variety of sources that the huge buildup of German forces was not inconsequential. Confronted with these data, neither the intelligence services nor the leader to whom they reported could afford to assume that these large-scale deployments of men and equipment were benign, certainly not in the tense and uncertain atmosphere of Europe in 1941. The Soviet failure is even more unforgivable and inexplicable because of Stalin’s role in destroying the Polish state. All the negotiations with von Ribbentrop over the Non-Aggression Pact and the secret protocols told him everything he needed to know about Hitler. Having seen the methods Hitler used against Poland, Stalin had no right to assume that the Soviet Union would never fall victim to those same methods. In this regard, Isserson’s analysis of how the war between Germany and Poland started is masterful and prescient, which probably did nothing to raise his stock with his dear leader after 22 June 1941.
Zhukov indirectly acknowledges the importance of Isserson’s analysis in the published version of his memoirs (1969). He makes the unusually candid admission that senior Soviet figures (not just Stalin) failed to grasp the nature of the new type of war pioneered by the Germans:
The sudden transition to the offensive on such scales, with all the immediately available and earlier deployed forces on the most important strategic lines of advance, that is the nature of the assault itself, in its entire capacity, was not envisaged by us. Neither the People’s Commissar, nor I, nor my predecessors B. M. Shaposhnikov, K. A. Meretskov and the leadership stratum of the General Staff had reckoned with the fact that the enemy would concentrate such a mass of armored and motorized troops and deploy them on the very first day by means of powerful, concentrated formations on all the strategic lines of advance with the aim of inflicting shattering, tearing blows.
In a supplement published after his death, Zhukov, having confirmed that the 13 June 1941 TASS communiqué contributed to a dangerous sense of complacency among the border troops, goes much further in his criticism of Soviet conceptual awareness and planning:
But by far the most major deficiency in our military-political strategy was the fact that we had not drawn the appropriate conclusions from the experience of the initial period of World War II; and the experience was available. As is known, the German armed forces suddenly invaded Austria, Czechoslovakoslovakia, Belgium, Holland, France and Poland and by means of a battering-ram strike consisting of huge armored forces overran the opposing troops and rapidly achieved their mission. Our General Staff and the People’s Commissar had not studied the new methods for the conduct of the initial period of a war, and had not imparted the corresponding recommendations to the troops for their further operational-tactical training and for the reworking of obsolete operational-mobilization plans and other plans linked to the initial period of a war.
From an outstanding field commander such as Zhukov, these criticisms, aimed at himself and others, are a fitting endorsement of Isserson.
Regarding whether Golikov, the head of the GRU, had accepted the explanation that deployments in the east were tied to German operations in the Balkans, attention should be drawn to an analysis carried out by Golikov on behalf of the Soviet General Staff. He notes that the buildup of German troops and equipment had not been halted by German operations in the Balkans. Over the last two months (March and April 1941), the number of German divisions in the border zone with the Soviet Union had risen from 70 to 107, and the number of tank divisions deployed had increased from 6 to 12.
Finally, Glantz points to institutional failings as the main reason for the Soviet Union’s failure to act in good time: “In retrospect, the most serious Soviet failure was neither strategic surprise nor tactical surprise, but institutional surprise. In June 1941 the Red Army and Air Force were in transition, changing their organization, leadership, equipment, training, troop dispositions and defensive plans.” On its face, this seems plausible. Unfortunately, it shifts attention from the role played by Stalin. Stalin attacked the security institutions—NKVD, Red Army, and GRU—on which he relied. The institutions that emerged after these terror attacks were gravely weakened. Their institutional failings can be directly attributed to Stalin: they were Stalin’s institutions. Characterizing the outcome of Stalin’s murderous paranoia—and in terms of the Red Army’s ability to prosecute modern war, it was almost suicidal—as institutional failings understates Stalin’s responsibility. Stalin’s judicial terrorism also highlights the ideological failures of Marxism-Leninism and its internal obsession with class war, which were clearly inimical to the cool appraisal of military affairs and the need to prepare for modern war. Appeals to Russian nationalism, which were implied in Stalin’s radio address of 3 July 1941 and made explicit during the battle for Stalingrad, are further evidence of ideological failure. The emphasis on class struggle by Soviet military theorists such as Tukhachevskii, Frunze, and Triandafillov was wrong, and it distorted military planning and the assessment of intelligence data.
Here it is essential to recapitulate the damage inflicted by Stalin’s purges. There were four main effects on the Soviet armed forces, all of which were disastrous: experienced commanders were removed; the subsequent personnel replacement policy resulted in inexperienced commanders being promoted before they were ready; professional competence and morale were undermined; and, after 22 June 1941, political control was tightened even further as a consequence of the command and control failures brought on by the purges.
First, and most obviously, the purges led to the removal of large numbers of middle-ranking and senior commanders, men who had come through the civil war and gone on to study modern war and the impact of technological changes, especially in armored warfare, and to formulate a new doctrine suitable for the Red Army. Being arrested and executed did not, in itself, mean that a commander was of exceptional caliber, but even moderately competent officers at all levels who are experienced and have passed the necessary training courses—the backbone of any army—are not easily replaced, especially in wartime. It is impossible to know how a Red Army that had not been subjected to Stalin’s purges would have performed in the summer of 1941. However, it certainly would have been much better prepared to take on the Germans. That said, even an unscathed Red Army would have had to contend with the grave handicap of Stalin’s refusal to heed intelligence warnings and act on them. An interesting question here is whether senior Red Army commanders in an army that had been untouched by purges would have tolerated Stalin’s vacillation in the face of obvious danger. Even after 22 June 1941—such was the climate of paranoia—a disbelief in high-quality intelligence data and the practice of telling the boss what he wanted to hear continued. For example, the volume of high-quality information being passed on by the British traitors Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, John Cairncross, and Guy Burgess to their Soviet handlers aroused suspicions in Moscow that Blunt and the others were double agents.
