A SECOND BEF


Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation.

Lieutenant General Alan Brooke, who had commanded II Corps of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium, returned from Dunkirk on 30 May and on 2 June he was summoned to a meeting at the War Office in London. He met with the new chief of the imperial general staff, General Sir John Dill, who had replaced General Edmund Ironside on 27 May. Winston Churchill had appointed Ironside commander-in-chief of Home Forces: in other words the man who was given the responsibility of coordinating Britain’s ground defence in the event that the Nazis attempted an invasion of the co

untry. At their meeting, Brooke was informed that he was to return to France to command a second BEF.

Having already escaped from France and being well aware of the military mismanagement of the first BEF by the French, Brooke made it quite clear to both Dill and the secretary of state for war, Anthony Eden, that the enterprise was almost pointless unless it was meant to be nothing more than a gesture of good will towards the French. However, it was an order and Brooke accepted it; but he must have been devastated on being further informed that once in France his troops would again come under the authority of General Weygand.

The troops for this new force would comprise those already serving on the Continent that had not been evacuated at Dunkirk and new units that would be dispatched from Britain. The main troops already in France were the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and the 1st Armoured Division. Of course, nobody could have predicted at that time that within the next ten days the 51st would be defeated around Saint-Valery-en-Caux and its main body of men taken prisoner.

The 1st Armoured Division, commanded by Major General Roger Evans, began to arrive in France on 14 May. Lord Gort had been pressing for more armoured support for weeks, but when the division did eventually arrive it was seconded to the French 10th Army. The division consisted of the 2nd Armoured Brigade, under Brigadier Richard McCreery; the 3rd Armoured Brigade, under Brigadier John Crocker; and the 1st Support Group, led by Brigadier Frederick R. Morgan. Unfortunately they had no infantry support available because their dedicated units had been transferred to aid the 30th Infantry Brigade. At the time of Brooke’s meeting with Dill, the division was still fighting alongside the French at Abbeville and had already suffered heavy losses.

Brooke’s forces would also include lines of communication troops and the mysterious Beauman Division, touched upon earlier, which appears to have been a ragtag army of misfits that had been left in France following Dunkirk: after the BEF had moved up to the K-W Line, a lot of support troops or units still under training were left in the area below the River Somme. These troops largely came under the jurisdiction of Brigadier Archibald Beauman from his headquarters at Rouen. There were units of Royal Engineers, Royal Army Ordnance Corps and Royal Corps of Signals as well as lines of communication troops acting as pioneers helping to build and maintain the various bases that supported the BEF, or posted there to protect bases and other facilities such as railways and ports.

After the Germans began their offensive, rail movements between the bases and the front line quickly became difficult due to congestion; the roads also began to clog up with refugees and retreating French and Belgian troops. On 18 May Beauman was ordered by Major General Philip de Fonblanque, the general officer commanding lines of communication troops, to strengthen his defences. He formed a small mobile force that he named Beauforce, which was made up of Territorial infantry battalions that had previously been used to protect his lines and undertake pioneer work. A second formation, called Vicforce, was also formed out of five provisional battalions that had been employed at various depots, together with reinforcement drafts recently arrived from Britain. This second brigade-sized unit was named after its first commanding officer, Colonel C. E. Vickery.

Beauman positioned his forces along the rivers Andelle and Béthune, in order to protect Rouen and the port of Dieppe. A further force, known as Digforce, was then established by combining units of the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps to make up several battalions under Lieutenant Colonel J. B. H. Diggle. These troops were mainly reservists who were not ready to join their units in the front line and had been detailed for construction and labour duties in the rear area.

On 29 May, these three formations were combined to form the Beauman Division, and Beauman himself was promoted to acting major-general in order to lead them. This was the only example of a British army division being named after its commander since the Peninsular War. The use of the word ‘division’ was to cause a little confusion, as General Weygand and the French assumed it to be a proper fighting formation complete with its own artillery, engineers and signals, rather than an odd collection of largely untrained troops armed only with light weapons and shovels.

In early June, the men of the Beauman Division continued to construct defences along the Andelle–Béthune line, which stretched for fifty-five miles. On 6 June reinforcements of three battalions of infantry as well as some artillery and engineer units arrived. However a complete brigade was subsequently detached to join the part of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division in Arkforce, which as we have seen was intended to cover the retreat of the main part of the division to Le Havre. Beauman was evidently finding it difficult to maintain contact with all his widely dispersed men and issued the following orders stating that units should hold on ‘as long as any hope of successful resistance remained’ and that ‘brigade commanders will use their discretion as regards withdrawal’.

The Beauman Division would first see action on 8 June when elements of the 5th and 7th Panzer divisions began to advance towards Rouen, with their initial attacks arriving at Sigy-en-Bray and Forges-les-Eaux; at the latter the Germans tricked the British by using captured French tanks to drive through their roadblocks. Once successfully through the lines, they turned and attacked the novice soldiers from the rear. Despite the support of parts of the 1st Armoured Division, the Allied line had soon been penetrated in several places and the Beauman Division was pushed back. A brave stand was made in the late afternoon by a unit called Syme’s Battalion (presumably after its colonel), which had apparently been formed from depot troops the week before and had absolutely no battle experience whatsoever. They managed to stall the Germans for several hours outside Rouen before they were eventually forced to retreat to the south of the River Seine along with the rest of the division.

During the second week of June new forces sailed from Portsmouth to the port of Brest to bolster Brooke’s second BEF. These were the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division, commanded by Major General James Drew, made up of units of Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers; as well as the 155th Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Thomas Grainger-Stewart); the 156th Infantry Brigade (Brigadier J. S. N. Fitzgerald); and the 157th Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Sir John Laurie). This force was also supplemented by the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, under the command of Major General Andrew George Latta McNaughton. Among the Canadian infantry units that landed at Brest with the division were The Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), The 48th Highlanders of Canada, and the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment.

It was hoped that these troops would be enough to help stabilise the French defensive effort, and if that failed to create a redoubt in the Brittany Peninsula. Brooke requested that the 3rd Infantry Division, under Major General Bernard Law Montgomery and which had also just returned from Dunkirk, be made ready to join his new command as soon as possible.

While Brooke’s troops gathered in France and he took stock of what forces were actually available to him – as opposed to what he had been led to believe would be available – the RAF found themselves in constant action supporting the French.

By 13 June the Germans had begun to make advances across the River Seine to the west, and the French forces around Paris had begun to retreat. This left General Altmayer’s 10th Army isolated with their backs to the coast. The remaining units of the Advanced Air Striking Force were ordered to retreat towards Nantes and Bordeaux and from there make a maximum effort to support the French. Fairey Battles were used to fly armed reconnaissance sorties over the River Seine and attack German columns, while Bristol Blenheims of Bomber Command were also deployed to attack enemy road and rail movements.

While the military struggles continued, on the political front a penultimate session of the Supreme War Council met at the Château du Muguet, near Briare in France, on 11–12 June. The French government had been forced to leave Paris and the meeting took place at General Weygand’s army headquarters. The British were represented by Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, General Sir John Dill, General Hastings Ismay (Churchill’s chief military advisor), General Sir Edward Spears (British representative to the French prime minister) and other staff officers. They met with the French prime minister Paul Reynaud and other dignitaries, including Charles de Gaulle, who had been promoted to brigadier general on 24 May. On 5 June, de Gaulle had been appointed Under Secretary of State for National Defence and War, and had been put in charge of coordination with the British forces.

What would prove to be the final meeting of the council took place at the Préfecture in Tours on 13 June. The British delegation was composed of Churchill, Lord Halifax (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs), Lord Beaverbrook (Minister of Aircraft Production), Sir Alexander Cadogan (Permanent Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs), General Ismay and General Spears. Among those accompanying the French prime minister was Paul Baudoin, the Under Secretary of State to the Prime Minister and a member of the French war committee, as well as Generals Weygand and de Gaulle.

The atmosphere at this final session was very different from the preceding one at Briare, where Churchill had been sympathetic and understanding of France’s predicament. Now it was down to business, with the British focusing on the situation from their own perspective.

Reynaud declared that unless immediate help was forthcoming from the USA, the French government would have little choice but to surrender. General Weygand also stated that, in his opinion, an armistice should be sought immediately. This was an awkward proposition because Britain and France had agreed never to conclude a separate peace deal with the Germans. However, by this point France was evidently incapable of sustaining its war effort. Having said that, the French Cabinet was not totally in support of Reynaud and Weygand; General de Gaulle, for instance, was certain that France could continue by using guerilla tactics. Churchill hoped that Weygand would relinquish his command of the French armies in favour of de Gaulle, but the general stood fast.

Churchill was shocked by this development. He insisted, ‘We must fight, we will fight, and that is why we must ask our friends to fight on.’ Reynaud understood Britain’s stance, acknowledging that as an island he could see how it could continue the war. He also affirmed that France could still pursue the struggle from its North African possessions, but only if there was a realistic chance of success. That success could only be guaranteed if America was prepared to join in the fight. The French leader called for British understanding, asking again for France to be released from her obligation not to broker a separate peace with the Nazis, explaining that his country could do no more militarily.

The day ended in confusion as Churchill returned to London without speaking to the French Cabinet, as had been promised by Reynaud. The ministers were dismayed and angry and felt abandoned. Spears believed that this event played its part in swaying the majority of the Cabinet towards surrender. He later suggested that by the night of 13 June any possibility of France remaining in the war had almost disappeared.

In the meantime, the 157th Infantry Brigade of the 52nd (Lowland) Division had occupied defensive positions south of the Siene and been put under the command of the French 10th Army. Lieutenant General Brooke placed all the British units that were now fighting with the 10th Army under the command of Lieutenant General James Marshall-Cornwall and collectively named them Norman Force.

By now it was clear to Brooke that his second BEF was doomed. The 51st (Highland) Infantry Division no longer existed; the 1st Armoured Division was depleted; and the Beauman Division was in total disarray. He sent an urgent request to the War Office asking for his troops to be evacuated, and during the night of 14 June he received orders to prepare British forces to leave through the port of Cherbourg; he was also told that he was no longer under the command of the French. He ordered Marshall-Cornwall to withdraw his forces towards Cherbourg immediately. Although they were no longer obliged to follow French instructions, Brooke decided to continue to cooperate with their ally for the time being.

As by then only the 157th Infantry Brigade had actually arrived at the front line, Brooke ordered the rest of the 52nd (Lowland) Division to adopt a defensive stance near Cherbourg to cover the evacuation of the rest of his force. The AASF was also directed to send the last bomber squadrons back to Britain and use its fighter aircraft to cover the evacuation.

The French government had declared Paris an open city on 10 June, which effectively meant that all defensive measures had been abandoned. This was done so that the Germans could enter the city without being opposed: in doing this there would be no need for them to bomb or otherwise attack the city. The military concept of declaring somewhere an open city was aimed at protecting its landmarks and resident civilians from unnecessary violence. The Germans entered the city peacefully on 14 June and a gigantic swastika flag was raised above the Arc de Triomphe. By the time the tanks rolled through the streets, some two million Parisians had already fled. To a large extent the Germans did respect the heritage and people of Paris, although the Gestapo would arrest, interrogate and spy on those denizens they suspected of subversive activity.

