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.”
The submarine phase of Operation A-GO had completely miscarried. Not only were seventeen submarines lost, but no submarines would now be available for quick action against the U.S. fleet off the Marianas. The destruction of the NA line and other losses in the area also tended to lead Japanese officers back to their preconceived opinion that any American attack would be launched at the Palaus.
The Japanese were now rapidly becoming aware that a major American offensive was at hand. But where? Even with the submarine losses south of Truk indicating a drive west from there, more substantial evidence was needed. Task Group 58.6, consisting of the carriers Essex, Wasp, San Jacinto, five cruisers, and twelve destroyers, struck Marcus on 19 and 20 May. Results were not overwhelming, but the attack prompted Admiral Toyoda to place TO-GO in motion. However, when TG 58.6 raided Wake on the 23rd it was obvious that these two forays were not full-scale attacks and Toyoda cancelled TO-GO.
Toyoda issued his preparation order for A-GO on 20 May. The Mobile Fleet was placed on a six-hour alert. Falling back on one of their favorite tactics, the “bait” force, the Japanese commanders ordered the battleship Fuso, cruisers Myoko and Haguro, and a pair of destroyers to be ready to sortie as a decoy force. They were to lure the Americans into the Palau–Ulithi area where they could then be destroyed by naval and air forces concentrated there. Finally, Base Air Force was ordered to intensify its reconnaissance efforts.
Base Air Force conducted several reconnaissance flights over American bases. On 27 May one plane flew from Truk via Buin (thought by the Americans to be knocked out) to Tulagi, where Rear Admiral Richard L. Conolly’s Southern Attack Force was staging for the Guam landing phase of the Marianas invasion. Two other Truk-based planes staged through Nauru to take a look at Majuro and Kwajalein, where most of the invasion forces were gathering. The day before TF 58 sortied from Majuro another intrepid pilot took a peek at the lagoon and reported an impressive array of warships there. The Japanese now had the Americans located, but they were not quite sure of what to do next.
Following the receipt of “Start A-GO,” which actually meant “Begin preparations,” Admiral Ozawa held a meeting on his flagship Taiho for all his commanders. He reminded them that the coming action was to be decisive, and that they were to press on despite any damage suffered. Regarding the latter point, Ozawa declared that for A-GO to succeed, individual units had to be considered expendable. The officers present also discussed proposed tactics for the battle. A massed grouping of carriers much like the disposition used by the Americans was considered, or an “encirclement” using an inverted-V arrangement of three groups. But the final disposition chosen for the Mobile Fleet involved dividing the force into a Main Body and a heavily armed Vanguard.
The Japanese now watched and waited. Then came the invasion of Biak on 27 May. The Japanese high command felt that this move should not go unchallenged. In the first place, the loss of the three airfields on this island off the coast of New Guinea would be a serious blow to the air units of A-GO. The Japanese also reasoned that an attempt by them to recapture Biak would lure the U.S. fleet into “The Decisive Battle near Palau.” But the Combined Fleet intelligence officer, Commander Chikataka Nakajima, was not convinced Biak was the major offensive. He thought the landings were just a subsidiary operation and the main American effort would be aimed at the Marianas. His superiors did not agree with him, though, and the Japanese prepared a relief operation for Biak designated Operation KON. The KON plan called for warships to transport about 2,500 troops to Biak from Mindanao. The battleship Fuso, the heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro, and five destroyers were to act as the screen for a transport section of one heavy and one light cruiser, and three destroyers.
The movement of the enemy ships, coming mainly out of Tawi Tawi, did not escape notice. Allied intelligence officers, using “Magic” intercepts, already knew that a landing attempt would be made on Biak around the fourth or fifth of June and that the Fuso, Myoko, and Haguro would be in the force. The reports by the submarines Cabrilla and Bluefish of enemy vessels leaving Tawi Tawi merely confirmed the “Magic” reports.
The transport section, now augmented by two minelayers and a small transport, picked up its troops at Zamboanga on 31 May and proceeded to Davao, where it rendezvoused with the heavy cruisers and three destroyers. The units then headed for Biak, the Fuso and two destroyers taking a more northerly course. On the morning of 3 June the submarine Rasher spotted part of the force and sent off a contact report. The message was intercepted by the Japanese, who were disturbed at being discovered so far from their target. When a Wakdebased PB4Y began shadowing them, the Japanese decided to call off the attempt.
But this abortive effort would not end happily for the Japanese. While the transport section proceeded to Sorong, on New Guinea’s western tip, to disembark troops, the Fuso, Myoko, Haguro, and two destroyers retired to Davao. As this force approached Davao on the night of 8 June, they ran into the path of the submarine Hake. Commander John C. Broach waited until a destroyer crossed his sights, then fired a spread of torpedoes that ripped open the 2,077-ton Kazagumo and sank her.
While the first attempt to reinforce Biak by sea had stalled, action in the air over the island had heated up considerably. Since the Japanese had been anticipating that the next major U.S. offensive would be in the Carolines—Palaus sector, much of their air strength was situated in or near this region. When the Biak landings “confirmed” their suspicions, they began rushing planes in to reinforce their 23rd Air Flotilla. A number of these planes came from the Marianas—reducing the air strength there at a time when they would most be needed.
This one fact illustrates the effectiveness of the Joint Chiefs’ concept of a dual thrust across the Pacific. No longer could the Japanese mass their forces in a particular area against an enemy thrust, for now they could be outflanked by another enemy movement.
A number of air strikes were flown against U.S. positions on Biak and Wakde; one attack in particular, on 5 June at Wakde, was very successful. But the Japanese could not keep up the intensity of their attacks and in the process lost planes that could have been used more profitably elsewhere. Also, quite a few pilots came down with malaria at this time, greatly limiting their usefulness.
The Japanese were not about to give up on Biak, though, and a second attempt to reinforce it was quickly mounted. On 7 June Rear Admiral Naomasa Sakonju led a force of six destroyers, distantly screened by two cruisers, on the reinforcement mission. Three destroyers carried six hundred troops, while the remaining destroyers provided an escort and also towed a landing barge each.