The removal of so many commanders at all levels and throughout the institutional structure of the Red Army meant that their replacements lacked the experience and training to command the posts they now occupied. Many of the newly promoted, called vydvizhentsy, surely knew that the bizarre accusations leveled against their former superiors were false, making them far more vulnerable to and more dependent on ideological considerations, rather than purely military ones. As a result, military professionalism suffered, and personal initiative was stifled.
The arrest, public vilification, and execution of so many commanders undermined discipline and weakened junior officers’ confidence in their superiors. In fact, a climate was created in which junior commanders with personal grudges or those driven by ideological vendettas were encouraged to denounce their superiors for lacking vigilance (bditel’nost’), engaging in wrecking (vreditel’stvo), or succumbing to ideological deviation (uklonizm). Predictably, the result was a severe weakening of morale, an eradication of unit cohesion, and a collapse in professional solidarity. History provides plenty of examples of outnumbered armies defeating numerically larger and better-equipped foes, but no armed forces, ancient or modern, can function with poor morale and an absence of unit cohesion and where the heroes of yesterday are vilified as traitors.
The damage done by the purges to doctrine, equipment procurement schedules, training, deployment, morale, effective command and control, and leadership was evident immediately after 22 June 1941, but even when confronted with the catastrophic results of their purges of the Red Army, Stalin and his party apparatus were unable to see that the unfolding disaster was a consequence of their vendettas. On the contrary, they saw it as evidence of treachery on an unimaginable scale. In this grotesque scenario, the basic principle of the purges, they persuaded themselves, had been correct: it had just not gone far enough. What was now needed to restore the situation, they believed, was not less party control but more, and so they reinstated dual command, among other things. Dual command was not merely a very public display of the party’s lack of faith in the Red Army, which was soon picked up by enemy propagandists. Being the very opposite of the German doctrine of Auftragstaktik (military tradition that stresses personal initiative), without which all-arms operations could not properly function, it complicated command and control (to put it mildly), playing straight into the hands of German commanders and enhancing their already demonstrably superior tactical leadership.
Barbarossa’s failure to deliver the knockout blow and the subsequent failure to take Moscow suggest that December 1941 was the moment Germany lost the war. At best, it could expect a long war of attrition in a struggle against the combined might of the United States, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union, with predictable consequences. At the risk of being accused of Anglocentrism, I suggest that the failure to destroy or capture the defeated British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, and certainly the failure to invade England in the summer of 1940, marked the moment when Germany’s chances of winning the war were, if not fatally damaged, at least severely undermined. Granted, as von Manstein has explained only too clearly, the risks of Operation Sea Lion were enormous, but if successful, the rewards would have been stunning. That Hitler was prepared to attack the Soviet Union before Britain had been eliminated is doubly puzzling. First, it suggests that Hitler did not consider the threat posed by Britain serious enough to warrant giving it immediate priority. Second, the risks of attacking the Soviet Union and failing were far greater than the risks of attacking England and being defeated. Here, the factor of time was critical for German ambitions: if the Soviet Union could be defeated in a short campaign, the full weight of German arms could then be turned against Britain. The longer the campaign on the Eastern Front lasted, the more resilient Britain would become and the greater its capacity to mobilize British military might. An alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union would then be a near certainty. That the British were a meddlesome force in the Balkans and a ubiquitous and aggressive presence in the Mediterranean in the months immediately before Barbarossa, though frequently thwarted by German intervention, was evidence enough of what lay in store for Germany if Britain was not checked.
Instead of invading England and, if succeeding, changing the strategic situation in Europe to his overwhelming advantage, Hitler turned east. The Blitzkrieg failed, and by the middle of December 1941, Germany found itself at war with the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. The advantages of surprise and the benefits of ruthless treachery that had served Hitler so well since 1933 had now been exhausted. The military, technological, and doctrinal advantages Germany had enjoyed from September 1939 to December 1941 were now being matched and surpassed by its opponents.
Reasons for the Failure of Barbarossa
The factors that contributed to the failure of Barbarossa can be summarized as follows: (1) time, space, and terrain; (2) inconsistent attitudes toward nationalism; (3) the brutal treatment of Soviet prisoners of war and commissars; (4) the role of the Einsatzgruppen (the mass murder of Jews); (5) plans for agricultural exploitation and the retention of Soviet collective farms; (6) the assumption that the Soviet Union would collapse very quickly; (7) Hitler’s failure to make a radio address to the Soviet people; and (8) failure to pursue military objectives—the capture of Moscow—to the exclusion of everything else, as recommended by Guderian and other generals.