While all of this was taking place the German advance over the Seine had come to a standstill while bridges were built over the river for the Panzers to cross. On the morning of 15 June the 157th Infantry Brigade and elements of the French 10th Army made contact with the enemy to the east of Conches-en-Ouche. They were ordered to retreat to the area near Verneuil, where the British contingent took over an eight-mile front. German forces followed up quickly and on 16 June, General Altmayer ordered the army to fall even further back to the Brittany Peninsula.

France is and was a big country, and while the last remaining British effort was taking place in and around Normandy and Brittany, the rest of the country was also under attack. On the western front, the German implementation of Operation Fall Rot was going well, but Hitler’s directive had also called for an attack on the Maginot Line. On 15 June Army Group C, led by General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, launched Operation Tiger, a frontal assault across the Rhine, one element of the much larger Operation Fall Braun, the overall name for the invasion in the east across the German border. Prior to this all of their attempts to break through the Maginot Line had failed. One assault lasted for eight hours on the extreme north of the line, costing the Germans forty-six dead and 251 wounded, while the French had only two soldiers killed.

Operation Tiger marked a change in strategy with regards to the Maginot Line. The Germans would now carry out a full and direct offensive, employing the full might of their army. When, on 14 June, Paris fell, the German 1st Army went over to the offensive and attacked the Maginot Line between Saint-Avold and Saarbrücken, achieving penetrations in several places. The Wehrmacht employed a three prong strategy: first, to weaken the forts’ defensive capability through concentrated heavy artillery and bombing; second, to move in close and blind the defenders by destroying apertures with line-of-sight fire from high-velocity 88 mm cannon; and finally, direct combined-arms assault.

Despite having superior weapons, all German assaults at each of the main forts on the Maginot Line had failed. The bunkers were so strong that they had hardly been scratched. Intense barrages by siege cannon and Stuka dive-bombers placed 2,000-lb armour-piercing bombs right on top of the emplacements, but still they caused little or no damage. German assault teams attempting to blow up the forts were unable to get close enough to deliver their explosives. The French pounded their every move with accurate and deadly fire. At the Ouvrage Simserhof, for instance, soldiers from the German 257th Division tried and failed to get close to the fort as almost 15,000 French artillery shells rained down on them. Most of the forts had been designed so that they could be covered by supporting fire from the next emplacement along the line. One fortress, at Schoenenbourg, fired 15,802 75-mm rounds at attacking German infantry. Consequently and by return it was the most heavily shelled of all the French positions.

The same day that Operation Tiger was launched, Operation Kleiner Bär began as Army Group C’s XXXVII Corps crossed the Rhine and advanced through the Alsace region of north-east France, near Colmar, towards the Vosges Mountains. It possessed 400 artillery pieces bolstered by heavy artillery and mortars. The area around Colmar was being guarded by the French 104th and 105th divisions, both of which retreated to the safety of the mountains on 17 June.

On the same date, General Heinz Guderian’s XIX Corps, which had been an essential part of Army Group A’s spearhead towards the Channel ports, had backtracked to help out in the east. They had reached the Swiss border and in so doing had cut off the Maginot defences from the rest of France. Most units surrendered on 25 June; the Germans claimed to have taken 500,000 prisoners.

One or two of the main fortresses did continue to resist despite repeated appeals for them to surrender from both the Germans and General Georges. The last forts finally capitulated on or around 4 July under protest. Of the fifty-eight major fortifications on the Maginot Line, just ten were captured by the Wehrmacht in battle.

Another development to all of these events was the declaration of war on Britain and France by Italy on 10 June, which opened up another front in the Alps. Italy was not really prepared for war but Mussolini hoped to profit from Hitler’s success. He had reportedly said to Marshal Pietro Badoglio, his army chief of staff, ‘I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought.’

The French Army of the Alps, commanded by General René Olry, consisted of 190,000 troops along the Alpine Line. The Italians sent 450,000 men against them, but Olry had no problems stopping their advance. He proved a hard enemy for the Germans to deal with when they decided to enter the theatre. Despite these efforts, Olry’s surrender would be a forced inevitability due to the wider political situation, but the performance of the French army in this sector was far more successful than on other fronts and is claimed to be one of the reasons why some areas of the country were later preserved from occupation.

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Vladimir Triandafillov (1894–1931)

Vladimir Triandafillov was killed in an aircraft crash on July 12, 1931 and was buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. The quality of his work was realised late during World War II, when Georgy Zhukov said that his success was due to closely following Triandafillov’s deep operations doctrine.

First published in 1929, Triandafillov’s Kharakter operatsii sovremennykh armii (The Character of the Operations of Modern Armies) has long been considered a major and comprehensive contribution to Soviet military thought. In the introduction to the first edition, Triandafillov states that his aim is nothing more than an examination of the sum of all those elements that characterize the operations of modern armies. The extent of Triandafillov’s analysis is indeed impressive, and he provides valuable insights into how a future war could be conducted.

Based on data available in the 1920s, he begins his analysis by considering the matériel foundation of armies and weapons; then he addresses a whole series of questions pertaining, inter alia, to the conduct of deep operations. Overall, his analysis bears the stamp of Marxism-Leninism, and Triandafillov provides candid insights into the nature of war waged by the Soviet state in pursuit of its ideological goals. Triandafillov also warns that, “since the material basis being examined in the present work is mainly characteristic for the start of a future war, all the author’s tactical and operational assumptions and conclusions mainly pertain to the operations of the first period of this war.” In view of what actually occurred on all fronts during World War II, Triandafillov’s qualification proved to be accurate. Regarding later periods, all that can be established are general trends. What this implies is that any analysis of the first phase of a future war is critical for both attacker and defender. Again, this was manifestly the case after 22 June 1941 and the eventual assault on Moscow.

Triandafillov’s book was issued in three editions, the last two of which were published after his death in 1931. In view of the fact that his book was considered valuable because of “its correct [pravil’naia] Marxist methodology” (as stated in the introduction to the second edition), one might assume that this protected the author. However, even if he wrote a book that satisfied the ideologically correct requirements of Marxism-Leninism, Triandafillov shows no signs of the intellectual slavishness that would become the norm after 1937 and do such damage to Soviet military thought. One cannot know whether Triandafillov would have been cut down by Stalin’s Terror, but along with Frunze, Tukhachevskii, and others, he certainly falls into a category of Soviet military thinkers who regarded military professionalism as a virtue and as essential if Soviet goals were to be achieved. Military professionalism requires an independence of mind without which rigorous analysis becomes impossible and military theory cannot be formulated and distilled. In 1937, however, these Clausewitzian postulates, taken for granted in all other major armies, aroused Stalin’s suspicion because they were perceived as a threat to his final consolidation of power.

A key question for the modern army is whether it should be a mass army, in excess of a million strong, or whether quantity should be sacrificed or reduced for quality. A small, professional army acquires a sense that it is special, that it is an elite force. From a Marxist-Leninist perspective, this is potentially dangerous because it risks Bonapartism. To achieve the goals envisaged by Triandafillov, large armies are required, but this leads to problems of quality and training. Triandafillov argues, “The idea of conquering modern states by small numbers of troops, even if motorized is naïve. Such an army, having penetrated into the depth of an enemy country, runs the risk of being isolated, if, at the same time it is not supported by a much stronger army.”

Countering the British military theorist Fuller, Triandafillov sees specific advantages in a large, mass army—the so-called nightmare army—because it possesses all the necessary technical means to solve the problems of modern war. According to Triandafillov, Fuller’s misgivings about the nightmare army are prompted by fear of the inevitable proletarian revolution, a fear that arises from a lack of trust in the masses that have become class-conscious. In Triandafillov’s rejection of Fuller, and in Triandafillov’s less than convincing arguments about the nature of capitalist societies and their succumbing to fascism, there are ideas of merit that have special relevance for 1939–1945:

The provision of the best conditions for the conduct of freedom of maneuver and of the broad tactical and operational art will not be achieved by returning to the numerically smaller armies of armchair strategists but by the corresponding increase in the mobility of million-strong armies by means of improving the technology of transport (the use of road transport, six-wheeled vehicles, a wider development of railway communications and so on). That country which is compelled out of political considerations to return to a numerically smaller army, as a result of a lack of trust in the masses, cannot reckon with the possibility of its being able to conduct a major war.

This assessment points to the type of army that actually emerged from Germany’s final renunciation of the Treaty of Versailles and Hitler’s rise to power. The treaty provisions resulted in a much smaller German army and one that, at least for the time being, was denied a whole range of weapons. In other words, the Weimar German army bore some resemblance to the numerically small but professional army rejected by Triandafillov, even if it was temporarily denied the equipment envisaged by him. The provisions of Versailles notwithstanding, the German army was still able to study the nature of future war and conduct various exercises and small-scale trials. Guderian’s advocacy of the panzer bears witness to the fact that the theoretical analysis was conducted at the highest level and that there was openness to new ideas from whatever source. This theoretical work illustrates that time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted. To put it another way, time spent considering the nature of future war is not wasted and is, in fact, one of the primary duties of a professional corps of staff officers. Such work was conducted in Germany even within the limits imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.

The theoretical work carried out by officers such as Guderian bore fruit when it eventually became possible to translate plans and ideas into realities with the construction, testing, and creation of panzer divisions. Critically, the ethos of military professionalism maintained during the Weimar years not only facilitated the rapid expansion of the German army (and other service arms) when the time came but also ensured a high standard of quality. This totally vindicates the requirement for a thoroughly professional corps of staff officers dedicated to studying all questions related to war. Thus, by 1939, Germany had built a large, high-quality, and well-led army—something not envisaged by either Fuller or Triandafillov. This state of affairs strongly implies that had Stalin not succumbed to ideological paranoia and violence in 1937 and torn apart the theoretical and practical development initiated in the 1920s, the Soviet Union would have been in an incomparably stronger position in 1941.

Conceptualizing the formation and professionalism of Western armies based on the belief that their soldiers are in some way “committed to capitalism,” Triandafillov misconstrues or cannot grasp the reasons why men serve. Some soldiers serving in Western armies may grasp the fundamental differences between privately owned and state-owned means of production, but such men are not normally motivated to join the military by such bloodless, economic abstractions. Rather, they are motivated by a sense of duty, patriotism, and adventure, by the intense emotional experiences and comradeship offered by war. Even if one conceded that the motives for pursuing international revolution in accordance with Marx, Engels, and Lenin were somehow morally and intellectually superior to the pursuit of war out of a sense of patriotism and a desire for adventure, that motivation to serve in the Raboche-Krest’ianskaia Krasnaia Armiia (Workers-Peasant Red Army [RKKA]) confers no superiority when it comes to mastery of the art of war. What made the Wehrmacht so formidable was that it managed to fuse outstanding military professionalism with a commitment to the ideas of National Socialism. Here, we can see a conspicuous failing of Marxist-Leninist analysis, which had no obvious and convincing conceptual framework to accommodate or explain the masterful political manipulations of highly charismatic leaders such as Adolf Hitler and their rise to power.