Sakonju’s second effort (he had led the first attempt) was to be even less successful. On the 8th ten B-25s from Hollandia, escorted by P-38s, spotted Sakonju’s ships sliding in toward Biak. In a low-level bombing and strafing attack, the B-25s sent the 1,580-ton Harusame to the bottom and damaged the Shiratsuyu, Shikinami, and Samidare. Sakonju pressed on, but not for long. At 2340 a lookout on one of Sakonju’s ships picked up an Allied cruiser and destroyer force, led by Rear Admiral Victor A. C. Crutchley, RN, which was out looking for just these ships.
Sakonju decided that discretion was the better part of valor. After casting off the barges, his force fired a volley of torpedoes at the Allied ships and then high-tailed it to the northwest. Involved in a stern chase and having to dodge torpedoes occasionally, the Allied destroyers were unable to close the distance enough to be effective. The Shigure was hit five times by 5-inch fire and the Shikinami also had some casualties, but that was the extent of damage to both sides. Most of the troops—who must not have been very happy about what was taking place around them—were taken back to Sorong. The second attempt to reinforce Biak had been turned back.
While the Japanese were vainly trying to reach Biak, a lone U.S. submarine was making her presence felt near Tawi Tawi. Commander Samuel D. Dealey was on his fifth patrol in the Harder. This patrol he had been assigned a dual mission: scout Tawi Tawi and pick up a group of guerrillas on northeast Borneo.
As the Harder was transiting Sibutu Passage (just south of Tawi Tawi) on the night of 6 June, a convoy of three tankers and two destroyers was picked up. Closing the convoy on the surface, the sub was suddenly spotlighted for the nearest destroyer, when the moon broke through the clouds. The Japanese destroyer charged in for an “easy” kill. Dealey waited until the enemy ship was only 8,500 yards away before submerging. When the ship got within 1,100 yards, Dealey let her have three “fish” from the stern tubes. The Minazuki, a 1,590-ton vessel, was stopped cold by two torpedoes, blew up, and went down fast. A second try at the convoy by the Harder was frustrated by the other destroyer, and Dealey turned back toward Sibutu Passage.
Shortly before noon the next day, Dealey saw another destroyer in the Passage. And the destroyer saw the Harder! This time Dealey let the 2,077-ton Hayanami come in close to point-blank range—650 yards—before firing three torpedoes “down the throat.” Two of them disembowled the Hayanami, and nine minutes after the first sighting she sank, stern first. But Dealey and the Harder were not home free. A second destroyer came boiling over to the spot and spent the next two hours rolling depth charges around the sub. None hit, but when six more Japanese destroyers showed up, Dealey decided it was time to leave. He cleared the area and on the night of 8 June picked up his group of guerrillas. He then returned through Sibutu Passage and took up station off Tawi Tawi.
Two more Japanese destroyers showed up in the Harder’s periscope the following night. Dealey made a submerged approach on the ships and when the targets overlapped, he fired four torpedoes. Two hit the 2,033-ton Tanikaze, which literally fell apart. The other two “fish” were thought to have hit the second destroyer, but there is no record of this ship being lost or even damaged.
Dealey and the Harder had made a big dent in Ozawa’s destroyer forces. Three destroyers had been sent to the bottom in four days by “The Destroyer Killer” (as Dealey was later nicknamed). The U.S. submarines congregated around Tawi Tawi had hurt Ozawa and, thus, Operation A-GO. Along with the destroyers Dealey had sunk, several others had been lost or would soon be. Destruction of these destroyers would mean that the Mobile Fleet would be inadequately screened by these critically important, versatile ships during the coming battle. It was a situation other American submarines would take advantage of in the Philippine Sea.
In the meantime, following the second failure to reinforce Biak, Ozawa was more determined than ever to force his way to the island and land troops that would push the invaders back into the sea. To this end he assembled a new force to carry out Operation KON. It was not a puny force. Included in it were the superbattleships Yamato and Musashi, three heavy and two light cruisers, seven destroyers, two minelayers, and a number of support and transport vessels.
Under the command of Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, this force sortied from Tawi Tawi on the afternoon of 10 June. Their departure was noted by Sam Dealey. As the Harder closed in for an attack, the sub’s periscope was seen and a destroyer charged in. Dealey was not impressed and waited for the enemy ship to close the range. At 1,500 yards three torpedoes were fired “down the throat.”
As the Harder went deep, a series of explosions were heard. Dealey thought he had gotten another destroyer, but Japanese records do not confirm this. If not sunk, this unidentified destroyer must have been badly damaged. The other escorts and covering aircraft were not about to let the Harder off the hook, but she did escape after undergoing a succession of furious counterattacks. After dark, Dealey was able to surface and send a contact report about the enemy’s departure from Tawi Tawi.
The Japanese ships continued on to Batjan, just south of the island of Halmahera, where they arrived on the 11th. The run to Biak was scheduled to be made on the 15th. This time the troops were to be landed at all costs, and the big guns of the heavy ships were to be used in a smashing bombardment of U.S. positions on the island.
But fate, and the U.S. Fifth Fleet, were again to stall the reinforcements for Biak. On the 11th and 12th TF 58 planes pounded Saipan and Guam. The Japanese now realized they had been outfoxed; the Americans were aiming for the Marianas, not the Palaus. At 1830 on 12 June Admiral Toyoda ordered the start of A-GO. Operation KON, although only “temporarily” called off, was never resumed.
Admiral Ozawa’s Mobile Fleet began moving out for the fateful meeting in the Philippine Sea.
Army Group South Ukraine, 19 August-26 September 1944
The summer offensive against Army Groups Center and North Ukraine drove an enormous blunt wedge into the center of the Eastern Front. The flanks, reaching out to the Arctic Ocean and the Black Sea, still held up, but they were stretched taut and ready to snap under the slightest pressure. Though much of the strain was beneath the surface, it was not on that account any the less acute.
ARMY GROUP SOUTH UKRAINE
By 23 July, when Schoerner was called in the early morning hours to take command of Army Group North, Army Group South Ukraine had experienced more than two months of deepening quiet ruffled only by Schoerner’s strenuous training and fitness programs. The Russians had taken so many divisions off the front that the OKH directed the army group to do something about tying down those that were left.
The front had not changed since the Soviet spring offensive had stopped. On the left, in a very rough arc from Kuty to east of Iasi, Armeegruppe Woehler, Eighth Army with Rumanian Fourth Army sandwiched in its middle, held a sector—about half in the eastern Carpathians and half east-west across Moldavia north of Targul Frumos and Iasi. Sixth Army reached from east of Iasi to the Dnestr River below Dubossary and then followed the river to about the center of the Soviet bridgehead below Tiraspol, where it tied in with the left of Rumanian Third Army on the lower river line. Sixth Army and Rumanian Third Army formed the Armeegruppe Dumitrescu under the Commanding General, Rumanian Third Army, Col. Gen. Petre Dumitrescu.