Time, space, and terrain, along with weather, are factors in the planning and execution of all military operations. The Blitzkrieg doctrine was best suited to the distances and terrain found in western Europe. Even though there were natural and artificial terrain obstacles in the western theater of operations, these could be overcome, as the Germans demonstrated, without losing momentum because the operational area was so much smaller. Moreover, the advanced infrastructure of western Europe—highways, roads, railways, and bridges—facilitated and accelerated the Blitzkrieg, since the invader could exploit them for the rapid deployment of men and equipment and for purposes of resupply. Another advantage arising from the smaller operational area in western Europe was that the invader could seize assets—arms factories, power stations, dams, ports, ships, and food production plants—in a coup de main before they could be destroyed. In western Europe a scorched-earth policy was neither realistic nor psychologically acceptable to the inhabitants. On the Eastern Front, however, there was often time to evacuate major assets, especially plants and factories further east; where evacuation was not possible, industrial assets such as dams could be prepared for demolition. In the east the invader had to reckon with poor-quality roads and rail lines that were often rendered unusable by rain and snow.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union was also characterized by inconsistent and duplicitous policies toward nationalist movements. In the planning phase of Barbarossa, nationalist movements in Ukraine were exploited by the Abwehr, and the threat posed by these movements was taken very seriously by the NKVD. In contrast, the highest levels of the RSHA (the main terror and police agency of the NS regime) regarded nationalist movements with suspicion, and German planning documents make it clear that there was never any serious intention to abolish the Soviet collective farm system; this would be retained to maximize agricultural production for Germany.
However, there is evidence that some German administrators were willing to grant a degree of local autonomy in the occupied areas. One of the more interesting experiments took place in the Orlov district. The 2nd Panzer Army permitted the creation of the autonomous Lokot region, based on the village of Lokot. By the end of the summer of 1942, the Lokot self-governing region had expanded to include eight regions of the Orlov and Kursk districts, with a total population of about 581,000. All German troops were withdrawn, and the region was given self-governing status. To quote the recent work of a Russian historian:
German troops, headquarters and command structures were withdrawn beyond the borders of the district, in which the whole spectrum of power was conferred on an Oberbürgermeister, based on a ramified administrative apparatus and numerous armed formations made up of local inhabitants and prisoners. The only demands made of the self-government were that supplies of foodstuffs were delivered to the German army and that it prevented the growth of a partisan movement.
It turns out that the Lokot self-government even had its own political party, Narodnaia Sotsialisticheskaia Partiia Rossii (The People’s Socialist Party of Russia), and its main aim was the destruction of the communist system and the collective farms. The leaders of this experiment saw a self-governing Lokot as the basis for the rebirth of Russia. One can only imagine the frenzy of hatred this experiment aroused in Stalin and Beria when they eventually got wind of it.
The question arises: to what extent did the existence of this self-governing region assist the Germans and impede the Red Army before and during the battle of Kursk in 1943? Once the battle of Kursk was over, there is no question that the whole area would have been scoured by SMERSH for any official who had worked in the administration. The fate of the 581,000 inhabitants after the Germans withdrew is not clear. It would have taken SMERSH many months, maybe years, to filter all those it considered unreliable, and this must have generated a massive amount of documentation, which is apparently still classified. German initiatives such those in Orlov would have been far more effective had they been launched from the outset.
Harsh treatment of Red Army prisoners, often stemming from callous indifference, was a disastrous mistake. Such treatment was predicated in part on the assumption that the campaign would be over quickly and that any mistreatment of prisoners would have a negligible impact on German operations. The Germans’ attitude toward prisoners and commissars soon became known on the Soviet side of the front, and the longer the campaign dragged on, the more such policies hardened Soviet resistance. Combined with the mass shootings of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen, the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war helped the Soviet regime. These killings supported a sense of Soviet solidarity that could possibly overcome the ethnic heterogeneity and fissiparous nature of the Soviet Union. To this end, Hitler’s failure to make a radio address to the Soviet people immediately after the invasion must be seen as a lost opportunity. A direct radio appeal (reinforced by a massive airdrop of leaflets) in which he promised self-rule, abolition of the collective farms, restoration of the church, and an end to communism and in which he urged the people to turn against their oppressors—the NKVD, the commissars, and the party—would have caused utter panic among Stalin’s entourage. But this did not happen, and the peasants were exploited just as ruthlessly by the German occupiers, which undeniably helped the Soviet regime.
A year later, on the eve of the Stalingrad counteroffensive, the consequences of this German error would be fully grasped by the utterly cynical Commissar Getmanov in Grossman’s Life and Fate: “It is our good fortune that the Germans in the course of just one year did more to make themselves hated by the peasants than anything the communists did over the last 25 years.” Getmanov rather conveniently ignores the civil war and the genocide in Ukraine, but there is much truth in what he says. With victory secured, there would be time enough for the German occupiers to renege on these tactical, time-buying promises. The time for implementing the ideological program would have been after the Soviet state had been knocked out. Nonmilitary objectives that were launched before the Soviet Union had been defeated complicated and compromised the essential task of accelerating the collapse of the Soviet state. Again, the full force of the German propaganda machine should have been used to send the message that the German army had come to liberate Russia from communism. The failure to do so was probably based on the belief that such assurances would not be necessary, since the campaign would be a short one. Such considerations bring us to the question of what the primary military objective should have been in 1941.