The degree to which Triandafillov’s Marxist-Leninist-based analysis misconstrues the nature of Western societies—and, above all, the Soviet Union’s future opponent—is evident in his description of what he considers the main weaknesses of Western societies: “This, of course, does not mean that the bourgeoisie has succeeded in or will succeed in eradicating those preconditions determining the unreliability of the armed masses in capitalist countries. Class, national and other contradictions which are undermining the capitalist system will not only remain but in the course of a war will inevitably grow to an extreme limit of aggravation and will, in all probability, lead, and not in one country alone, to unavoidable social shocks.” This is wishful thinking born of Marxism-Leninism.

Triandafillov devotes much space to developing his ideas on the shock army (udarnaia armiia). His use of the term is based on the formation of the German army in World War I that advanced through Belgium to the Marne and the advance of the Red Army to the Vistula in 1920. A shock army is an army designed to advance on the main axis, and Triandafillov stipulates that it “must be organized in such a manner that it is able, using its own forces, to conduct a series of consecutive operations from start to finish. It must possess all the resources which would permit it to overcome any resistance on the part of the enemy both at the start as well as during the course of the operations being undertaken.” The demands on shock army commanders are considerable. They must grapple with changing circumstances after the start of the battle as the enemy reacts: the enemy gains strength, the density of the front increases, and hastily prepared defensive positions appear on the lines of advance.

With regard to the width of the front, Triandafillov, basing his analysis on the final stages of World War I, asserts that a modern defense is so resilient that it cannot be broken by attacks on a narrow sector of the front. The reason for this failure, according to Triandafillov, is that such a blow engages only an insignificant part of the enemy’s forces, and enemy reserves will be used to create a new front to envelop and quarantine the attackers. Crucial to the defender’s ability to counter a breakthrough is his use of the rail network to deploy reserves to the threatened sector. Given the defender’s ability to respond in this manner, Triandafillov concludes that an attacker can achieve a successful penetration only where he is able to pin down large enemy forces and place himself in an operational situation that gives him an advantage over the defender.

However, even when a massive concentration of force is deployed on a narrow front, a major offensive success is unlikely, mainly because of the resilience of the defense and the defender’s ability to withdraw his forces in good time. The way to break the defense is by a combination of blows, with consecutive operations carried out at great depth. The aim here is to encircle the enemy and destroy or capture his forces. Based on the mobility constraints on the western front in World War I, Triandafillov’s proposals for breaking the defense are reasonable. Unfortunately, he makes no allowance for the increased speed and armament of tanks, and since Triandafillov does not envisage tanks taking a dominant role in an assault, he makes no allowance for the effect of mass armor in contrast to mass infantry. As was the case in the summer of 1940, the speed of the German advance meant that it was able to overwhelm the defenders before they could react. Again, Triandafillov’s ideas about defensive operations—with special attention to reinforced zones and, above all, to the carrying capacity of the rail network—are silent on how these installations might be bypassed and how to counter the rail network’s vulnerability to air attack. In fact, when he considers the costs of war—resources, high casualties, and loss of equipment—Triandafillov envisages a future war as being similar to World War I, but on a far more destructive scale. Nor does he see this as a war of maneuver. On the contrary:

In the future it is necessary to expect the long-term growth in casualties. The phase of mobility in the world war cannot in this regard be considered to be characteristic for future operations. Quite the reverse in fact; the character of future battles in terms of the saturation of automatic fire, the correlation between the forces of the attack and defense, the scale of the use of airpower and chemical weapons will bear a much closer resemblance to those battles out of which were formed the operations of 1918 on the western front.

Implicit in his remarks is the recognition that casualties were reduced in the mobile phase of World War I. When contemplating the defensive systems envisaged by Triandafillov, the options for the attacker are indeed sobering, but the problems are not insurmountable. To overcome these problems, the attacker must be original, innovative, bold, and willing to try new ideas and take risks; he must develop new ways to solve problems, including the use of psychological weapons, special forces, and sophisticated deception and trickery; he must have a command system that encourages leadership and initiative at all levels. This summary does not describe the state of the Red Army in 1939–1941. For all the difficulties envisaged in the deployment of shock formations (udarnye gruppirovki), Triandafillov argues that “deep and crushing blows remain the most decisive means of strategy in attaining the goals demanded by the war.” Confronted with the apparently insurmountable problems of deep operations, military planners may succumb to what Triandafillov calls “operational opportunism,” by which he means the tendency to reject “active and deep blows” in pursuit of “the tactics of staying put and inflicting short-range attacks, operations characterized by the modish word ‘attrition’ (izmor).” The correct way forward for operational art, argues Triandafillov, is not to limit voluntarily the depth of consecutive operations but to maximize all avenues in order to destroy the enemy. In his words: “The correct resolution of this question will inevitably be linked with the total exploitation of possibilities for the development of decisive blows at a maximum depth which are permitted by the physical and psychological condition of the troops and by the conditions arising from the restoration of roads and supply.” In other words: “The art of the strategist and the operational staff is correctly to perceive the limit in the forcing of human and material resources beyond which may lead to the breakdown of the troops, resulting not in victory but in defeat.”

One of the main reasons Triandafillov so forcefully advocates the concept of deep operations is that he considers them an effective means of achieving the revolutionary goals of Marxism-Leninism. Small states—those he dubs somewhat contemptuously “Lilliput states”—can be easily crushed, whereas larger states can be destabilized and weakened. Major blows against larger states can lead to “the creation of objectively favorable conditions for societal-political shocks in the enemy’s country.” Moreover, “deep and crushing blows remain one of the most reliable ways to transform a war into a civil war.”

Triandafillov’s analyses of the “form of the blow” are remarkably prescient in terms of the German army’s actions in 1941. Operating against an enemy with a wide front and an open rear, the correct approach is to deploy concentric advances that can lead to the destruction of enemy forces. Speed of the advance is essential here, and the role of large armored formations and mechanized infantry is obvious, since they can outstrip the nonmotorized infantry’s ability to withdraw. When the enemy can be pushed back against a neutral border, sea, mountains, or impassable terrain such as marshes, one shock group (udarnaia armiia) will suffice. Whether using one or two shock groups, the aim is to destroy the enemy’s manpower. In summarizing the theoretical requirements for the conduct of such operations—well-organized rear echelons, a high level of training, troops accustomed to rapid and deep movements, and a command stratum in charge of the situation, all of which secures a high level of tactical mobility—Triandafillov provides an accurate description of what the German army achieved in 1940–1941 and the Red Army emphatically did not.

As an orthodox Marxist-Leninist, Triandafillov attaches great importance to the role of agitprop. He also envisages the possibility that troops will be cut off from their main forces and will have to fight in encirclement. Thus, Triandafillov acknowledges that encirclement (okruzhenie) is a fact of modern war; unlike attitudes in the Red Army between 1941 and 1945, it is not something that should be regarded with suspicion by Soviet security forces. Overall, the conditions of this future war will impose enormous strain on the troops, requiring that they understand the nature of the struggle. The nature of a future war waged by the Soviet Union will be a revolutionary class war, necessitating that close attention be paid to the troops’ political indoctrination before and during the war. Triandafillov concludes: “And only the army which knows for what it is fighting and knows that it is protecting its vital [krovnye] interests, is capable of that.”48 That Triandafillov can characterize these interests in terms of blood is most unusual for a Soviet military thinker espousing the Marxist-Leninist cult of class and class war, since there is a distinct echo of the themes of Blut und Boden in NS ideology.

Mindful perhaps of the role played by antitsarist subversion and agitation in undermining the Russian army in World War I, Triandafillov maintains that the same subversive activity must be conducted among enemy troops in any future war so as to exploit what he sees as the inevitable class, national, and other contradictions and, ideally, to provoke civil war. In addition, every effort must be made to win over the civilian population and explain to them the nature of capitalist exploitation, although Triandafillov makes no provision for the treatment of those civilians who remain skeptical of Marxist-Leninist promises about the socialist commonwealth. Such skeptics would be well advised to hide their views, given what Triandafillov envisages after the fighting is over: “A huge burden of work falls on the political apparatus of the army with regard to the sovietization of the territories recaptured from the enemy.” Sovietization is the process whereby all institutions in the new zones are brought into line with Marxist-Leninist ideology. It amounts to a thoroughgoing purge of all those in positions of power, influence, or authority who are deemed to be hostile, anti-Soviet elements. In practice, it meant mass arrest, deportation, incarceration, dispossession, and execution, the fate endured by Poland and the Baltic states after September 1939. Sovietization also anticipates, and provides a template for, NS Gleichschaltung.

THE CASE FOR A MOBILE STRATEGY – MANSTEIN’S ‘BACKHAND’ OPTION

Of the two planning options he had submitted to Hitler in February to address the situation in Russia for the coming summer, von Manstein and his staff had indicated strong preference for, and had continued to press OKH to adopt, their ‘backhand’ proposal as offering the most effective operational solution. Their advocacy rested on the conviction that only this plan could best use what they believed to be the only trump card left to the Wehrmacht in its contest with the Red Army. Seen as the ‘superiority of the command leadership and fighting value of German troops’ in general, it was considered especially marked in the panzer and panzer grenadier divisions, which they regarded as the Wehrmacht’s ‘best sword’ in the conflict in the East. Given the actual conditions in Russia in the early spring of 1943, von Manstein was strongly of the view that only the ‘backhand’ plan, predicated as it was on maximizing the inherent flexibility and dynamism of German mobile formations, could generate the optimum conditions wherein this superiority could be exploited. Furthermore, while he never made any specific reference to this point, as von Manstein never seemed to equate the prowess of German arms with the equipment it employed, it nevertheless followed that only this strategy could properly exploit the qualitative and quantative improvement scheduled for the Panzerwaffe in the East during the spring and summer of 1943. This would see the panzer divisions taking delivery not only of new and superior tanks and Assault Guns, but also growing numbers of the improved, older types already in production. Adoption of the ‘backhand’ option would see a battle fought on German, and not Soviet terms.

There is no question that for von Manstein, the determining factor assuring the success of such a massive enterprise was his own expertise. Of this, as we have seen, he was in no doubt. Although Hitler was to express the view that ‘Manstein may be the best brain the general Staff has produced,’ in a negative context when speaking of his performance post-Zitadelle, it is nevertheless a judgement with which the Field Marshal would have concurred. Left to his own devices, he was convinced that he could always outfight the opposition, holding in contempt the limited ability of the Red Army’s command staff. However, his view – forged in the summer of 1941 when the Wehrmacht was running rampant in the opening months of Barbarossa – failed to take account of the qualitative change in the higher echelons of the Soviet leadership in the two years since. This over-estimation of his own ability magnified by his unshaken under-estimation of that of the enemy, was to make a significant contribution to the undoing of German plans for the summer of 1943.