Two large rivers, the Prut and the Siret, cut the army group zone from north to south, and the Russians were across the upper reaches of both. Rugged, wooded terrain in the Targul Frumos-Iasi area partly compensated for that disadvantage, at least as long as the army group retained enough German divisions to backstop the Rumanians. The biggest tactical change during the early summer was Army Group North Ukraine’s retreat deep into Poland, which left Army Group South Ukraine virtually stranded east of the Carpathians. Malinovskiy’s Second Ukrainian Front opposed Armeegruppe Woehler and Tolbukhin’s Third Ukrainian Front, Armeegruppe Dumitrescu.
At the time of the change in command, the Army Group South Ukraine staff’s foremost concern was to determine how dangerous were the strains beneath the thin veneer of the quiet front and what could be done before they reached the breaking point. Two days before he was transferred, Schoerner wrote Hitler that leading personalities in Rumania were wavering and trying to establish contacts with the Allies, and that Antonescu was losing his hold on the country. Schoerner thought a personal interview with Hitler might strengthen Antonescu’s position. On 25 July the army group staff drafted a report stating that after being forced to transfer 6 panzer divisions, 2 infantry divisions, and 2 self-propelled assault gun brigades in the past month, the army group could no longer hold its front against a full-fledged attack. The staff recommended that the army group be authorized in advance to pull back as soon as such an attack developed. That report was not sent, apparently because the estimate of the new commanding general, Friessner, was more optimistic.
The most pressing worry for the moment was the internal condition of Rumania. Army Group South Ukraine, although entirely dependent on the Rumanian railroads and forced in large part to subsist off the local economy, had no executive authority in Rumania. Everything had to be decided between Bucharest and Berlin; and the army group staff by late July was convinced that on the most important question, Rumanian loyalty to the alliance, something was seriously out of tune. That Antonescu, on whose personal authority alone the alliance was based, no longer possessed that authority, seemed to be no secret to anyone in Rumania except three persons: the Marshal himself, Manfred Freiherr von Killinger, the German Minister to Rumania, and General der Kavallerie Erik Hansen, the chief of the German military mission. The latter two were the responsible German representatives in Rumania. Both von Killinger, a World War I U-boat commander and long-time Nazi turned diplomat, and Hansen, an energetic but inflexible officer, were blinded by their own faith in Antonescu. Consequently, they reinforced the already strong tendency in Hitler’s circle to confuse Antonescu’s personal loyalty with that of the Rumanian Army and people. The Army Group South Ukraine staff was certain that Antonescu was being kept in power only by his opponents’ rapidly diminishing unwillingness to take the risks of an attempt to remove him, and that the country, Antonescu included, was staying in the war solely because its fear of the Russians still slightly exceeded its desire for peace.
On 1 August, anticipating repercussions throughout southeastern Europe when Turkey broke diplomatic relations with Germany, which it did the next day, Friessner ordered each of his two armies to set up a mobile regiment that could be used to counter “possible surprises in Rumanian territory.” Strangely and, as it later proved, fatefully, the army group concentrated its attention almost exclusively on the dangers which would arise if Rumania defected. It did not pursue the, for it, equally vital question, What, if anything, remained of the Rumanian Army’s never very strong will to fight? And the Rumanians held 160 miles of the army group’s 392-mile-long front.
In the first week of August, Antonescu went to Rastenburg to talk to Hitler. The two met under a darkening cloud of German reverses in France and the East and in an atmosphere of mutual complaints and suspicions; yet, in the last analysis, neither had any real choice but to tell the other what he wanted to hear. In May, after more or less open negotiations in Cairo with the Americans, British, and Russians, Antonescu had rejected one set of armistice terms. When secret negotiations conducted at the same time in Sweden with the Soviet Union alone had brought a somewhat more lenient offer, he had again not been able to steel himself to take the plunge. The report on the conference at Fuehrer headquarters which reached Army Group South Ukraine described the results as “very positive.” Hitler had told the Marshal what was being done to restore the German situation, and both parties had promised each other “everything possible.” In the transmission, someone had added, “It now remains to be seen how far the promises will be carried out.”
Because many of the individual points to be discussed arose out of its presence on Rumanian territory and because the time appeared ripe for raising fundamental questions, the army group had sent its operations officer to Fuehrer headquarters while Antonescu was there. Friessner had sent along a letter for Hitler in which he stated that the army group could hold its front if it did not lose any more divisions but had to be prepared for all eventualities. He recommended giving the army group control of all German military activities in Rumania and the appointment of a single, responsible political agency with which the army group could collaborate. The operations officer, on Friessner’s instructions, told Guderian that the OKH would have to reconcile itself to permitting the army group to go back to a line on the Carpathians and lower Danube if the army group had to give up more divisions or if the Rumanians became unreliable. After talking to Hitler, Guderian replied that he “hoped” if events took such a turn to be able “to give the necessary order in time.” The prospect that such an order would be given, however, faded after the talks with Antonescu revealed that, even though he had argued in the spring for going back to the Carpathians-Danube line, he had in the meantime convinced himself that for Rumania to sacrifice any more territory would be fatal.
To Keitel the army group operations officer broached the question of having Friessner named Armed Forces commander in Rumania and proposed replacing Hansen with an officer “who would represent the German interest more emphatically.” Keitel appeared impressed at first but, after the talks with Antonescu, said he saw no need for any changes because Rumania would stand by Germany “through thick and thin” In sum, the tottering alliance was patched together for a last time at Army Group South Ukraine’s expense.
THE OFFENSIVE BEGINS
On 8 August air reconnaissance for the first time detected Soviet troop movements east of the Prut. Heavy traffic toward and light traffic away from the front confirmed that the troops were coming in, not going out. On the 13th the OKH took another division from the army group, bringing the total transfers since June to eleven divisions and the overall strength reduction to nearly one-third—much more, almost three-fourths, in terms of panzer divisions. On that day, too, a rumor that Antonescu had been overthrown touched off a spell of confusion and near panic in the army group rear area.