One question that continues to engage historians of the Barbarossa campaign is whether Hitler’s decision to head south in August 1941 predetermined the outcome of the eventual resumption of the drive on Moscow. For example, Glantz argues that Germany’s best chance to take Moscow was in October 1941.13 In contrast, Guderian and others maintain that the August 1941 decision to go to Ukraine was the main cause of the failure to take Moscow. Citing various factors that he believes would have thwarted German plans to take Moscow in September, Glantz nevertheless concedes that the Germans might have captured the city then. However, that would have been just the start of the Germans’ problems: surviving the winter in a devastated city, protecting their exposed and extended flanks, and withstanding an attack from a Red Army now numbering 5 million men.
The obvious riposte here is Guderian’s insistence on the pressing need to go all out for Moscow. Given the requirements of modern war, the defense of Moscow in 1941 relied on the Soviet rail network. In fact, the critical importance of the rail network for offensive and defensive purposes was well appreciated by Triandafillov, who identified fast and effective rokirovka (lateral troop movements) as crucial for deployment. The loss of Moscow would have meant the loss of all rail and river links to other parts of the Soviet Union, thus effectively preventing the necessary rokirovka and interfering with the movement of reinforcements from the Soviet Far East. Moreover, any Soviet threat to the German flanks and rear was predicated on a supply chain for the Red Army and the Soviet High Command’s ability to move men and equipment by road and rail. If the German attack had succeeded in September, no buildup of offensive forces would have been possible, and the threat posed by millions of Red Army soldiers would have been reduced, since they would have been cut off from their supply bases.
The other factor to consider is the political impact on the Soviet Union if the Germans had taken Moscow. Guderian made a case for an all-out attack on Moscow in a meeting with Hitler:
I explained that from a military standpoint it came down to the total destruction of the enemy forces that had suffered so badly in the recent battles. I depicted for him the geographical significance of the Russian capital that was, I said, completely different from Paris, for example, the traffic and communications center, the political center and an important industrial region, the fall of which, apart from its having an obviously shattering effect on the morale of the Russian people, must also have an impact on the rest of the world. I drew attention to the mood of the troops who expected nothing else than the march on Moscow and who, so inspired, had already, I said, made all the necessary preparations to this end. I tried to explain that after achieving military victory in this decisive thrust and over the main forces of the enemy the industrial regions of Ukraine must fall to us much sooner when the conquest of the Moscow communications network would make any possible deployment of forces from north to south extremely difficult for the Russians.
Guderian also pointed out that the German supply problem would be easier to deal with if everything were concentrated on Moscow. In addition, it is was essential to move before the onset of the rasputitsa.
Guderian’s views find some support from von Manstein, who maintains—with the benefit of postwar hindsight—that Hitler underestimated the strength of the Soviet system and its ability to withstand the stresses of war. The only way to destroy the system, he argues, was to bring about its political collapse from within: “However, the policies that Hitler permitted to be pursued in the occupied territories by his Reich Commissars and the SD—in complete contrast to the efforts of the military circles—could only have the opposite effect.” This is an obvious point to make, but how do von Manstein’s objections to German policies in the occupied territories fit with his own order issued on 20 November 1941? This lapse in memory notwithstanding, von Manstein’s assessment of the policies being pursued by Hitler underlines the inner contradictions: “So while Hitler wanted to move strategically so as to destroy Soviet power, politically, he acted in complete opposition to this strategy. In other wars differences between the political and military leadership have often occurred. In this situation both elements were controlled by Hitler with the result that the Eastern policy conducted by him ran strictly counter to the requirements of his strategy and perhaps denied it the chance of a quick victory.” Von Manstein believed that the defeat of the Red Army would achieve Germany’s economic and political goals. However, capturing Moscow was the key component: “After its [Moscow’s] loss the Soviet defense would be practically divided into two parts and the Soviet leadership would no longer be able to conduct a uniform and combined operation.”
The period from 1 September 1939 to 22 June 1941 lends some support to Colin Gray’s view that, although it is an intellectual convenience to accept a strict demarcation between war and peace (the title of Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace is an indicator of how deeply this binary division is embedded), there can be a situation in which there is neither peace nor war or, rather, there is peace in war and war in peace.19 In this situation, the conditions for a future war are being created amid circumstances that, to most people not immediately involved with problems of war, appear to be peace. This view suggests that peace is not permanent; it is merely a transitional phase during which old conflicts can be reignited or new conflicts can emerge, often unforeseen, because they are driven by political and technological change.
Diplomacy plays a crucial role in this transitional phase. It is in the diplomatic arena that new conditions and new threats arising from these new conditions are perceived or, rather, are open to being perceived. In these conditions, diplomacy can function as either an instrument to avoid war or one to prepare for war, a policy pursued by Hitler and clearly identified by Churchill and Isserson. Thus, Gray’s thesis of war in peace and peace in war implies some modification of the Clausewitzian idea that war is a continuation of policy by other means. War is not merely a continuation of diplomatic policy by other means: war and diplomacy are not discrete entities; they constitute a single entity used by all states to further their interests, assert their honor, and deal with their fears. This entity is power. Thus, in the conditions we traditionally call peace, a state uses diplomacy to advance its interests (moderately or aggressively), and in the conditions we traditionally call war, the state uses force to advance its interests. Both policies, war and diplomacy, are parts of the same entity we call power. The origins of the relationship between diplomacy and war and the nature of power were first enunciated by Thucydides, and they have certainly been modified and reformulated by Machiavelli, Bismarck, and, more recently, Kissinger. However, in the twentieth century, Hitler’s recognition that diplomacy and war are a single entity, and the degree to which this entity became an instrument of his will, remains one of the most important legacies of the NS regime and the planning for Barbarossa.