Nonetheless, if on 10 March Hitler needed to be reminded how effective his panzer and motorised troops could still be when their commanders were given their head, there could have been no better example than the success they were realising in the still-unfolding winter counter-offensive. While von Manstein was subsequently to express fulsome praise for the fortitude shown by the German infantry at this time, he was in no doubt that the key to German success in this operation lay in the manner in which the Panzer and supporting Motorized Infantry divisions had ‘fought with unparalleled versatility. They had more than doubled their effectiveness by the way they had dodged from one place to the next.’ Observing the maxim of concentrating scarce assets at the schwerpunkt, or decisive point, the commanders of these panzer formations had achieved a local superiority of 7:1 over a Red Army still coming to grips with the complexities of mobile warfare. This had enabled them to seize and retain the initiative, generating confusion in the ranks of the enemy by never giving them time to pause and regroup. Soviet units were then ground down and bled white in a tightly controlled battle of manoeuvre. Von Manstein envisaged his ‘backhand’ plan as repeating this on a much larger scale in the summer. The carrot he was dangling before Hitler was the possibility, so he believed, of repeating what he was at present realising in his winter counter-offensive, writ large.

As of 10 March, both Hitler and von Manstein were correct in their presumption that Stalin wished to return to the offensive with the onset of the dry season. The existence of the Kursk salient, so pregnant with military opportunity for either side, was identified by the Germans as providing the ideal springboard from which Soviet forces could launch a great offensive. There could be no doubt as to their intention: to realise in the early summer what they had failed to achieve in the late winter campaign – the destruction of the entire German southern wing on the Eastern Front.

The Field Marshal’s conviction that the Soviets would be prompted to launch their offensive sooner rather than later also stemmed from his conviction that destruction of Army Group South was the necessary prelude to Stalin’s wider political objective of securing the Balkans, a matter that he thought to be of overwhelming concern to the Russian leader.

In spite of the Grand Alliance, Stalin nursed deep suspicion that his Western allies, in particular the British, harboured their own ambitions in that region. Von Manstein believed the Soviet leader was thus strongly motivated to act quickly before any landings in southern Europe allowed them to gain control there. He argued that the forces the Soviets must assemble to realise such an ambitious plan would have to be huge. Should they be defeated in such an attempt – as he believed they could be – the consequences for the war in the East would be profound. Hoping that Hitler could be seduced by such a prospect into opting for what he believed to be the correct military solution to the strategic dilemma facing the Ostheer, he proceeded to set out the substance of his plan.

Its basic concept had not changed at all from the tentative design submitted to Hitler the previous month, when he had first broached the notion. Von Manstein later wrote:

It envisaged that if the Russians did as we anticipated and launched a pincer attack on the Donets area from the north and south, an operation which would sooner or later be supplemented by an offensive around Kharkov, our arc of front along the Donets and Mius should be given up in accordance with an agreed time-table in order to draw the enemy westwards towards the Lower Dnieper. Simultaneously, all the reserves that could possibly be released, in particular the bulk of the armour, were to assemble in the area west of Kharkov [elsewhere he is more precise, specifying in the vicinity of Kiev], first to smash the enemy assault forces which we expected to find there and then to drive into the flank of those advancing in the direction of the Lower Dnieper. In this way, the enemy would be doomed to suffer the same fate on the Sea of Azov as he had in store for us on the Black Sea.

However, whilst von Manstein could propose, only Adolf Hitler could dispose. In this matter, von Manstein’s knowledge of Hitler’s persona and modus operandi should have forewarned him as to his probable reaction. The ‘backhand’ proposal would be rejected by Hitler as being far too radical and audacious ever to be seriously contemplated. This was especially so, as, according to von Manstein himself, the German leader was by this stage of the War becoming exceedingly wary of embracing any mobile operation unless its ‘success could be guaranteed in advance’. Indeed, it had become the norm that whenever von Manstein advanced a plan predicated upon mobile warfare, Hitler’s immediate response was to quash the proposal with a comment along the lines of ‘We’ll have no talk of that!’

Furthermore, the execution of such a vast operation, governed as it was by the critical issue of timing, would require Hitler to devolve command and control of the forces involved to the field commanders, and especially to von Manstein. Although, as we have seen, he had been prepared to do this just a month before, that had only been because the Führer had been in extremis at that point in the conflict, and it was atypical behaviour on his part. Rather, Hitler had been moving to garner more and more control over the day-to-day operations in the field into his own hands, convinced that he was a far more capable judge of what was required in the conduct of the war in the East than his professional military.

In December 1941 Hitler had assumed the role of Commander in Chief of the Army (Heer) in December 1941 to add to his pre-existing position as Head of the Armed Forces (Wehrmacht). This extension of the notion of Führerprinzship from the political into the military domain, with its assertion of military control being vested in the hands of one individual, robbed the professional military of their prerogative to make command decisions. Hitler’s denigration of his general’s expertise was summed up by his observation to a former Chief of Staff in 1941: ‘This little matter of operational command is something that anyone can do.’

Evidence of Hitler’s wish to micro-manage the day-to-day running of affairs at the front, and the manner in which this served to rob even the highest of commanders of their capacity to exercise their professional military judgement, is conveyed in a photograph. It shows von Manstein at a table in his command train as it rattled through the Ukrainian countryside. Along with his command staff he is seen examining a series of maps, whilst over his left shoulder, and attached to the wall of the carriage in large letters on a poster, is the question Was würde der Führer dazu sagan? – What would the Führer have to say about it? This served, as intended, as an ever constant prompt from Rastenburg that whatever was decided had in the end to be both acceptable to and sanctioned by Hitler. Such an aide-memoire was to be displayed in plain sight wherever command decisions had to be made.

Inevitably, Hitler’s subsequent command style reflected the mindset he brought to bear on military problems. Thus, his operational decisions were governed more by the need to address concerns of personal prestige and ends of an economic and political nature than by realistic military necessity.

Coloured as his views were by his experience as a First World War frontkampfer, his rigid injunction to his troops was ‘to stand firm and fight, not one step back’. Hitler had first issued this instruction to his troops in the face of the Soviet counter-offensive before Moscow in December 1941, and it was soon to become the touchstone of his command style. Nicholas von Below, the Führer’s LuftWaffenadjutant throughout the conflict, was able to observe at close quarters Hitler’s modus operandi. He was later to observe in his memoirs:

Hitler forbade retreats from the front, even operational necessities to regain freedom of manoeuvre or to spare the men in the field. His distrust of the generals had increased inordinately and would never be quite overcome … he reserved to himself every decision, even the minor tactical ones.

In September 1942, this approach had been formalised when Hitler issued his ‘Führer Defence Order’. He had been stung into taking this action by his suspicion that the surrender of territory in pursuance of a flexible defence by units in Army Groups North and Centre in the late summer constituted evidence of a growing ‘retreatist mentality’ that pervaded the higher echelons of the Ostheer, which manifested itself at the first sign of pressure from the Soviets. In consequence, his demand to ‘stand and fight’ was elevated to the level of official doctrine. Thereafter, it became the basis from which he responded to every contingency, with adherence to this dogma being raised to the level of a virtue. Indeed, the fate of most field commanders with the temerity to ignore the Führer’s will in this matter and exercise their own initiative was more often than not, the sack. A fate which, in due course, even von Manstein, for all his brilliance, was unable to escape.
Backhand Blow: Kharkov 1943

The Commanders – D-Day

Rommel

Hitler and the Allies instinctively chose to command in the great battle two champions whose fates had already intertwined: Generalfeldmarshal (Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel, ‘The Desert Fox’ and General Bernard Montgomery, ‘Monty’. Rommel with his small Afrika Korps had come closer than any man in history to severing the jugular of the British Empire. His first command in the invasion of France in 1940 had seen him carve out a reputation in command of the 7th Panzer ‘Ghost’ Division as a master of modern armoured warfare. In North Africa he was to make the world his audience, and the British soldier one of his greatest admirers for his brilliance no less than his chivalry. So thoroughly had he won the moral ascendancy over the enemy that British commanders were driven to forbid the common use of the term ‘a Rommel’ used to describe any action particularly and imaginatively well-done. Even Churchill had recognized the difference when he said to the House on 27 January 1942, with El Alamein still unwon: ‘We have a very daring and skilful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.’

Montgomery

Montgomery was to change all that and not by forbidding his men to respect a gallant enemy. Montgomery chose to reestablish the British soldier’s faith in himself and his commanders. A thorough professional, he had distinguished himself by commanding the 3rd Division in a demanding rearguard action in the retreat to Dunkirk. He also possessed the uncanny sense of instilling a sense of trust in him, he turned around the 8th Army, defeated Rommel at El Alamein and chased him across North Africa. His successes in concluding the North African campaign, and in Sicily and southern Italy made him the darling of the British people and their army. After years of shameful defeats, he embodied victory.

The Commanders’ Appraisal of the Situation

With an eerie coincidence, both Rommel and Montgomery submitted their first appraisals of the strategic requirements of their new commands to their political masters on 31 December 1943. Both men brought a fresh approach and a master’s touch and both rejected the bases of existing plans and assumptions. Rommel had just finished an exhaustive inspection of the fortifications of the so-called Atlantic Wall that ran from Holland to the Bay of Biscay. Rommel’s report read:

We can hardly expect a counter-attack by the few reserves we have behind the coast at the moment, with no self-propelled guns and an inadequate quantity of anti-tank weapons, to succeed in destroying the powerful force which the enemy will land. We know from experience that the British soldier is quick to consolidate his gains and then holds on tenaciously with excellent support from his superior air arm and naval guns, the observers for which direct the fire from the front line.

With the coastline held as thinly as it is at present, the enemy will probably succeed in creating bridgeheads at several different points and in achieving a major penetration in our coastal defences. Once this has happened it will only be by the rapid intervention of our operational reserves that he will be thrown back into the sea. This requires that these forces should be held very close behind the coast defences.

These observations were based on his personal observations of the crippling effectiveness on German operations of overwhelming Allied air power.

Montgomery had just reviewed the plans prepared in London for the invasion at Churchill’s personal request. His report read:

My first impression is that the present plan is impracticable. From a purely Army point of view the following points are essential:

o The initial landings must be made on the widest possible front,

o One British army to land on a front of two, or possibly, three corps.

One American army similarly.

o The air battle must be won before the operation is launched. We must then aim at success in the land battle by the spread and violence of our operations.

Advantages and Disadvantages?

Both men were allotted similar roles under a theatre commander. Montgomery was appointed commander of the 21st Army Group which would conduct the Allied invasion. He would personally command the British 2nd Army under Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey and the American 1st Army under Lieutenant General Omar Bradley. Two later armies would follow his army group, and a separate American army group would be formed. His superior was General Dwight Eisenhower who commanded all Allied forces in the European Theatre of Operations and would have overall command of all ground, air, and sea forces in the invasion. Rommel was given command of Army Group B consisting of the 7th and 15th Armies, on a front from Holland to the Loire River. Two other armies in southern France (1st and 19th) were formed into Army Group G. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Eisenhower’s counterpart, had overall command of all German forces in the West. Neither Montgomery or Rommel would have direct command over the theatre naval and air forces.