Armeegruppe Woehler reported on the 16th that the Russians would be ready to attack in a day or two, probably west of Iasi, to drive a wedge between Iasi and Targul Frumos. The Rumanians, the Armeegruppe declared, were “completely confident” (See Map 30.) By the afternoon of the 19th, after Second Ukrainian Front, Malinovskiy commanding, had launched artillery-supported probing attacks along the Armeegruppe Woehler front, the army group expected to be hit heavily the next day west of Iasi and predicted a secondary attack south of Tiraspol.
The day dawned hot and sunny on 20 August 1944. The Soviet artillery laid down heavy barrages on two fairly narrow sectors, one northwest of Iasi, the other south of Tiraspol. By the time the infantry of Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts jumped off, several Rumanian divisions were about to collapse.
Two of Armeegruppe Woehler’s Rumanian divisions protecting Iasi abandoned their positions without a fight. On the west side of the gap left by the Rumanians, German reserves threw up a screening line, but on the east the Russians continued south, turning into Iasi in the afternoon. South of Tiraspol the attack struck the Sixth Army-Rumanian Third Army boundary. Sixth Army’s right flank corps, the hardest hit, held its ground, but the Rumanian division tying in on the boundary collapsed, carrying with it its neighbor on the south. By day’s end Friessner realized that the Rumanian’s performance would fall below even their customary low standard. How far below he had yet to learn.
The two Ukrainian fronts—Marshal Timoshenko co-ordinating for the Stavka—had, according to the Soviet figures, superiorities of slightly less than 2:1 in troops, better than 2:1 in artillery and aircraft, and better than 3:1 in tanks and self-propelled artillery. All together Malinovskiy and Tolbukhin had 90 divisions and 6 tank and mechanized corps, 929,000 men.
The main effort, by Sixth Tank Army and Twenty-seventh, Fifty-second, and Fifty-third Armies, was in Malinovskiy’s sector northwest of Iasi. There Sixth Tank Army went in on the first afternoon, and by nightfall it and Twenty-seventh Army were driving for an operational breakthrough. On the right, north of Targul Frumos, Seventh Guards Army and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were poised for a thrust south along the Siret. Tolbukhin had the Thirty-seventh and Fifty-seventh Armies and two mechanized corps charging out of the Tiraspol bridgehead. On their left Forty-sixth Army had split its forces to envelop Rumanian III Corps on the lower Dnestr.
On the morning of the second day Friessner still thought the battle would develop about as had been expected. Although he did not have a clear picture of enemy strength, the army group’s intelligence seemed to confirm that the build-up had not been up to the previous Soviet level for an all-out offensive. Furthermore, the main effort was against Armeegruppe Woehler and there the second line, the TRAJAN position on the heights behind Iasi, was considered exceptionally good.
When Antonescu arrived at the army group headquarters in midmorning, Friessner told him that he would close the front below Tiraspol and, taking everything he could from Armeegruppe Dumitrescu, strengthen the north front enough to prevent a sweep behind the Prut. The Russians, he thought, could not bring as much strength to bear against Dumitrescu as they could against Woehler and, having gone deeper the day before than expected, would probably have to pause to regroup. Antonescu, formerly always the advocate of a flexible defense, insisted that the front, including Iasi, absolutely had to be held. He declared that he was personally answerable for every piece of ground lost and it was not the fate of Bessarabia that was being decided but the fate of the whole Rumanian people “forever.”
During the day every report from the front brought more alarming news than the last. In the north Iasi was lost and the offensive expanded west to Targul Frumos. Tanks of Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov drove through the TRAJAN position at a point near Targul Frumos, and tank-supported infantry drew up to it along most of the stretch west of the Prut. Armeegruppe Woehler reported that five of its Rumanian divisions had fallen apart completely. South of Tiraspol a 20-mile gap opened between Sixth Army and Rumanian Third Army.
In the afternoon Friessner decided to take Armeegruppe Dumitrescu behind the Prut and try to free enough German troops to reinforce Armeegruppe Woehler. The army group and the Operations Branch, OKH, agreed that would be only a first step in a withdrawal which could not end forward of the Carpathians-Danube line. Hitler, after being assured that Antonescu was now “letting himself be guided solely by military considerations” and therefore had no objections, gave his approval during the night. By then an order was out to Sixth Army to get everything it could behind the Prut immediately. The Sixth Army staff was among the first elements to go, because Russian tanks were already closing in on its headquarters at Komrat.
For the next two days the battle continued as it had begun. The Rumanians, even the supposedly elite Rumanian Armored Division, refused to fight. The Russians moved south fast behind the Prut and through the torn-open center of Armeegruppe Dumitrescu without the Germans being able to commit anything against them. Behind the Prut the Soviet tank points reached Barlad and Husi on the 23d. Third Ukrainian Front’s advance west carried past Komrat nearly to the Prut, and Forty-sixth Army turned its left flank southeast and on its right attacked across the Dnestr Liman to encircle Rumanian III Corps and one German division. The main body of German troops, the whole front from the Prut east of Iasi to Tiraspol, was falling back to the southwest fast but not fast enough to outrace the Soviet pincers closing behind it.
In the early evening on 23 August army group headquarters heard that Antonescu had been called to an audience with the King in the afternoon; the government had been dissolved, and Antonescu and its members arrested. Later the chief of staff talked to von Killinger, who had returned from the palace where the King had informed him that a new government had been formed and it intended to sign an armistice. One condition that would not be accepted, the King had assured him, was that Rumania should take up arms against the Germans. But the King’s broadcast that night was less reassuring. In it he stated that Rumania would join the United Nations against the common enemy—Germany—and, in what practically amounted to a declaration of war against Hungary, that Rumania denounced the Treaty of Vienna of 30 August 1940 which had awarded the Szekler Strip in Transylvania to Hungary.
The contradiction in the King’s statements apparently arose from the existence of two sets of armistice terms. Although the Rumanian Government in the public statement accepted the more stringent terms which had been offered by the three powers—the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union—at the negotiations which began that night in Cairo, the Rumanian delegation was instructed to secure amendments which would include the concessions the Soviet Union had offered in secret. The latter would have allowed Rumania to declare itself neutral in the conflict with Germany and, of much greater moment to the Rumanians, proposed arrangements which would assure the continued existence of an independent Rumanian state.