Finally, and most importantly, there was the human cost. What made Barbarossa and the war on the Eastern Front so appalling was not, to quote Omer Bartov, that “Nazi Germany exercised barbarism on an unprecedented scale” or that “its declared intention was extermination and enslavement.” What made it so appalling was that both Germany and the Soviet Union demonstrated a shocking capacity for barbarism, extermination, and enslavement. Clearly, this was an ideological war, but the first moves were not made on 22 June 1941. The first moves toward this Weltanschauungskrieg were made by Lenin’s Soviet state. By effectively declaring the Soviet state free of all international norms, free of all moral and ethical obligations in its pursuit of global domination and class war, Lenin promulgated an intoxicating, nihilistic idea that was fully apprehended and applauded by the author of Mein Kampf and informed his own cult of German exceptionalism based on das Herrenvolk.
Air Battle Of The Philippine Sea by John Hamilton (Naval History and Heritage Command)
With Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s death in April 1943 a successor to the command of Combined Fleet had to be chosen, and the man picked was Admiral Mineichi Koga. While not of the same caliber as Yamamoto, Koga was highly qualified. Though his policies varied little from his predecessor, he was thought to be more conservative, with a cooler temperament.
One of the first operational plans Koga became concerned with was the Z plan. This was prepared in May 1943 and envisioned the use of the Japanese Navy to counter U.S. naval forces threatening the Japanese outer defense perimeter. (This line extended from the Aleutians down through Wake, the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, Nauru, Ocean, the Bismarck Archipelago, New Guinea, then westward past Java and Sumatra to Burma.)1 When their position in the Solomons disintegrated, the Japanese modified the Z Plan by eliminating the Gilberts–Marshalls and the Bismarcks as vital areas to be defended by the Navy. They then based their possible actions on the defense of an inner perimeter (including the Marianas, Palau, western New Guinea, and the Dutch Indies).
Koga survived Yamamoto slightly less than a year. While retreating from Palau just before TF 58 attacked that anchorage at the end of March 1944, his plane disappeared en route to the Philippines. As great as Koga’s loss was, it was compounded by the loss and subsequent capture of a top secret Z Plan copy and its coding system. Koga’s chief of staff, Admiral Shigeru Fukudome, left Palau separately from Koga on 30 March. In his possession was the Z Plan copy. The two planes ran into a storm (which probably killed Koga) and Fukudome’s crashed just off Cebu. Fukudome was captured by Filipino guerrillas and his precious documents seized. Although the guerrillas soon were forced to give up their prisoner, the documents found their way to U.S. forces via submarine. They were a priceless find. After recovering Fukudome, the Japanese realized that their operations plan was compromised and a new one needed.
Admiral Shigetaro Shimada, Chief of the Naval Staff in Tokyo, immediately began preparing a new plan. Based on a preliminary draft by Admiral Koga, the plan was known as Operation A-GO, and it was under this directive that the Japanese fought the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
Before A-GO went into effect, however, another important change took place in the Japanese Navy. Though the Navy had been a world leader in carrier development, many of its top commanders were battleship or “Big Gun” adherents. However, by early 1944 these commanders had finally accepted the fact that the carrier was the new capital ship. With this realization came a change in fleet organization.
On 1 March 1944 the First Mobile Fleet (or as more commonly known, the Mobile Fleet) was organized under the command of Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa. Joining the carriers in the Mobile Fleet instead of remaining in separate fleets were most of the first-string battleships, cruisers, and destroyers in the Navy. The Japanese had finally accepted the concept (adopted by the U.S. Navy almost two years earlier) of entrusting a task force including battleships and cruisers to the tactical command of a carrier admiral.
A month passed after Koga’s death before a new commander of Combined Fleet was named. He was Admiral Soemu Toyoda, a sarcastic, but brilliant and aggressive officer. He raised his flag on the light cruiser Oyodo, anchored in Tokyo Bay, on 3 May. Toyodo received the A-GO plan from Shimada the same day and immediately issued the general order for Operation A-GO.
As with so many of the previous plans, A-GO envisioned a “decisive” fleet action. This time the “decisive battle areas” were deemed to be the Palaus and the Western Carolines. It was in these areas that the Mobile Fleet, along with heavy land-based air, would be concentrated. If by chance the U.S. fleet attacked the Marianas, its ships would be pounced upon by land-based planes in that area. Then the enemy would be lured into the areas where the Mobile Fleet could defeat him. There “a decisive battle with full strength (would) be opened at a favorable opportunity. The enemy task force (would) be attacked and destroyed for the most part in a day assault.”
The framers of the A-GO plan were nothing if not optimistic: “As soon as the enemy is damaged, he will be pursued. The strongest air force that can be used will be immediately deployed at land bases and ceaseless air attacks will be waged day and night. . . . Complete success is anticipated.”