The remarkable similarities in their situations ceased at this point. Montgomery worked within one the most cooperative and efficient alliances in history and within a chain of command that functioned rationally. Although he had professional disagreements, some of them bitter, with his peers and colleagues, the system consistently supported his efforts to plan and prepare for the invasion. He was given the widest latitude and initiative. Rommel, on the other hand, worked within a system that had been both morally and professionally distorted by the evil genius of Adolf Hitler. His chain of command theoretically ran from the German High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht – OKW) through von Rundstedt at OB West to himself at Army Group B. The reality was that the unity of command of his army group was badly compromised. He could not move a single division without Hitler’s express permission. Hitler involved himself in every detail and muddied the concept of operations to meet the invasion. Rommel did not even control most of the panzer divisions held in reserve to counterattack the landing. That was the domain of the Commander of Panzer Forces West, General Geyr von Schweppenburg, who reported to von Rundstedt.

The great issue that the Germans were not able to resolve before the invasion was the concept and timing of the counterattacks that would drive the invasion into the sea. Rommel was adamant that the operational reserves should be held closely behind the coast. Allied air power would harry and bleed those held deeper inland as they tried to move, so delaying them that they would arrive too late and too understrength to defeat the invasion. Von Rundstedt and von Geyr, having never commanded under conditions of enemy air superiority, tended to discount Rommel’s warnings. They maintained that the panzer reserves should be held deeper inland so as to be able to move to any sector of the threatened front. Hitler never endorsed one or the other position decisively. The result was that Rommel was given control of only three panzer divisions: Panzer Lehr, 21st Panzer, and 12th SS Panzer. He wanted to put them all behind the coastal defences in Normandy between the Rivers Vire and Orne. Again Hitler intervened to micromanage affairs, by ruling that Rommel could only move one division, 21st Panzer, directly behind the front. It was not until late May that Rommel was able to extract from Hitler permission to move Hitlerjugend to the Norman coast as well. However, the Führer was adamant that Panzer Lehr remain inland in the area between Chartres and Le Mans.

In divining the location of the invasion, the great question facing the Germans and one the Allies took great pains to keep from them, Rommel was at first convinced by the conventional wisdom that the invasion would come the shortest distance across the Channel, straight at the Pas-de-Calais area. The Pas-de-Calais not only offered a short road into the Reich itself but was site of the vaunted, mysterious ‘wonder weapon’ that Hitler had promised would make the English weep for peace. Naturally the Allies would strike there. But as the winter turned to spring, Hitler’s vaunted intuition seemed to make a comeback. He sensed more than analyzed that Normandy might be the site of the invasion or at least a major diversion. Rommel’s increasing familiarity with his sector had also changed his mind to the degree that he thought at the very least the Allies would conduct major airborne diversionary landings in Normandy. Infantry divisions that had been going consistently to reinforce the 15th Army at the Pas-de-Calais now began to be assigned to 7th Army. The 91st Airlanding Division was moved to the Cotentin Peninsula, and in March the 352nd Infantry Division was assigned to the Calvados coast, the area between the Vire and the Orne and the responsibility of Generalleutnant Erich Marcks, commander of LXXXIV Corps. Rommel also specifically ordered that Kraiss’ division take over a section of the coastal defences manned by one of the weaker coastal defence divisions. Hitler’s interest was the key to approving the move of 21st Panzer and 12th SS Panzer Divisions up behind the coast to support Marcks’ corps.

Montgomery would have been appalled at Rommel’s difficulties. It would have been cruel to have informed Rommel, on the other hand, of Montgomery’s scope for action. Essentially Montgomery threw out the plans already prepared for the invasion. Using every bit of authority he had been given to plan, prepare, and conduct the invasion, he took even more and was supported because he manifestly knew what he was doing. He had already identified the essentials of the invasion concept. Now he devised the strategic plan that would underlie all else. The British 2nd Army would land with three divisions abreast on a two-corps (I and XXX Corps) front west of the Orne River. The Americans would land with two divisions as the lead elements of two corps (V and VII Corps) further west. The two lodgements would link up into a solid lodgement as quickly as possible. The British sector, being closer to open country and 150 miles closer to Paris than the Americans, would attract the strategic priority of the Germans and most of their armoured forces. The mission of 2nd Army was to hold this attention and the panzers while the American 1st Army built up sufficient forces for a major breakout of the lodgement which would in turn envelop the Germans concentrated against the British. There was a strategic elegance in the simplicity and practicality of the plan.

Montgomery had another priceless advantage over Rommel. Although neither man had operational control over the naval and air forces in theatre, Montgomery had the fullest support and cooperation of those two arms in both the planning and conduct of operations. Rommel had to deal with national commanders of these services who were jealous of their authority to the point of obstruction of the war effort. But by the spring of 1944, the cooperation of the increasingly impotent Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine were of questionable value anyway. Montgomery, on the other hand, had call on massive air and naval fleets of unsurpassed power and capability.

Without doubt the greatest advantage possessed by Montgomery over Rommel was the ability to read his enemy’s thoughts. The British Goverment Code and Cipher School at Bletchley succeeded in breaking the coded messages from the seemingly unbreakable German Enigma coding machine. Enigma was in use throughout the Wehrmacht as the ultimate in secure radio communications. The exploitation of this ability was codenamed Ultra, and the Allies had taken priceless advantage of it in the Mediterranean Theatre where radio communications were vital. The Western European Theatre was more of a problem. Active operations had ceased in 1940, and four years of comfortable garrison conditions had allowed the Germans to install landline communications throughout the occupied countries. Prior to D-Day, Ultra was reading comparatively little from OB West. The destruction or disruption of the landline system in order to drive German communications into the vulnerable air, therefore, became a high priority for the few days just prior to the invasion.

In the advantages and disadvantages so far listed, Rommel had come off a poor second. In one arena, though, he retained a sharp and frustrating lead. The German soldier consistently demonstrated overall greater qualities of aggressive leadership, offensive-mindedness, and initiative at every level than his British and American counterparts. One senior British officer asked in exasperation how it was that they were reading the enemy’s mail and still had not beaten him. The answer was in the mettle of the German soldier. General Harold Alexander noted of the Americans: ‘They simply do not know their job as soldiers and this is the case from the general to the private soldier. Perphaps the weakest link of all is the junior leader, who just does not lead, with the result that their men don’t really fight.’ If the Americans lacked a consistently good junior leader to follow, the British soldier, particularly the English, all too often lost heart and gave ground when his officers were killed and wounded. So noted was this characteristic that the Germans were making it a priority to kill junior British officers in Italy. After D-Day one American battalion commander paid the Germans the ultimate compliment, although he was dealing with the elite Fallschirmjägers:

You know, those Germans are the best soldiers I ever saw. They’re smart and they don’t know what the word ‘fear’ means. They come in and they keep coming until they get their job done or you kill ’em… If they had as many people as we have they could come right through us any time they made up their minds to do it.

Lee’s Last Command I

Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Generals

When Gen. Robert E. Lee established a stalemate in Virginia with the siege of Petersburg, and the indirect siege of Richmond, the heartland of the older south presented the appearance of a continuing existence as the Confederacy. There was an obvious recession from its vast military front of the year before, when the nation had armies in the field from Pennsylvania to the lower Mississippi. But there were no serious indentations on its thousand miles of Atlantic coastline, nor penetrations in its productive access from the ocean to west of the Alleghenies. West of the mountains, the army under Sherman presented the only serious threat from Tennessee to the Gulf of Mexico, including stretches in Alabama and Mississippi westward along the Gulf. Though isolated across the Mississippi River a separate domain existed in Texas (ingeniously supplied by trading through Matamoras) and armies operated in the lost lands of Arkansas and Missouri.

In western Georgia, the railroad junction city of Atlanta occupied on its front the equivalent position of Richmond in the East. No armies had previously approached this center, where strong outlying works were built and where Governor Brown promised he could field the thousands of state militia whose votes had saved them from conscription, Military actions of various size radiating out from the Atlanta area gave an impression of military stability to the Confederate West. A brilliant victory by Forrest at Brice’s Crossroads gave Old Bedford in his sphere the quality of invincibility which Lee sustained in his.

This appearance of stability was illusory. In the West there was no general with the prestige nor the diplomacy of Lee, who could gain compromises with the commander in chief and, in extreme emergency, break the barriers of the departmental system. As in Virginia even Lee had been able to circumvent the system only to the extent of fending off disaster and gaining a stalemate, in the West, where the commander in chief ruled supreme, nothing could save the Southern armed forces from the consequences of departmentalization.

This is not to imply that Jefferson Davis’s control of the military establishment and its policy caused the collapse of the extemporized agrarian Confederacy before the might of an industrialized nation four times its size. Libraries are crowded with volumes explaining the reasons why the quickly formed confederation was unable to maintain itself against physical force long enough to be granted its independence. Yet, exhibiting an heroic quality of the spirit to endure physically weakening and mentally discouraging hardships, along with a remarkable ingenuity and inventiveness, its soldiers and citizenry maintained armies in protection of its vital areas in June, 1864. It was in relation to those armies and the remaining key positions that Davis’s operation of his system doomed the Western Confederacy, regardless of what other forces may have been at work.

With the example of the Richmond-Petersburg front before his daily gaze, the obsessed President effected a faithful reproduction of the arrangement at Atlanta. Only minor details were changed, according to the different personalities. Atlanta’s department was sealed off from departments to the east and to the southwest, and Joe Johnston, the commander of the main army, could not obtain troops from adjoining departments to concentrate against the enemy’s main objective.

Within this standard procedure, the irrational element was Davis’s sudden turn to offense for defense-minded Joe Johnston, outnumbered two to one. As Joe Johnston’s reasonable protests were regarded merely as a subordinate’s efforts to thwart the authority of his superior, the General’s request for the one solution to his problem was dismissed as an excuse. But Johnston requested the one move feared by Sherman: Forrest turned loose on the Federal line of supplies.

It happened that the commander of the department to the southwest of Atlanta did not wish to relinquish Forrest. The great cavalry raider could serve better by guarding property in Alabama and Mississippi. Though it was natural for Davis to give departmental stability preference over a strategic objective, the case involving the Department of Alabama and Mississippi was special.

Civilian authorities and newspaper editors joined General Johnston’s appeal for Forrest to operate on Sherman’s communication, and Davis’s back stiffened at the suggestion that those persons knew more than he did. Also the department commander, Major General Dabney Maury, a regulation-style West Pointer, was a gentleman both by birth and act of Congress, while Bedford Forrest, an unlettered ex-slave dealer, was a rough customer who made up his own rules of war as he went along.

It was not, as it has sometimes been made to appear, that Davis missed the native genius for warfare uniquely possessed by Forrest. Davis showed no appreciation of any of the “originals” in the Confederacy, and little interest in accomplishments which did not fit into the system under his control.