Shortly before midnight on the 23d, Friessner telephoned Hitler an account of the Rumanian coup and told him he had taken command of all Wehrmacht elements in Rumania and was going to take the front back to the Carpathians-Danube line. At midnight the Operations Branch, OKH, relayed an order from Hitler to smash the “Putsch,” arrest the King and “the court camarilla,” and turn the government over either to Antonescu or, if he were “no longer available,” to a pro-German general. On learning that von Killinger, Hansen, and the commanding general of the German air units in Rumania, General der Flieger Alfred Gerstenberg, were being held under guard in the legation, Friessner turned Hitler’s assignment over to an SS general whom he located in one of the installations outside Bucharest. The SS general reported at 0300 that troops would arrive from Ploeşti in an hour and a half and would then move into the city.
Before dawn Hansen called to tell Friessner that the Rumanian War Minister had declared that if the German measures against the new government were not stopped within air hour the Rumanian Army would turn its weapons against the German Army. Hansen added that he and the others with him were convinced the German forces were not strong enough to take Bucharest. When Friessner asked whether he was under restraint, Hansen replied that he was.
Friessner transmitted a résumé of the conversation to the Fuehrer headquarters along with a reminder that the King had allegedly promised not to fight the Germans. A few minutes later Jodl called to say that Hansen was not making a free decision, anyway the whole affair was bound to go awry sooner or later, so it was best to make a clean sweep right away. Almost simultaneously, a call came in from Gerstenberg, whom the Rumanians had released thinking he would attempt to stop the impending German action. He described the new Rumanian Government as a small, frightened clique, protected only by a thin screen of troops around the capital. Friessner thereupon gave him command in the Bucharest area.
At 0730 6,000 German troops began to march on the capital. Ten minutes later they met sharp resistance and were stopped. Shortly before noon, Gerstenberg admitted that so far he had not been able to get past the outlying suburbs. He had taken the radio station but nothing else worth mentioning. In the meantime, Friessner had learned that not a single Rumanian general was willing to go along with the Germans.
In the afternoon, on Hitler’s orders, Fourth Air Force bombed the royal palace and government buildings in Bucharest. The bombing not only gave the government an excuse for a complete, open breach with Germany, which it would probably have effected anyway, but also united national sentiment against the Germans. As the day ended, the deadlock around the capital continued while Gerstenberg waited for reinforcements from the Southeastern Theater. Friessner had asked for troops from Hungary as well, but the OKW had replied that it was also “getting strange reports” from that country.
SIXTH ARMY DESTROYED
The 24th and 25th were days of unmitigated disaster for Army Group South Ukraine. On the 24th the armored spearheads of Second Ukrainian Front took Bacau on the Siret River and crossed the Barladul downstream from Barlad. Sixth Army, all of it except service troops, was drawing together south and east of Husi. Parts of two corps were west of the Prut, but the main body was still east of the river. The army headquarters, which from its location in Focsani only had intermittent radio contact with its corps, wanted to command the whole force to turn south and try to escape across the lower Prut or the Danube. Friessner, assuming that the Russians would close the crossings before Sixth Army could reach them, ordered a breakthrough west past Bacau to the Carpathians.
On the 25th, when Rumania declared war, the destruction of the army group was nearly complete. It did not know what was happening to Sixth Army or what would happen to the numerous German units and installations in Rumania. Friessner told the OKH that what was left would have to retreat into Hungary and close the passes through the Carpathians and the Transylvanian Alps.
On the 26th Tolbukhin’s troops took Kagul, completing the ring around Sixth Army, and Malinovskiy’s forces began turning southwest across the lower Siret. From the right flank of the 3d Mountain Division in the mountains west of Targu Neamt to the mouth of the Danube 250 miles to the southeast, Army Group South Ukraine had no semblance of a front anywhere. In that fantastic situation Hitler intervened with an order to hold the line of the Carpathians, Focsani, Galatz, and the lower Danube.
The next day Malinovskiy’s spearhead across the Siret took Focsani. Headquarters, Sixth Army, after trying briefly to hold a line between Focsani and Galatz with rear echelon troops, fell back toward Buzau. Fragmentary radio reports from the army’s encircled divisions indicated that two pockets had formed, one, the larger (10 divisions), stationary on the east bank of the Prut east of Husi, the other (8 divisions) moving west slowly south of Husi. North of Bucharest the Rumanians had the German attack force surrounded. At Ploeşti the 5th Flak Division had lost the oil refineries and half of the city. Eighth Army, going back from the Siret, had barely enough troops to organize blocking detachments in the Oitoz Pass and the passes to the north. The mountains offered cover, but the deep flank, 190 miles in the Transylvanian Alps from the southeastern tip of Hungary to the Iron Gate, was entirely unprotected. The planes of Fourth Air Force were using their last gas to fly into eastern Hungary. On the south the Bulgarians, not officially at war with the Soviet Union and looking desperately for a way to keep the Soviet Army off their territory, were disarming and interning all Army Group South Ukraine troops who crossed the border.
RETREAT TO THE CARPATHIANS
During the night of 29 August OKH ordered Army Group South Ukraine to establish a solid front along the spine of the Transylvanian Alps and the Carpathians tying in with the Southeastern Theater at the Iron Gate and Army Group North Ukraine on the Polish border. Hungarian Second Army, forming in eastern Hungary, was placed under Friessner’s command.
The mountains, in fact, afforded the best defense line, provided that Friessner could muster enough strength to take and hold the passes on Rumanian territory in the Transylvanian Alps. How difficult that would be became clear the next day when he reported that of Sixth Army not a single complete division had escaped. What was left, the headquarters and service troops with some 5,000 vehicles, was jammed into the Buzaul Valley and was as yet by no means out of the Russians’ reach.
The army group had, all told, four full divisions; three had been on the left flank and not hit by the offensive and one had been on its way out of the army group zone and was returned after the offensive began. All the army group actually held was an intermittent front in the Carpathians. If the Russians decided to make a fast thrust north through the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes, the army group chief of staff added, “The jig will be up out here.”
On 30 August, Malinovskiy’s troops took Ploeşti and the next day marched to Bucharest. In carrying out Stavka’s orders, Malinovskiy, on 29 August, had split his forces. He had sent the Sixth Tank, Twenty-seventh, and Fifty-third Armies between the Danube and the Carpathians to clear southern Rumania to Turnu Severin. With the smaller half he undertook to force the Germans out of the eastern Carpathians. Fortieth Army moved against the relatively intact Eighth Army left flank. Seventh Guards Army and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were to force the Oitoz Pass and push across the mountains toward Sibiu and Cluj.