In conjunction with Operation A-GO, Admiral Shimada came up with a plan to use planes from the home islands. This plan was known as TO-GO. The land-based naval planes of First Air Fleet or Base Air Force were to have an important role in this plan. Prior to the “decisive” battle these planes were to destroy at least one-third of the enemy carriers. Deployment of these planes started 23 May and was completed by early June. However, because of the proposed battle area, the majority of the aircraft were stationed in the Carolines–Philippines area. Only 172 aircraft were based at the point of attack, the Marianas.6 However, a number of planes from the Hachiman Air Unit in Japan could be sent into the Bonins (including Iwo Jima) and thence south to the Marianas if danger developed there. Clearly, the Japanese placed a great deal of faith in their land-based planes for the coming action. However, though TO-GO was good theory, it failed miserably in practice.
The Japanese had every reason to hope, even to pray, that the “decisive” battle would be fought in the Palaus—Western Carolines area. They were running out of fuel for the Navy! Even though an enemy attack on the Marianas was not out of the question, there was not enough fuel for the Mobile Fleet to steam there and fight a battle. American submarines had recently been making Japanese tankers special targets and they had been doing very well at it. In the first five months of 1944 the U.S. subs had sent twenty-one tankers to the bottom. The oil Japan and her Navy so desperately needed was not reaching the Home Islands.
Oil was available to the Navy from the Borneo oilfields of Tarakan and Balikpapan—oil pure enough to be delivered unprocessed directly into the ships’ fuel bunkers. But this unprocessed oil was also highly volatile and therefore dangerous to use. Also, it contained some impurities that tended to foul boilers. For these reasons it was ordered that this oil be processed by refineries in Sumatra and Borneo before being issued to the Mobile Fleet.
Following the distribution of the A-GO plan, senior staff officers from all the concerned commands met on Saipan between 8 and 11 May. During discussions of the plan the disturbing question of a possible American attack on the Marianas came up. At first the high command ruled out the possible sortie of the Mobile Fleet to the Marianas because of the fuel situation. The nagging problem remained, however. Toyoda, therefore, decided to take the admittedly daring step of authorizing the use of unprocessed Borneo oil for the Mobile Fleet units. With this fuel the Fleet would now be able to give battle off the Marianas. But the use of this volatile fuel would have a serious effect on the Mobile Fleet during the Battle of the Philippine Sea. To be nearer the supply of oil the Mobile Fleet began congregating at Tawi Tawi in mid-May. This fine anchorage is on the westernmost island of the Sulu Archipelago, only 180 miles from Tarakan.
Ozawa’s own Carrier Division (CarDiv) 1, consisting of the fine new 29,300-ton armored-deck carrier Taiho, plus the veteran heavy carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, sailed from Lingga Roads south of Singapore, where it had been training for over two months, on 11 and 12 May. (For the coming battle Ozawa would wear two hats: one as commander of the Mobile Fleet; the other as CarDiv 1 commander.) On the 11th CarDiv 2, comprising the 24,140-ton sister ships Junyo and Hiyo and the converted 13,360-ton Ryuho, and CarDiv 3, with the 11,262-ton Zuiho and the 11,190-ton former seaplane tenders Chitose and Chiyoda, left the Inland Sea. After fueling their destroyers at Okinawa, these two divisions proceeded to Tawi Tawi, arriving on the 16th.
The air units assigned to each carrier division were the 601st, 652nd, and 653rd Naval Air Groups. These were largely green organizations. The 601st had been shattered at Rabaul in November 1943 and, newly reformed, did not join CarDiv 1 until February 1944. The 652nd had also been smashed at Rabaul in January and was not reformed until March. Carrier Division 3’s 653rd Naval Air Group was an entirely new outfit, having been formed about the first of February.
These air groups were sorely lacking in training time, ranging between only two to six months. Training at Tawi Tawi for these inexperienced groups was hampered considerably by the lack of a suitable airfield there. Flight training had to be cancelled in May, and the air groups would consequently not be ready for the impending battle. An important factor in these units’ training was that most of the crews would be flying newer and “hotter” aircraft—D4Y Judy dive bombers, B6N Jill torpedo planes, and the improved Zeke 52 fighters. So, with its pilots lacking time in their new aircraft, combat experience, night qualifications, and coordination between (and within) their groups, the outlook for the air arm of the Mobile Fleet was not a happy one. And besides the lack of an airfield, there was another big disadvantage to Tawi Tawi—one the Japanese were to learn the hard way. It was easily accessible to submarines.
The movement of the Mobile Fleet to Tawi Tawi did not go unnoticed by the Americans. The capture of the Z Plan had already given intelligence officers of Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet an inkling of coming events. On 11 May they commented, “A powerful striking force is believed to be gathering in the northern Celebes Sea, using anchorages in the vicinity of Tawi Tawi. It is believed that the assembly of this force will be completed by 15 May.”
Although close to the facts, this was still just speculation on the Americans’ part. More hard evidence was needed. This evidence was beginning to trickle in, however. The submarine Lapon, patrolling off the west coast of Borneo, spotted at least three carriers, five cruisers, and a number of destroyers steaming by about six miles away on the morning of 13 May. The sub couldn’t get into an attack position but was able to send a contact report that evening.
Following the Lapon report, Commander Submarines Southwest Pacific (or in Navy lingo, ComSubSoWesPac) ordered the Bonefish, skippered by Commander Thomas W. Hogan, to take a look at Tawi Tawi. Hogan brought his sub south from the Sulu Sea, where he had been patrolling, at full speed. Early on the morning of the 14th Hogan spotted a convoy of three tankers and three destroyers. It appeared they were heading for Tawi Tawi. Creeping up on the convoy, Hogan fired five torpedoes from 1,300 yards. Two of them hit—one in a tanker and one in the 2,090-ton destroyer Inazuma, which went down. The remaining destroyers pounded the Bonefish for a time, but the sub was able to slip away.