Stonewall Jackson was a discovery of Lee, who personally gave that unexpected genius his chance while the commander in chief was preoccupied with Joe Johnston in their 1862 misunderstanding. Outside Davis’s area of concern, semi-autonomous domains were operated by Gorgas in ordnance, General Anderson in the cannon-producing Tredegar Iron Works, and young Dr. McCaw at Chimborazo Hospital, then the world’s largest military hospital and the most advanced of any kind. (The President’s bureaucratic medical director, Dr. Moore, reproached McCaw for negligence in his morning reports during the period when Chimborazo Hospital was achieving the lowest mortality rates in medical history until the sulfa drugs of World War II.)

Almost forgotten in the Navy Department, Secretary Mallory and Matthew Fontaine Maury, the oceanographer, were very imaginative in concepts and inventive in technology. The Confederate naval forces introduced the first ironclad warship, the first combat submarine, were extremely advanced in the use of underwater torpedoes and highly original in the production of the ram (notably the Arkansas and the Albemarle), designed to nullify the superior numbers and equipment of the United States naval forces.

This type of man, who recognized the need of new concepts and new methods adapted to the Confederacy’s specific circumstances, appeared in numbers and in a diversity of fields surprising in an essentially agricultural people fighting for an anachronistic culture. As their achievements were not interrelated in a single policy, the special gifts of these men were as wasted in their areas as was Forrest’s in the West. The misuse of Old Bedford was more dramatic because it was a focus of attention during a decisive campaign.

Jefferson Davis was acting according to form in restricting the Confederacy’s greatest raiding force to fending off enemy cavalry dispatched specifically for the purpose of keeping Forrest from Sherman’s lines of communication; and he merely repeated his pattern in Virginia when he refused to recognize a cause-and-effect strategy. The effect in Georgia was to permit Sherman to proceed to Atlanta untroubled by disruption to his supplies.

Since even Sherman, with his physical superiority, could not successfully attack dug-in troops at that stage of defensive warfare, Johnston executed an extremely skillful retreat and held the cautious enemy to a snail’s pace. However, by the time he reached the environs of Atlanta without striking an offensive blow, he was ruined with the President.

It is true that Johnston was secretive and evasive with his superior. Though Johnston talked then and later vaguely of his “plans,” he could only give ground, conserve his army, and hope for an opening in which he could deliver a counterstroke. The mutuality of the loathing between the two former West Point college mates made it impossible for Johnston to confide this to the President.

Someone should have told Davis that this was not the time to try to make up for all the lost opportunities of the past. A small army had been diverted from operations in the Lower South to help Sheridan drive Jubal Early out of the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. This not only helped stabilize the military situation in the Lower South but reduced Sherman’s supply of the replacements for losses which Grant had drawn upon. Of all times to hold on, this was it.

But Davis had seized upon the idea of an offensive as the one cure, and to get to the bottom of the matter with the recalcitrant Johnston, he sent Braxton Bragg to Atlanta. Bragg, of course, told the President what he wanted to hear, and General Joseph E. Johnston joined Harvey Hill in the growing legion of generals without commands.

Against Lee’s advice, Davis then appointed combative John Hood, whose skill at maneuvering for personal advancement exceeded both his military abilities and good judgment. Hood was a fine fighter of troops and a better soldier than his disastrous career as army commander would indicate. However, having won the position of army commander on the understanding that Davis’s offensive would be mounted, Hood was precommitted to attack a superior force.

It was not that Hood’s offensive around Atlanta was poorly conceived. As even Grant’s mighty hosts showed in Virginia, the times in the war were unfavorable for offense against an alert, determined enemy. Ten days after Hood’s appointment on July 18th, the poor, doomed men of the Army of Tennessee had attacked themselves out of Sherman’s path to Atlanta. The siege lasted little more than one month, and on September 2nd Sherman’s triumphant army marched into the half-wrecked city.

The illusory stability in the Lower South was immediately exposed. With the fall of Atlanta the bottom dropped out of the Confederate West. What had seemed in early July to be a broad front of Confederate resistance was suddenly reduced to the single hold-out of Lee.

To the North, the good news of Atlanta’s fall in early September obliterated the already dimming memory of Grant’s catastrophic losses back in June. Within three weeks more, before the end of September, the army collected under Sheridan in the Valley finally overran Jubal Early’s little force.

All the enemies accumulated by bitter Old Jube blamed him for the debacle. With a simple devotion not suggested by his harshness to others, Early accepted the calumny rather than excuse himself on the grounds of the disparity between his force and the enemy’s. After carrying the war to the enemy for three months, at the end he had little more than ten thousand men of all arms against close to fifty thousand under Sheridan.

Such personal details, unknown to either side, had no relation to the effect of the loss of the Shenandoah Valley. Though the South tried to explain away the disaster by making Jubal Early the goat, none could escape the costly loss of the supply center nor the moral effect of this defeat in the region associated with Stonewall Jackson’s great days. In the North, the sweeping aside of Early’s remnants redounded to the glory of Sheridan, who was finally able to enjoy an uninterrupted spree in the destruction of personal property. By then, with the war suddenly, or so it seemed, contracted to a single siege, obviously no Democratic peace party had a chance in the November elections. The Lincoln Administration would be supported to the finish, and the end did not come mercifully.

With Sherman in Atlanta and the Confederate forces outside, Hood occupied the Federals until mid-November. Then a concentration of Federal forces formed an army to contain Hood’s troops, while Sherman, after burning Atlanta, turned loose his soldiers on a march of pillage and destruction across Georgia to the port of Savannah. Hogs, chickens, milk cows were slaughtered, horses taken and barns burned. Family stores of bacon and corn meal were rooted out of hiding places and, if the women protested or the officer in charge of the raiding felt porky, the house was burned. By Christmas, when Savannah was occupied, Hood had wrecked the Army of Tennessee at Nashville, and the ragged, starving survivors were retreating into Mississippi.

In February, 1865, Sherman’s army, with the men then hardened by vandalism into a mob, started northward through South Carolina with the self-declared purpose of vengeance on the breeding ground of secession. The soldiers were allowed full license to loot, and they raged like hoodlums through private homes, taking jewelry, silver, whatever struck their fancy. Home-burnings became more commonplace until the state capital at Columbia was reached, on February 17th, and this city was, according to Sherman, “totally burned.” On the same day the ante-bellum, cosmopolitan planters’ paradise of Charleston was entered, bringing to an end its four-year-siege from the harbor.

The month before, Fort Fisher, guarding the approach to Wilmington, North Carolina, had fallen to an amphibious attack. Whiting, who had failed in the field with Beauregard at Petersburg, gave his life in leading an inspired defense of the fort strengthened by his engineering skill. Braxton Bragg, with no functions left as Military Advisor to the President, was officially in command of the department, with headquarters at Wilmington. On February 22nd, five days after Charleston was occupied, Wilmington was entered, and the last port on the Atlantic was closed. The Confederacy was isolated from the world.

After that, the pace to the finish was accelerated. On land Sherman started northward again, entering North Carolina. Another army started eastward from the coast. Cavalry raiders struck in from the West, terrorizing isolated families and running off stock. Joe Johnston was plucked from exile and given command of a heterogeneous collection of troops, including remnants of Hood’s army, assembled in North Carolina in Sherman’s fiery path. This force “melted away,” Johnston said, before his eyes. At every nightfall men simply walked off, the artillerists taking their personally owned mounts, to get home and look after their families.

Scattered fighting continued in stretches of the Lower South, and the small empire in Texas held on to its lonely existence. But the core of the Confederacy, as it existed in mid-June when Lee set his army to withstand the siege, had shrunk to the two hundred inland miles between Grant’s and Sherman’s armies.

By March, the Richmond-Petersburg fort had become an island, with its lines extended to more than thirty miles. Finally the lines were stretched too far for the declining army to man the works. The masses of the enemy poured over in waves and at last, eleven months after the campaign had begun, Lee was forced into the open.

He had nowhere to go and nothing to go with. When his survivors escaped from the overrun lines, Richmond was uncovered. Troops of Weitzel’s command, established in a permanent fine north of the James River, marched into the burning city, with the bands of a Negro division playing “The Year of Jubilee.”

The evacuation of Richmond removed the last conceivable justification for Lee’s army to remain in the field. Davis, however, fled the capital into some private world of his own, where he intended to carry on the resistance indefinitely.

The Civil War Trust

Lee’s Last Command II

The pride of the Army of Northern Virginia was forced to the humiliation of a flight, dignified by the name of a “retreat,” through the bleak farm country to the west of Petersburg. The twenty-seven thousand of all arms — wagoneers, doctors, hangers-on — were overhauled at the courthouse town of Appomattox County. There was nothing at Appomattox to defend. It was simply a place-name in the cheerless countryside where the walking skeletons could go no farther.

Before the army of Northern Virginia was officially dissolved on the 10th of April, 1865, in the months of “the long agony” while the Confederacy was disintegrating around the Richmond-Petersburg stronghold, there were thousands of soldiers with Lee who never believed they could be defeated with Uncle Robert. At first there was the hope of the November elections, which gradually faded with the collapse of other fronts. Then, beyond all reason, the men hoped because General Lee was there as the image of invincibility.

When did he know, beyond all outside unreasonable hope, that their second war for independence was doomed? By his own words, he regarded a siege as numbering the days of his own army. But during the summer, while the Federal forces gained no decisions on other fronts and Jubal Early threatened Washington with his small army, Grant’s grinding operations hacked away so slowly that obviously the enemy could achieve nothing definite against him before November. As an approaching finality is difficult for anyone to accept while it is still distant, and as Lee was by instinct a warrior, it is unlikely that he looked ultimate defeat squarely in the face when his army was first immobilized. Though he had said it would be a question of time, with the shape Grant’s army was then in, it could seem possible that time might run out on the enemy before it did on the Confederacy.

Because nothing he said or wrote in his most personal letters, during the remainder of 1864, indicated any change in Lee’s attitude, it would be impossible to select any given date when he recognized that all hope was gone for the Confederacy, when he accepted beyond reprieve the death of the cause for which he had sacrificed everything.

In terms of events, September 30th would be as close as any to the date when nothing remained to support the most desperate hope. By then General Lee had absorbed the news of the surrounding disasters — the fall of Atlanta at the other end of the line and the loss of the Shenandoah Valley at home. And on that day he observed the collapse of his own veteran troops in performing the simplest operation merely to maintain the siege.

When large-scale assault had passed from the Army of the Potomac in June, after the men were rested and the drooping morale rose, Grant began a monotonous pendulum movement of limited attacks south of Petersburg at the railroad to Wilmington and north of the James at the Richmond fortifications. This whittling away at Lee’s men was a focus of attrition directly on the manpower of Lee’s army in the deadliest wearing down of Lee’s ability to maintain a force in the field. In one of these grim mathematical exchanges of replaceable Federal soldiers falling to bring down an irreplaceable Confederate, on September 29th a surprise attack took Fort Harrison, a pivotal link in the chain of fortifications east of Richmond.