When the Russians began to move west south of the mountains, Friessner decided he might yet have a chance to close at least the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes. (The Southeastern Theater Command had assumed responsibility for the Iron Gate.) The remaining pass, the Vulcan, was at the moment out of reach of both the Southeastern Theater and Army Group South Ukraine. At the same time, considering the chances of getting the passes slight, Friessner ordered the armies to reconnoiter a line on the Muresul River across the western end of the Szekler Strip.
On 5 September Hungarian Second Army attacked south from the vicinity of Cluj to close the Turnu Rosu Pass. The day before, air reconnaissance had picked up signs that Second Ukrainian Front was beginning to turn north, and Friessner had alerted the armies to get ready, if ordered, to act fast and get behind the Muresul in one leap. For the moment the order did not have to be given. Hungarian Second Army gained ground rapidly against feeble resistance by the hastily reconstituted Rumanian Fourth Army. (Rumanian First and Fourth Armies went under Malinovskiy’s command on 6 September.)
During the day Sixth Army brought its last troops out of the Buzaul Valley. But that and the Hungarians’ success were only minor bright spots on a predominantly dismal scene. After hearing nothing for several days, the army group was forced to write off as lost the five corps staffs and eighteen divisions in the two pockets. The Russians going west reached Turnu Severin, ten miles southeast of the Iron Gate, during the day. By evening Friessner had concluded he would have to take Sixth Army and Eighth Army behind the Muresul but decided to wait a day or two—long enough to mitigate the unfortunate contrast of German troops retreating while their Hungarian allies were advancing.
Hungarian Second Army advanced again on 6 September, but not as fast as it had the day before. Sixth Army, which had taken command of Eighth Army’s right flank corps, reported that the Russians were in the Oitoz Pass and, off the army’s south front, were already through the Predeal Pass and assembling at Brasov. Friessner authorized the army to start back during the night if the pressure became too great. He told Guderian that the Hungarians could not be expected to reach the Turnu Rosu Pass; the Rumanians had asked for Russian help. He had talked to the Hungarians and they were agreed on going back to a shorter line.
The next day the Hungarian offensive came to a standstill. The effect of its first two days’ success could be observed farther south. Soviet Sixth Tank Army, which had been going toward the Iron Gate, had stopped and turned north. One of its mobile corps was crossing the Turnu Rosu Pass, another was heading into the Vulcan Pass. By noon the lead elements were through the Turnu Rosu and in Sibiu, forty miles from the Hungarian front Friessner then decided to stop Hungarian Second Army, take it into a defensive line, and back it up with all the German antitank weapons that could be scraped together. Orders went out to Eighth and Sixth Armies to start withdrawing that night. During the night the Operations Branch, OKH, tried to interpose an order from Hitler forbidding the withdrawal. When the army group answered that it had already begun, the Operations Branch replied that Hitler “had taken notice” of the withdrawal to the first phase line but reserved all subsequent decisions to himself.
Five days earlier Hitler had personally instructed Friessner to get ready to fall back some forty miles farther west than the proposed line on the Muresul River. In the meantime he had changed his mind, because he was determined to hold onto his last legitimate ally, Hungary, and because he was arriving at a new and novel estimate of Soviet strategy.
The first reason was the more immediate. Hungary, never a pillar of strength in the German coalition, had since Rumania capitulated been in a state of acute internal political tension. Horthy had dissolved all political parties and had declared his loyalty to Germany. His first impulse had seemed to be to seize the opportunity to annex the Rumanian parts of Transylvania, to which Hitler was only too happy to agree after Rumania declared war. But by 24 August the internal condition of Hungary appeared so uncertain that the OKW moved two SS divisions in close to the capital to be ready to put down an anti-German coup.
The events of the next few days, however, were at least superficially reassuring. The military in particular, appearing to be loyal to the alliance, set about mobilizing their forces for the war against their ancient enemy Rumania with, under the circumstances, surprising energy. The appointment on 30 August of Col. Gen. Geza Lakatos as Minister President to replace Sztojay, who was sick, and the appointments to his Cabinet preserved the hold inside the Hungarian Government which the Germans had established in the spring.
On the other hand Horthy kept out representatives of the radical rightist, fanatically pro-German Arrow-Cross Party.
The first overt alarm was raised on 7 September when, in a flash of panic touched off by a false report that the Russians were in Arad on the undefended south border 140 miles from Budapest, the Hungarian Crown Council met in secret and later, through the Chief of Staff, presented an ultimatum to the OKH: if Germany did not send five panzer divisions within twenty-four hours Hungary would reserve the right to act as its interests might require. Guderian called it extortion but gave his word to defend Hungary as if it were part of Germany and announced that he would send a panzer corps headquarters and one panzer division. Later he added two panzer brigades and two SS divisions, bringing the total to roughly the five divisions demanded. Because Hungary was in so shaky a condition Hitler refused to sacrifice the Szekler Strip even though Friessner and the German Military Plenipotentiary in Budapest assured him that the Hungarians were reconciled to losing the territory.
On 9 September Friessner went to Budapest where he persuaded Horthy to put his agreement to the withdrawal in writing. The impressions he received from talking to Horthy, Lakatos, and the military leaders were so disturbing that he decided to report on them to Hitler in person the next day. At Fuehrer headquarters Friessner learned the second reason why Hitler did not want to give up the Szekler Strip. He had concluded that having broken into the Balkans (Third Ukrainian Front had crossed into Bulgaria on 8 September), the Soviet Union would put its old ambitions—political hegemony in southeastern Europe and control of the Dardenelles—ahead of the drive toward Germany. In doing so, it would infringe on British interests and the war would turn in Germany’s favor because the British would realize they needed Germany as a buffer against the Soviet Union.30 Since the withdrawal had started, he agreed by the end of the interview to let the army group go to the Muresul on the conditions that the line be adjusted to take in the manganese mines at Vatra Dornei and that it be the winter line. He also decided, after hearing Friessner’s report, to “invite” the Hungarian Chief of Staff for a talk the next day.
In Budapest on the 10th Horthy conferred with a select group of prominent politicians, and a day later informed the Cabinet that he was about to ask for an armistice and desired to know which of its members were willing to share the responsibility for that step. The vote went heavily against him—according to the account the Germans received at the time all but one against and, according to his own later statement, three for him. The Cabinet then demanded his resignation. He refused; or, as he put it in his Memoirs, he decided not to dismiss the Cabinet.