A little before noon the next day, while the Bonefish was lying submerged some forty miles northwest of Tawi Tawi, a large group of ships passed by, headed for the anchorage. Possibly the force that the Lapon had seen, it contained one large carrier, two battleships, many cruisers, and about ten destroyers. Hogan got off a contact report that night.
Hogan was not finished looking over Tawi Tawi. The next day he moved in closer, raised his periscope, and saw a sight mouthwatering for a submariner: “Six carriers, four or five battleships, eight heavy cruisers, light cruisers, and many destroyers.”8 But the Bonefish had only one torpedo left, so this would remain but a tantalizing target. Hogan moved south during the night and sent out another report. Two enemy “tin cans” must have been listening, for they immediately came out after the Bonefish. Hogan took his sub deep, however, and was able to evade his attackers.
To help the Bonefish keep Tawi Tawi under surveillance, two more subs (the Puffer and Bluefish) were ordered into the area. While approaching Tawi Tawi on the morning of the 22nd, the Puffer, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Frank G. Selby, found a group of vessels on training maneuvers. Two flattops and three destroyers could be seen as Selby crept in. Carefully setting up on one carrier, Selby was startled when the other carrier swept by, only 500 yards astern. Breaking off the attack, Selby brought the Puffer around for another approach. Finally, at a range of 1,400 yards he fired a spread of six torpedoes. Although one, and possibly two, torpedoes hit the Chitose, they apparently were duds and did no damage to the carrier. All that Selby and the Puffer got for their effort was a good working-over by the escorts.
The Puffer made up for the attack on the Chitose by sinking two ships on 5 June. The 4,465-ton Takasaki and 7,951-ton Ashizuri were valuable ships designed to operate with the carrier forces, furnishing the flattops with supplies while at sea. They even provided aircrew quarters and aircraft repair facilities.
Another submarine, the Cabrilla, visited the Tawi Tawi area a few days after the Puffer’s action with the Chitose. During an attack on a group of three carriers and three battleships maneuvering outside the anchorage, the sub’s skipper apparently took too long a look at his targets. The sub was suddenly depth-charged by a plane, and was violently shaken up. The enemy vessels were able to retire safely to Tawi Tawi.
U.S. submarine operations in this area had been reasonably successful so far and were far from being finished. One important result of the subs’ attentions was that the Mobile Fleet’s maneuvers were curtailed considerably in the month before it sailed for battle. On the other hand, Japanese submarine operations during A-GO can hardly be considered successful. At least twenty-five enemy subs were used for scouting and supply purposes in the operation; seventeen were sunk. No useful information was obtained and not one American ship was even damaged.
The Japanese began their submarine operations on 14 May, the day the Bonefish moved into the Tawi Tawi area. Still convinced that an American attack would be aimed at the Palaus, the Japanese set up a scouting line (the NA line) of seven submarines starting at a point about 120 miles northeast of the Admiralties. Other subs were stationed in the Marshalls and Marianas area. The NA-line submarines were decimated by U.S. hunter-killer groups (particularly that of the England). Other Japanese submarines suffered equally poor results.
The I-176 was on a supply mission to Bougainville when it was pounced on by the destroyers Haggard, Franks, Hailey, and Johnston. After holding the sub down for about twenty hours, the destroyers began taking turns on attack runs. Following five separate attacks, the Franks began another run shortly after midnight on 17 May. A full depth-charge pattern was sown, and the unfortunate sub was blown up and sunk northeast of Green Island. One sub down. The RO-42, patrolling off Eniwetok, survived three salvos of hedgehogs (a type of throw-ahead projectile more accurate than the conventional roll-over-the-side depth charge) from the destroyer escort Bangust on 10 June, but could not survive a fourth. Two down. While steaming on the surface north of the Admiralties on 11 June, the RO-III was surprised by the destroyer Taylor. After taking numerous 5-inch and 40-mm hits, the Japanese boat crash-dived and was put under permanently by the “tin can’s” depth charges. Three down. On 16 June the destroyer escort Burden R. Hastings made contact with a surfaced submarine about 120 miles east of Eniwetok. The sub suddenly submerged, and the destroyer escort fired two hedgehog salvos followed by four depth charges. A violent explosion accompanied the second salvo, and the depth charges finished the job of breaking up the enemy vessel. At daylight an aluminum nameplate with RO-44 written on it was found. Four down.
In the Marianas the Japanese were no luckier. A picket line manned by the I-10, I-185, and I-5 was set up east of Saipan, but it did not last long. The I-5 simply disappeared, the I-185 was sunk by the destroyers Chandler and Newcomb on 22 June, and the I-10 came out on the short end of a battle with the destroyer David W. Taylor and destroyer escort Riddle on 4 July. Three more vessels had been crossed off the list of operational Japanese submarines.
On 13 June the destroyer Melvin met the RO-36 near Saipan and pelted the sub with 5-inch fire and depth charges. The destroyer Wadleigh, with help from the Melvin, sent the RO-114 down on the 16th. The next day a Liberator of VB-109, flying out of Eniwetok, bombed and sank the RO-117 cruising on the surface. Another surfaced submarine, the I-184, ran afoul of an Avenger from the escort carrier Suwannee on 19 June and never returned to Japan to report the attack. A total of eleven Japanese submarines had been lost so far. Six more were to be sunk during this period, and all six belonged to the destroyer escort England.