These works were manned principally by artillerists on the stationary guns, mostly men unfit for strenuous campaigning, and life on the bluffs near the James River had been relatively easy for these garrison troops. The men tended little vegetable gardens and their camps, cooler and fresher than the trenches, sometimes served as refitting stations for worn-out units, low in numbers and suffering absentees from sickness. While reconditioning, the regulars were available to assist the garrisons in repelling attack.

At the time of the pre-dawn surprise attack on Fort Harrison, only the skeletal brigades of Johnson’s Tennesseans and Gregg’s Texans were north of the James, neither in the fort. The garrison troops in the earthen works, lulled by the quiet tenor of their days, were overwhelmed almost before they knew what was happening, and Johnson’s and Gregg’s veterans were hard put to it to prevent the Federal force from extending the breach and wrecking Lee’s great system of fortifications.

Because of the critical location of the break, on the next day Lee rode personally back to the north side of the river, once more in front of the capital. With him he brought the other survivors of Field’s division, Hoke’s division and some of Pickett’s regiments. As carefully as he planned the masterpiece of Chancellorsville with Stonewall Jackson, the commanding general prepared an attack for retaking Fort Harrison with black-bearded young Hoke and burly, one-legged Charlie Field.

The assault opened on a flat-landed field of a size where General Lee could survey every detail of the waste of valiant life in uncoordinated, futile movements. Field attacked too soon and Hoke waited for the time of the order. Field’s brigadiers acted without concert and their units were cut up separately. As his men fell back in disorder, Hoke’s division advanced to receive alone the concentrated fire of the enemy. Then these brigades retired, considerably shaken.

At the first confused repulse, General Lee could not accept the finality of this breakdown in command in a rudimentary action of such limited scope. One of the soldiers who passed near to him wrote, “I had always thought General Lee was a cold and unemotional man, but he showed lots of feeling and excitement on that occasion.” Then the soldier described the General “imploring the men to make one more effort to take the position for him.”

The men were moved to make the effort, but only the spirit was willing and that briefly. The soldiers were too experienced to advance into concentrated fire, from an enemy behind works, under leaders whose lack of capacity made useless the sacrifice of life. Almost by common consent, the veterans of Lee’s greatest campaigns broke backward and made their way to safety in unapologetic disorder.

The General did not try to rally them again. When he turned Traveler to the river bridge, leading to what was becoming the fort of Petersburg, that may have been the hour when the certainty of the Confederacy’s inevitable defeat came over him. It could scarcely have come later.

On that last day of September, five months after the gathering of all his generals on Clark’s Mountain, the Army of Northern Virginia revealed itself to be little more than an image in the memories of men. The generals of the last pageantry in the spring were dead or scattered on the pleasantly warm day of early autumn.

Broken Ewell remained in the token position of commanding the Department of Richmond. Longstreet, with a partially paralyzed arm from his wound, returned to the mundane assignment of commanding a permanent line outside Richmond north of the James River. The division of Charles Field, the man whom Longstreet had so bitterly opposed, were the only troops of the old First Corps north of the James. The other division in the command was that of Robert Hoke, the disappointment as a major general. Ewell, with the department, and Longstreet, with the line of works, were to last to the end, though poor Dick Ewell was to suffer the final indignity of being captured on the retreat to Appomattox, where he commanded some local defense troops from Richmond and a “battalion” of sailors.

Pickett’s division had enjoyed its last moment of glory in driving Butler’s troops out of the Bermuda Hundred lines. George Pickett became a shadowy figure in the last months, continuing in his baffling withdrawal from Lee’s regard. In time the division, crowded with conscripts, would be pulled out of line and held as a reserve unit.

Dick Anderson, Longstreet’s successor on the First Corps, fell steadily away from his one great hour at Spotsylvania. Defeatism settled on him earlier and more obviously than most, and gradually his “corps” was reduced to the hodgepodge division of Bushrod Johnson, formed at Petersburg in the May battles against Butler.

The Second Corps had mostly disintegrated in the Valley. Jubal Early, contemned and forgotten, was left there with a token force without any of the young division commanders who had flashed so brilliantly in the campaign against Grant. Robert Rodes and Dodson Ramseur were killed, young Ramseur with a letter in his pocket announcing the birth of a new son. John B. Gordon was brought back to Lee’s forces around Petersburg.

Only the Third Corps sustained its entity all the way, despite the increasing absences of A. P. Hill. His lovely wife and two young daughters took a residence in Petersburg, and the physically failing general spent much time at home. Toward the end, when the possibility of evacuating Richmond was discussed, Hill said he would not want to survive the fall of the city, and it would almost look as if Little Powell made sure he did not. When the break came in the lines on Sunday morning, April 2nd, A. P. Hill hurried back from a sick leave to make a personal reconnaissance into the wooded no man’s land beyond the heavy fortifications. He was accompanied only by his favorite courier, Sergeant Tucker. They encountered a couple of Federal stragglers and Hill rode toward them, calling to the men to surrender. They fired on him, and life was gone from the wasted body when Hill, toppled from the saddle, struck the damp earth.

Lee choked up when Tucker brought him the news, and his careworn face reflected the stab of sorrow. Then, controlling himself, the General said, “He is at rest now, and we who are left are the ones to suffer.”

In the cavalry, little was required of the reconnaissance for which Jeb Stuart had been famous, and Wade Hampton performed well enough those thankless chores of fighting the enemy off the railroads. Long before the end, the Weldon Railroad was severed beyond repair, and supplies came only by trickles to the island of defense. In 1865, Hampton took Calbraith Butler’s cavalry back to South Carolina, to try to put heart into the hopeless delaying action against Sherman. The highly respected South Carolina grandee was not close to Lee personally, and no one ever took the place in his affections of “my poor Stuart,” as Lee called him, nor of the “great and good Jackson.”

The nearest intimate was John B. Gordon, the patriot soldier who had attracted Lee at the beginning of the campaign. Bringing high gifts of intelligence, devotion and tireless energy to his inspiring physical presence, the Georgian nonetheless reflected the change from the panoplied gathering in May when he, a brigadier at the beginning of the campaign, became the closest companion of the commanding general. Yet so relatively simple were the technical demands in defending fortified positions that Gordon could become the army’s first non-professional corps commander. Like Hampton in the cavalry, he brought to his duties the stout heart which represented the essential element of leadership needed in the trenches.

The ever-lengthening lines, the digging of which exhausted more and more men, were manned by the various units who had defended Petersburg, interspersed with the units whose pride was sustained by the place-names on their battle flags. Except for the marchings out and back forced on Hill’s fading men, the once mobile army acted as a garrison force covering some thirty-odd miles of expanding front. Lee’s army had finally been claimed by the system.

As the days ticked away the life of Lee’s army, the commander in chief was at last undisturbed in his departments. No one importuned him for concentration of forces, no decisions need be made of where to shift troops. His defensive policy had ultimately achieved a totally static defense. Only time, not sudden actions, could change his charts.

Fittingly, one of Davis’s last arrangements was to resolve Beauregard’s second-in-command status by placing him in command of yet another department. This time Old Bory was given the official authority for the area in which driven, goaded John Hood took his Army of Tennessee. Beauregard’s ambitions would not again delude him into trying to recapture glory in one of Davis’s fantasy departments. He accepted the assignment outwardly with good grace, remained blandly detached from involvement with the details of the foredoomed disasters and, playing out his role of the French marshal, settled for the future with his reputation as it then existed.

Lee was at last in sole command of the Richmond area north and south of the James River, now that it was too late to do more than exercise the techniques of a professional soldier in defending a hopeless position until the surviving force was sufficiently weakened for the enemy to storm the walls. He had written to the commander in chief, “I think it is his [Grant’s] purpose to compel the evacuation of our present position by cutting off supplies, and that he will not renew the attempt to drive us away by force. … It behooves us to do everything in our power to thwart his new plan of reducing us to starvation.”

To the end, General Lee anticipated his immediate antagonist. On July 24th he wrote his son Custis his estimate of Grant: “His talent and strategy consists in accumulating overwhelming numbers.” To meet this policy he could only continue to offer suggestions. Davis paid not the slightest heed to anything the General suggested, but Lee wrote letters as carefully composed as those in the earlier years.

He could not have hoped that any action would be taken this late in the day. Back in October of 1862 Lee wrote his wife a strangely ignored letter on the perils to the Confederacy caused by vanity of the spirit. Referring to the “hand of God” in their affairs, he wrote, “If our people would recognize it, and cease from their vain self-boasting and adulation, how strong would be my belief in final success.” Obviously, he could expect no change of spirit in people with the tide running out in 1864.

In dutifully writing suggestions of measures that might be taken, he avoided the one subject which grew in his mind as the last military expedient. This was the abandonment of Richmond, a desperate measure surely enough, but one he preferred to prolonging the ordeal of starvation. Since he knew the President’s answer beforehand, General Lee evidently found it pointless to try any more diplomatic maneuvers.

To his own army, his own front, he brought the best he had each day. Like a great artist, he could only bring everything there was in him. Nothing was withheld, unused or wasted, however futile he might have believed the end. For to recognize the hopelessness of a cause was not for Lee to act on the acceptance of defeat. Realistic evaluation was a proper function of the mind, not of the heart.

To Lee, as a deeply religious man, resignation to an event before it happened would be to anticipate the will of God. In Lee’s concept of man’s relation to life, this would have been inconceivable, a violation of the duty clearly revealed by each new sun.

A military community was dependent upon him for its existence, for the support of its morale and its honor. Small though the sum of the units in comparison with the enemy’s might, more than fifty thousand men of all arms comprised the force from Richmond’s fortifications to the lines southwest of Petersburg. Daily the spirits of some men failed, and they stole away from their former comrades. Some went directly into the enemy’s lines for food, others home to obtain food and provide safety for their families. Daily too the bodies of men proved unequal to the strain, and those who did not die were invalided out of the army. Yet to the end, to all ends, the spirit and the flesh of others would endure as long as he led.

Lee knew that. As his own children, these men had been placed in his care and they gave him the same implicit trust. Yet as a parent who knows he cannot provide food for children whose eyes turn to him in hunger, Lee must have suffered from the inwardly held knowledge that he could not provide these trusting men with what they expected.

He did not want to tell them to surrender; he never wanted that. But, as in his unrevealed preference for abandoning Richmond and breaking out into the open, it would have been his preference to bring the slow agony to a quick end. On this, he wrote an extremely revealing passage.

In his saddlebags, General Lee kept loose sheets of paper, on which he wrote from time to time, without date, various maxims, proverbs and Psalms, selections from standard authors, and occasionally some reflection of his own. These were written in his own clear, strong hand, slanting to the right, with “f’s” heavily shaded in the downward stroke. On one sheet of paper, he wrote this:

The warmest instincts of every man’s soul declare the glory of the soldier’s death. It is more appropriate to the Christian than to the Greek to sing:

Glorious his fate, and envied is his lot, Who for his country fights and for it dies.”

To this the General added another line, as if on further reflection on the subject. “There is a true glory and a true honor: the glory of duty done, the honor of the integrity of principle.”