Either way, when the Hungarian Chief of Staff went to Fuehrer headquarters on the 12th he went as an ally. The day’s delay had mightily aroused Hitler’s suspicion, and he told the Hungarian military attaché that he had no further confidence in the Hungarian Government. The Chief of Staff’s visit went off, as Antonescu’s had in August, in mutual complaints and recriminations that were finally obscured by a thick fog of more or less empty promises. On his departure Guderian gave him a new Mercedes limousine, which came in handy a few weeks later when he went over to the Russians.
HITLER PLANS A COUNTEROFFENSIVE
Army Group South Ukraine completed the withdrawal to the Muresul on 15 September. Tolbukhin’s armies were temporarily out of the way in Bulgaria, and Malinovskiy’s advance from the south was developing more slowly than had been expected. His tanks and trucks had taken a mechanical beating on the trip through the passes. On the other hand, a new threat was emerging on the north where Fourth Ukrainian Front on 9 September had begun an attempt to break through First Panzer Army and into the Dukla Pass in the Beskides of eastern Czechoslovakia and toward Uzhgorod. Behind that sector of the front the Germans were at the same time having trouble with an uprising in Slovakia in which the Minister of War and the one-division Slovakian Army had gone over to the partisans.
While Friessner was at Fuehrer headquarters Hitler had instructed him to use offensively the new divisions being sent. He wanted them assembled around Cluj for an attack to the south to smash Sixth Tank and Twenty-seventh Armies and retake the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes. Friessner issued the directive on 15 September, but the prospects of an early start were not good. Hitler had some of the reinforcements stop at Budapest, in readiness for a political crisis there.
At the front, the Hungarians, who had not done badly against the Rumanians, were disinclined toward becoming earnestly embroiled with the Russians. To give them some stiffening, the Army group merged Hungarian Second Army with Sixth Army to form the Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico under the Commanding General, Sixth Army, Fretter-Pico. On the 17th Fretter-Pico reported that Second Army was in a “catastrophic” state and that one mountain brigade had run away.
TANK BATTLE AT DEBRECEN
At mid-month the Stavka also gave new orders. It directed Tolbukhin, still occupied in Bulgaria, to give Forty-sixth Army to Malinovskiy, and it transferred the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev from First Ukrainian Front. It instructed Malinovskiy to send his main thrust northwest from Cluj toward Debrecen, the Tisza River, and Miskolc, expecting him thereby both to benefit from and assist Fourth Ukrainian Front’s advance toward Uzhgorod. For a week, beginning on 16 September, Sixth Tank and Twenty-seventh Armies tried unsuccessfully to take Cluj, which, because of Hitler’s plan, was exactly the place Army Group South Ukraine was most determined to hold.
Friessner was far short of the strength both to fight the battle at Cluj and establish a front west of there. On 20 September a minor Russian onslaught threw back to Arad the Hungarians covering his flank on the west, and the following day they gave up the city without a fight. Thereafter the Hungarian General Staff activated a new army, the Third, composed mostly of recruits and recently recalled reservists, to hold a front on both sides of Arad. Reluctantly, it agreed to put the army under Army Group South Ukraine.
Losing Arad sent another wave of panic through Budapest even though the army group (redesignated Army Group South at midnight on 23 September) was certain that Malinovskiy did not yet have enough strength at Arad to attempt to strike out for Budapest. The German Military Plenipotentiary in Budapest reported on the 23d that the Hungarian command had completely lost nerve. It had pulled First Army back to the border, it intended to move two divisions of Second Army west, and it wanted to withdraw Third Army to the Tisza River. The OKH promptly whipped the Hungarians into line and had their orders rescinded. “In view of the Hungarian attitude,” Guderian then sent several strong panzer units to “rest and refit” just outside Budapest.
The Hungarians’ nervousness was premature, but not by much. Malinovskiv was shifting his main force west to the Arad-Oradea area, and Army Group South had too few German troops to keep pace. On the 24th, when Friessner called for reinforcements, the Operations Branch, OKH, replied that it recognized the need the reason the army group had not been given any so far was that Hitler was still convinced the Soviet Union would first attempt to settle affairs in the Balkans on its own terms.
On the 25th elements of Sixth Tank Army, shifted west from Cluj, began closing in on Oradea. Friessner informed Hitler that the next attack would come across the line Szeged-Oradea, either northwest toward Budapest or north along the Tisza to meet Fourth Ukrainian Front’s thrust through the Beskides. He could not stop it without more armor and infantry. Operations Branch, OKH, replied that Hitler intended to assemble a striking force of four panzer divisions around Debrecen for an attack south, but that could not be done before 10 October. Until then Friessner would have to deploy the forces he had in trying to check the Russians in the Szeged-Oradea area.
By the end of the month Hitler had fleshed out his plan for the proposed striking force. The attack would go south past Oradea and then wheel west along the rim of the Transylvanian Alps to trap the Russians north of the mountains. After mopping up, Army Group South could establish an easily defensible winter line in the mountains. For a while it appeared that he might have time enough to put the striking force together. After taking Oradea on 26 September and losing it two days later when the Germans counterattacked, Second Ukrainian Front reverted to aimless skirmishing.
The Stavka was also looking for a quick and sweeping solution. On its orders, Malinovskiy deployed Forty-sixth Army, Fifty-third Army, and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev on a broad front north and south of Arad for a thrust across the Tisza to Budapest. To their right Sixth Tank Army, now a guards tank army, was to strike past Oradea toward Debrecen, the Tisza, and Miskolc, there to meet a Fourth Ukrainian Front spearhead that would come through the Dukla Pass and by way of Uzhgorod. The pincers, when they closed, would trap Army Group South and First Panzer and Hungarian First Armies. Twenty-seventh Army, Rumanian First Army, and Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were to attack toward Debrecen from the vicinity of Cluj. Timoshenko co-ordinated for the Stavka.