USS England: The Escort Destroyer
The England, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Walton B. Pendleton, was a brand-new ship with only about ten weeks sea experience. At Purvis Bay (on Florida Island across Ironbottom Sound from Guadalcanal) she was assigned to Escort Division 39 along with the destroyer escorts Raby and George. The officer in tactical command (OTC) was Commander Hamilton Hains, riding in the George. Armed with excellent information on the NA line provided by American codebreakers, the three ships left Purvis Bay on 18 May and headed north to attack the line. However, the first unfortunate to test the England’s inexperienced crew was not a member of the NA line, but a submarine on a supply mission to Bougainville. At 1335 on the 19th, the England picked up the sub (the I-16) on her sonar. Five hedgehog attacks were made with hits being made on the second and fifth runs. Following the last attack, a violent explosion threw men to the deck and lifted the England’s fantail out of the water. At first the England’s crew thought they had been torpedoed; then they realized the I-16 had blown up.
Early on the morning of the 22nd the three destroyer escorts ran across the RO-106 cruising on the surface. The Japanese submarine dove, but it could not escape. When the George’s first attack was unsuccessful, the England took over and sent the enemy submarine to the bottom with two hedgehog salvos. Twenty-four hours later the RO-104 became the quarry. Detected on the surface, she plunged and then played cat and mouse with the Raby and George. As the hunters closed the wily submarine skipper “pinged” back at his “pinging” attackers, hoping to foul up their runs. He also maneuvered his vessel skillfully. The Raby spent over half an hour in fruitless attacks, and the George made five runs without hitting anything. Finally tiring of the game, the OTC ordered the England in. Her first pass was unsuccessful but on the second her hedgehogs tore the RO-104 apart. Shortly after this action another enemy submarine was detected, but this one was lucky; it escaped.
By this time Commander Charles A. Thorwall, commanding Escort Division 40 and riding in the England, was ready to change the England’s call sign from “Bonnie” to “Killer-Diller.”
Moving south toward Manus, the three little ships had still more excitement ahead for them. A little after midnight on the 24th the George’s radar locked onto a surface target, range 14,000 yards. The target submerged, but at 0150 sonar contact was made. The captain of this sub was good, too—but not quite good enough. The England was forced to make two dry runs because of shrewd evasive tactics by the enemy skipper, but the third pass scored. At least three hedgehogs hit and only bits and pieces of the RO-116 surfaced again.
On 25 May this crack hunter-killer group received orders to proceed to Seeadler Harbor in the Admiralties, to refuel and load more hedgehogs. At 2303 the Raby’s radar picked up another sub 14,000 yards away. Within minutes the other two ships also had the target. When the range closed to 4,000 yards the sub dove. Sonar contact was quickly made, and the Raby was given first chance this time, but she muffed it. The England didn’t. Her first salvo snuffed out the RO-108’s life some 250 feet below the surface. At daybreak oil and debris were discovered gushing to the surface.
Arriving at Seeadler Harbor on the afternoon of the 27th, the three ships loaded more hedgehogs from their sister destroyer escort, the Spangler, which now joined them. After fueling, the four ships sortied the next afternoon to join a hunter-killer group built around the escort carrier Hoggatt Bay. Escorting the carrier were the destroyers Hazelwood and McCord.
Early on the morning of the 30th, as the task group was steaming north, the Hazelwood made radar contact with the RO-105. The destroyer forced the sub to dive, but a depth-charge attack gave no conclusive results. The Hazelwood maintained contact until 0435 when the Raby and the George arrived to assist. The two destroyer escorts were asked to make attacks while the McCord acted as contact keeper. (These two destroyer escorts were still part of Escort Division 39, while the England and the Spangler were now Escort Division 40 under the command of Commander Thorwall.) By now the other destroyer escorts were getting an inferiority complex, so Commander Hains was trying to give them a chance at a kill. The Raby and George each made a number of passes over the unlucky RO-105 and several explosions indicated the sub was hit. But it was apparently only wounded. The two ships spent the rest of the day holding the RO-105 down.
Shortly after the sun dipped below the horizon, the Americans heard three heavy underwater explosions. No debris or oil floated to the surface, so it was thought the Japanese skipper had become cagy and had fired torpedoes to throw his pursuers off the track. The ruse did not work, for contact was soon regained and maintained the rest of the night. By now the task group really wanted this submarine, but it was decided to wait until daylight to make any more attacks.
When dawn broke the George, followed by the Raby and Spangler, attacked. They all missed. Time was growing short, for the ships had received word to clear the area, as they might get jumped by enemy planes. Finally, the OTC called in the England. This young “old pro” did not miss. At 0729 on the 31st her sonar operator reported contact with the sub. Six minutes later a full salvo of hedgehogs connected with the enemy vessel. A huge explosion followed and the RO-105 went down for the last time. Only an oil slick and a few pieces of debris marked her passing.
Six Japanese submarines had been sunk by the England in thirteen days. It was a masterful performance which earned the ship a Presidential Unit Citation. Commander Thorwall congratulated the England and her crew with the comment, “As a result of your efforts Nip recording angel working overtime checking in Nip submariners in joining Honorable Ancestors.”