This was all left to the man whose vaulting aspirations had carried him to the top of his profession and whom General Winfield Scott called “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.”

WAS KURSK DECISIVE?

Germany clearly suffered a crushing defeat at Kursk. The Wehrmacht did not destroy sizeable enemy forces and didn’t eliminate STAVKA’s intention to conduct a major offensive in 1943. Neither did the German Army achieve freedom of action nor consolidate their line. Germany had also used up much of its reserves. But was Kursk a decisive defeat or just another step in a series of defeats suffered by the Wehrmacht? To adequately address this, we must look at a number of strategic issues. These include attrition and replacement rates of men and armor, intelligence, ability of each side to focus their effort and political issues.

There is some speculation about German losses at Kursk being a decisive factor to the final outcome of the war. Total German losses at Kursk “were 56,827 men, which amounted to roughly 3 percent of the total 1,601,454 men the Germans lost in Russia during 1943”. The ability to reform the units suffering these losses was the real problem: “The armored formations, reformed and re-equipped with so much effort, had lost heavily in both men and equipment and would now be unemployable for a long time to come”. Colonel General Heinz Guderian goes on to write: “It was problematic whether they could be rehabilitated in time to defend the Eastern front”. It is difficult to argue with the fact that the attrition of German forces and consequently, the loss of an available strategic reserve allowed the Soviets to quickly capitalize and overwhelm the German at specific points following Kursk.

Another often discussed reason that Germany was unable to defeat the Red Army was the incredible Russian capacity to generate forces, albeit poorly trained, but in this case quantity made up for what it lacked in quality. The Red Army, although often clumsy and awkward, had one thing going for it: nearly inexhaustible manpower. It “took the form of successive waves of newly mobilized armies, each taking its toll of the invaders before shattering and being replaced by the next wave. Its mobilization capability saved the Soviet Union from destruction in 1941 and again in 1942”.

As efficient a killing machine the Wehrmacht was, even it had its limits to the men and machines it could destroy—one would be hard pressed to find a better example of attrition on a massive scale. It is important to point out, however, that even with the amazing capacity for the Soviets to generate man and machine in huge numbers, the assumption that the Wehrmacht would lose to a battle of attrition was not a foregone conclusion. The effectiveness of the Wehrmacht at destroying Soviet forces had not dropped off significantly in 1943. The German army continued to destroy Russian armor and men at an alarming rate. Even in 1943, this rate was disproportionate to Germany’s own losses by a wide margin. Zetterling and Frankson show total German losses for 1943 at 1,803,755 (1,442,654 in combat) versus Russian losses for the same period at 7,857,503. Additionally this source shows Wehrmacht tank and assault gun losses on all fronts to be 8,067 in 1943 while the Red Army lost 23,500. Meanwhile, replacement numbers for tanks and assault guns were 10,747 for the Germans and 24,006 for the Russians. Although these figures do not reflect Lend-Lease equipment delivered to the Red Army, they still offer a strong argument that attrition and replacement numbers alone did not give the Russians a decisive advantage in the war. In fact, according to Zetterling and Frankson, attrition rates favored Germany: “it was the Red Army which could be expected to run out of men first”. This attrition argument, however, is only valid if the Germans, like the Soviets, could focus all their resources on the Eastern Front.

The Wehrmacht had other demands on their military resources. The Wehrmacht’s would increasingly need to dilute their limited forces over a several fronts, while the Russians could continue to focus their entire effort against the Wehrmacht. This was because Stalin was able to ignore Japan as a threat. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and its ensuing war with the United States “eased Soviet concerns over her eastern borders and permitted wholesale shifting of reserves from the Far East, Trans-Baikal, and Siberia to help relieve the military crisis at Moscow”. Also “The Red Orchestra”, or Soviet Intelligence had ascertained through Richard Sorge (code named Ramzaia) that Japan had no intention of attacking Russia.

The factors working against Hitler’s Germany were multiple. To point to a battle such as Kursk as the decisive action in the war ignores many other factors, some of which are enumerated above. Yes, the German offensive at Kursk wore down the German ability to respond to the Soviet counteroffensive and consequently accelerated the Wehrmacht’s destruction on the Eastern Front, but this in itself is not decisive. Webster’s Dictionary defines “decisive” as “having the power or quality of determining”. In this light, we must look at two other fateful events on the Eastern Front: the Soviet counteroffensive around Moscow in December of 1941, and the fateful siege of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad in 1942. If any one of these clashes could be ruled as decisive, it would probably be Stalingrad, because after Stalingrad, German victory over the Soviets was highly improbable. It follows then that in the spring of 1943, Germany’s fate was already sealed. After Kursk, we see a cascade of crushing defeats of the Wehrmacht from which it never recovered. In this context, however, we can say that the Battle of Kursk was pivotal, defined as “of critical importance”, because it marked a clear turning point where the Germans lost the strategic initiative and the Soviets gained it.

Although in the summer of 1943, the German High Command had no real chance of turning the tide against the Soviets, it clearly had options that in large part could have altered the course and severity of their defeat. The prospect of a major “offensive on the scale of 1941 and 1942” was now a lost dream. There were three courses of action available to Hitler: (1) go on a localized offensive while the remainder of the front employed a static defense; (2) conduct a static defense along the entire front; or (3) employ a mobile, flexible defense with well-placed and timed counterattacks supported by a deeply echeloned strategic line of defense.

The first option, and the one chosen by Hitler and which we have discussed in some detail was to go on the offensive in powerful localized attacks while the remainder of the front maintained a static defense. Manstein put it this way: “in dealing the enemy powerful blows of a localized character which would sap his strength to a decisive degree”. As we have noted, this approach was very risky at best and thus had unrealistic expectations of success. The result has been recorded in the annals of history.

The second option would have been a static defense along the entire front. However, to defend a 2,000-kilometer front with limited forces would have been a monumental undertaking. The idea of a static defense along the entire front was not realistic. There were simply not enough German divisions to do this effectively.

The third option would be to employ a mobile, flexible defense with well-placed and timed counterattacks supported by a deeply echeloned strategic line of defense. If successful this could bleed the Russians to the point where they could be amenable to a negotiated stalemate or at the least severely frustrate and delay the attacking Red Army. This option will now be discussed in some detail.

General Gunther Blumentritt, Deputy Chief of Staff under Chief of Staff Franz Halder describes the concept of “delaying action battle” where: “There are strategic and tactical situations, in which it can be shown that the battle, in the total sense, should be conducted neither offensively nor defensively but primarily in a ‘delaying manner’ “. In a situation where opposing forces are pressing a weakened front “it is logical to order this front to conduct operations in a delaying manner and thereby to avoid exposing themselves to defeat or to heavy losses” and in order to preserve the army’s strength “they should be led to a secure and well consolidated position”. The concept of “delaying action battle” is not unlike the Soviet concept of elastic defense previously discussed where as defensive lines are overrun by attacking forces the defending forces merely withdrawal to prepared defensive lines behind the first. This action attrites the attacking forces while preserving the combat capability of the defending force. Blumentritt explains “two suppositions have to be made”. One, a compelling leader willing to accept responsibility and two, a high command that will permit such freedom of action. Blumentritt goes on to state that the German High Command from 1939-1945 did not permit such flexible actions.

The idea of a strategic line of defense was considered a way to secure the Eastern Front as the balance-of-forces were more and more in favor of Russia. General Olbricht, Chief of the General Army Office, submitted a proposal in January 1942 advocating “immediate construction of a strategic defense line in the East, utilizing extensively the manpower of the replacement army”. This 2,000 kilometer “deeply echeloned defense line” would consist of reinforced positions primarily along the Dniepr River. Olbricht’s proposal required 250,000 men and 100 days to complete. These men would not be front line troops but supplemental labor and soldiers that weren’t fit for frontline combat duty. Hitler forbade such preparations in a letter written around the end of March 1942: “our eyes are always fixed forward,” Hitler had said. Olbricht had also been told that Hitler believed the frontline troops would be tempted to withdraw to such a line. Olbricht later had said of the letter: “a historical document that may once be very important to us”. Arguably, such a line of defense would have delayed the Russian advance significantly and reduced the immense suffering incurred by the German people in the hands of a vengeful Red Army.

Major offensives along the scale of 1941 & 1942 were no longer tenable due to the loss of major German formations. However, the idea of limited offensive actions at critical times and places to hinder and frustrate the efforts of the Russians were not only possible but probably the most efficient use of limited forces to confound Russian offensive efforts and the best way to slow the Russian advance or even to force a stalemate. The best way to time these offensive actions was to strike where the Red Army was most vulnerable: at the culmination of an offensive attack and then “to hit them hard on the backhand at the first opportunity”.

A stalemate was certainly entertained by some Generals such as Manstein. The attrition rates of the Russians even in 1943 were incredible. It’s not unreasonable to assume after two long years of horrible losses that the Russians would have considered such a prospect if the German attack at Kursk was successful. However, the feasibility of a negotiated ceasefire or peace is difficult to ascertain. It is doubtful that this was a real possibility, especially after the Allies decision, in 1942, to force the Third Reich into unconditional surrender. Additionally, after all the suffering the Wehrmacht inflicted on Russia and her people, wasn’t Stalin bent on pounding the Germans back into Berlin?

Such ideas were all for naught in 1943 or any other time during the Russian campaign. Hitler’s “refusal to accept that elasticity of operations which, in the conditions obtaining from 1943 onwards, could be achieved only by a voluntary, if temporary surrender of conquered territory”, showed his lack of appreciation for such operations. “A ‘Fanal’ or beacon to the world of German resolve” maybe a sound strategic goal, but no longer consistent with military reality. Trying to reconcile the reality of the battlefield with this lofty strategic goal was not sound reasoning. Finally, Hitler’s repeated rejection of a mobile defense and a strategic line of defense simply because he didn’t want to give up any ground had no relevance to sound military strategy.

After Stalingrad, it became apparent that the Wehrmacht would probably not achieve decisive victory over the Red Army. In light of this, the Wehrmacht should not have dedicated so many of its precious and limited forces to an attack that had only a limited chance of success. The war was taking its toll on the Wehrmacht; from 22 June 1941 – 1 July 1943 the German Army had lost 3,950,000 men on all fronts. Germany was running out of options. They had succeeded in angering the most powerful nations in the world into a total war footing aimed at smashing the Third Reich into unconditional surrender. The United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain and all the resources these nations could muster proved to be too overwhelming; even for the Wehrmacht, arguably one of the most well trained, equipped and disciplined armies that the world has ever seen. Hitler’s attempt to make the Kursk offensive a “shining beacon” of German resolve, a lofty strategic goal, was unattainable on the battlefields of the Eastern Front in 1943. The best the Wehrmacht could have hoped for in the summer of 1943 was to delay the advance of the massive Red Army and reduce the impact of Germany’s defeat. This would have been best achieved by a mobile, flexible defense with well-placed and timed counterattacks supported by a deeply echeloned strategic line of defense. It is apparent that Hitler would have none of this sound strategic reasoning.