The plan was ambitious, too ambitious. Men and matériel for an extensive build-up were not to be had at this late stage of the general summer offensive; both fronts were feeling the effects of combat and long marches; and their supply lines were overextended. Because of the difference in gauges, the Rumanian railroads, if anything, were serving the Russians less well than they had the Germans, and Second Ukrainian Front had to rely mainly on motor transport west of the Dnestr. Malinovskiy’s broad-front deployment gave him only about half the ratio of troops to frontage usual for a Soviet offensive. As a prerequisite for the larger operation Fourth Ukrainian Front’s progress through the Dukla Pass was not encouraging; it had been slow from the start and at the end of the month the offensive was almost at a standstill.
After the turn of the month the Soviet attack into the Dukla Pass began to make headway, partly because Hitler had taken out a panzer division there for his striking force, and on 6 October the Russians took the pass. That morning Malinovskiy’s armies attacked. Hungarian Third Army melted away fast. At Oradea, however, Sixth Guards Tank Army met Germans and was stopped.
On the 8th, as his left flank was closing to the Tisza, Malinovskiy turned Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev around and had it strike southeast behind Oradea. That broke the German hold. By nightfall a tank corps and a cavalry corps stood west of Debrecen, and Friessner, over Hitler’s protests, ordered the Armeegruppe Woehler to start back from the Muresul line.
The army group still had one panzer division stationed near Budapest and another, the first of the proposed striking force, at Debrecen. On 10 October the divisions attacked east and west below Debrecen into the flanks of the Soviet spearhead. Late that night their points met. They had cut off three Soviet corps. The army group envisioned “another Cannae,” and Hitler ordered Armeegruppe Woehler to stop on the next phase line.
The next day, when Sixth Guards Tank Army put up a violent fight to get the corps out, who had trapped whom began to become unclear. The flat Hungarian plain became the scene of one of the wildest tank battles of the war. Malinovskiy reined in on his other armies. By the 12th the Russians in the pocket were shaking themselves loose, and Friessner ordered Armeegruppe Woehler to start back again. On the 14th the Russians were clearing the pocket, and Army Group South began concentrating on getting a front strong enough to keep them from going north once more. In the Beskides Fourth Ukrainian Front was moving slowly again south of the Dukla Pass and trying to get through some of the smaller passes farther east.
HORTHY ASKS FOR AN ARMISTICE
During the battle at Debrecen the Germans were aware that they were, as someone in OKH put it, “dancing on a volcano.” They sensed that in Budapest a break might come any day, almost any hour. Their suspicion was well founded. In late September Horthy had sent representatives to Moscow to negotiate an armistice, and on 11 October they had a draft agreement completed and initialed without a fixed date. To be ready for any sudden moves, Hitler had sent in two “specialists,” SS General von dem Bach-Zelewski and SS Col. Otto Skorzeny. Von dem Bach had long experience in handling uprisings, most recently at Warsaw. Skorzeny commanded the daredevil outfit that had rescued Mussolini.
The crisis in Hungary resolved itself less violently than the Germans expected. As Hungarian head of state for a generation, Horthy had accumulated tremendous personal prestige, but his authority had declined, and his political position was badly undermined. In the Parliament during the first week of October the parties of the right formed a prowar, pro-German majority coalition against him. The Army was split; some of the generals and many of the senior staff officers wanted to keep on fighting. On 8 October the Gestapo arrested the Budapest garrison commander, one of Horthy’s most faithful and potentially most effective supporters, and, on the 15th, it arrested Horthy’s son, who had played a leading role in the attempt to get an armistice.
The Soviet Union demanded that Hungary accept the armistice terms by 16 October. In the afternoon of the 15th Radio Budapest broadcast Horthy’s announcement that he had accepted. By then he was acting alone. The Lakatos Cabinet had resigned on the grounds that it could not approve an armistice and Parliament had not been consulted on the negotiations.
The next morning, to the accompaniment of scattered shooting, the Germans took the royal palace and persuaded Horthy to “request” asylum in Germany. In his last official act, under German “protection,” Horthy appointed Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the Arrow-Cross Party, as his successor. Szalasi, whose chief claim to distinction until then had been his incoherence both in speech and in writing, subsequently had himself named “Nador” (leader), with all the rights and duties of the Prince Regent.
On 17 October Guderian, in an order declaring the political battle in Hungary won, announced that the next step would be to bring all of the German and Hungarian strength to bear at the front. How that was to be accomplished he did not say. In terms of the military situation the victory was one only by comparison with the immediate, total dissolution that would have come if Horthy’s attempt to get an armistice had succeeded. Morale in the Hungarian Army hit bottom. Some officers, including the Chief of Staff, some whole units, and many individuals deserted to the Russians, who encouraged others to do the same by letting the men return home if they lived in the areas under Soviet control.
TO THE TISZA
On the night of 16 October Hitler ordered Army Group South to see the battle through at Debrecen but also to start taking Armeegruppe Woehler back toward the Tisza. Meanwhile, Malinovskiy had reassembled his armor, the two cavalry-mechanized groups and Sixth Guards Tank Army, south of Debrecen. On the 10th the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Pliyev broke through past Debrecen, and two days later it took Nyiregyhaza, astride Armeegruppe Woehler’s main line of communications.
The Armeegruppe, which had also taken command of Hungarian First Army, its neighbor on the left, held a bow-shaped line that at its center was eighty miles east of Nyiregyhaza. Friessner’s first thought was to pull the Armeegruppe north and west to skirt Nyiregyhaza. His chief of staff persuaded him to try a more daring maneuver, namely, to have Woehler’s right flank do an about-face and push due west between Debrecen and Nyiregyhaza while Sixth Army’s panzer divisions, in the corner between Nyiregyhaza and the Tisza, struck eastward into the Russian flank.
The maneuver worked with the flair and precision of the blitzkrieg days. On the 23rd the two forces met and cut off three Soviet corps at Nyiregyhaza. Before Russians could break loose, almost the whole Armeegruppe Woehler bore down on them from the east. In three days the Germans retook Nyiregyhaza. On the 29th the survivors in the pocket abandoned their tanks, vehicles, and heavy weapons and fled to the south.
On that day, too, for the first time in two months, Army Group South had a continuous front. On the north it bent east of the Tisza around Nyiregyhaza and then followed the middle Tisza to below Szolnok, where it angled away from the river past Kecskemet to the Danube near Mohacs and tied in with Army Group F at the mouth of the Drava. But it was not a front that could stand long. The Tisza, flowing through flat country, afforded no defensive advantages—the Russians had easily driven Hungarian Third Army out of better positions than those it held on the open plain between the Tisza and the Danube.