The War of Yugoslavian Succession (1991 to 1999) I

Clockwise from the top-left: Slovene police escort captured Yugoslav army soldiers back to their unit during the 1991 Slovene war of independence; a destroyed tank during the Battle of Vukovar; Serb anti-tank missile installations during the siege of Dubrovnik; reburial of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in 2010; a UN vehicle driving on the streets of Sarajevo during the siege of the city.

The Diplomatic Recognition of Slovenia and Croatia

On 25 June 1991, both Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence. Suddenly the international community was confronted with a number of contentious issues. Did the actions of these two republics constitute unlawful secession or had Yugoslavia simply collapsed into its constituent parts? Were the borders between the republics international boundaries or were they only administrative divisions? Was an international armed conflict developing or a civil war?

That the path to independence would be clouded by violence had been obvious for months. After declaring independence, the Slovenes took the first step toward establishing an international border to Croatia, and in response, the Yugoslav People’s Army occupied the border posts. Following the first armed confrontation, a “Ten-Day War” developed from which Slovenia emerged relatively unscathed, having lost eighteen soldiers, as opposed to forty-four dead JNA soldiers.

Shocked representatives of the European Community managed to convince Slovenia and Croatia to sign a ceasefire agreement on 7 July 1991 on the Adriatic island of Brioni. The republics also agreed to postpone their independence for three months and to start negotiations over the future of Yugoslavia and its eventual breakup. Subsequently, the Yugoslav government ordered the pullback of its army on 18 July, which meant, in essence, the recognition of Slovenia’s independence. Ever since this “little war,” the two-million-people republic has been very proud that it repelled the attack of the powerful Yugoslav People’s Army through its superior war strategy. However, Belgrade’s main concern at the time was not to prevent Slovenia’s independence but to keep the entire Serb population in a single nation state. Since very few Serbs lived in Slovenia, the conflict was quickly over.

Already in the spring of 1991, isolated incidents of violent clashes between Croatian Serbs and Croatian police forces occurred in places like Plitvice and Borovo Selo. It was, however, not until after Croatia’s declaration of independence on 25 June 1991 that larger armed conflicts erupted in the regions of Banija, Dalmatia, and Slavonia between Croatian armed forces, on the one hand, and the Yugoslav People’s Army and rebel Serb forces, on the other. The first mass killing of Croatian civilians and soldiers by local Serb units occurred in Kozibrod on 26 July 1991, followed by atrocities in other villages in Slavonia, Banija, and Dalmatia and in the town of Vukovar.

As key political and military leaders—including Serbia’s member of the federal presidency, Borisav Jović, and JNA admiral Branko Mamula—have acknowledged, plans were already in place in summer 1991 to create a new rump-Yugoslavia that encompassed Croatia’s and Bosnia’s Serb populations. The People’s Army General Staff had decided to “defend” Serbs living in Croatia and to strive for full control over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Another aim was to “create and defend a new Yugoslav state with those people who so desired it, currently the Serbs and the Montenegrins.”

The Croatian government decided on 14 September 1991 to attack all garrisons of the People’s Army, which prompted the Yugoslav General Staff to respond by launching a major offensive from eastern Slavonia, expelling non-Serbs from the areas over which they took control. Yugoslav troops surrounded the city of Vukovar and shelled its center. Serb paramilitary units invaded the city and its surrounding areas, leaving a bloody trail of horror behind them. For weeks, the baroque city suffered from massive bombardment until, reduced to rubble, it surrendered in November. The historic city of Dubrovnik, “the pearl of the Adriatic,” was attacked in October 1991. Within a few weeks the embattled region came completely under the control of the rebellious Serbs. The Croat population, a total of more than half a million people, were systematically driven out or fled. On 19 December 1991, President Milan Babić proclaimed the formation of the “Republic of Serb Krajina,” the capital of which was Knin.

The international community had few tools for managing such a crisis at the time. International crisis management was still considered an inadmissible external intervention in the domestic affairs of another state. Moreover, international law was contradictory. On the one hand, the United Nations Charter protected a people’s right to self-determination, a right that Slovenia and Croatia invoked, but on the other, it obliged its members to safeguard sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states, which is what Belgrade insisted on. However, the Yugoslav problem was not just a question of international law, it was also a political dilemma to which various answers could be found. Germany and Austria supported the efforts of the republics of Slovenia and Croatia to become independent, while the UN Secretary General and the governments in London, Paris, and Washington wished to see the unity of Yugoslavia maintained. Although these positions seemed to be subliminally reminiscent of the loyalties to their First World War alliances, what Paris, London, and Moscow actually feared above all else was that the precedent being set by Slovenia and Croatia would trigger a chain reaction of declarations of independence.

After Jacques Poos, foreign minister of Luxembourg, proclaimed rather grandiloquently that “this is the hour of Europe,” the European Community hosted a peace conference in The Hague on 7 September 1991. Yet all attempts to mediate and all threats of sanctions came to nothing.9 Innumerable ceasefires were broken. It was not until Cyrus Vance, special envoy of the UN secretary-general, proposed to send Blue Helmets into the disputed areas in November 1991 that the Yugoslav People’s Army pulled out of Croatia. Following a UN-brokered truce in January 1992, an international United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) was deployed a month later in those areas in Croatia where Serbs constituted the majority or a substantial minority of the population, with the aim of preparing for a political solution to this conflict. Although many refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) could return to their places of origin, the number of Croats living within the Krajina had fallen from 353,595 to 18,200 by 1993–1994. On the other hand, tens of thousands of Serbs fled Croatia. By mid-October 1991, 78,555 refugees from Croatia had arrived in Serbia.

Contrary to his Luxembourgian counterpart, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German foreign minister, thought in the spring of 1991 that Yugoslavia had already effectively broken apart into its constitutive parts, which was why the independence of Slovenia and Croatia were not to be seen as acts of secession violating international law but as legitimate legal acts. For this reason he sought to gain formal recognition of the two new states, especially since the German foreign ministry (as well as Austria’s foreign office) believed that the Yugoslav People’s Army could be deterred from undertaking larger military actions if the conflict was internationalized. However, in London and Paris it was feared that a diplomatic fait accompli would only heat up the crisis militarily, since formal recognition would then deprive the international community of its only diplomatic leverage for an overall political solution. On 23 December 1991, Bonn duped its partners by officially recognizing Slovenia and Croatia unilaterally. The German public was disturbed to witness war and the plight of the refugees in neighboring regions, and media like the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung never tired of condemning what they called Serbian-Orthodox barbarism, against which the Catholic countries of Slovenia and Croatia had to defend themselves. Following decades of reticence and restraint in international relations, the German government also saw this crisis as the first favorable moment since its own reunification in 1990 to assume a more prominent role on the stage of international politics, one that corresponded to Germany’s economic stature. For the sake of political unity, there was little else the other European countries could do but follow suit, which they did by formally recognizing Slovenia and Croatia on 15 January 1992.

Germany’s unilateral action created facts on the ground and left a bitter aftertaste among its European partners, and the internationalization of the Yugoslavia problem had all but the desired effect. After Bosnia-Herzegovina was formally recognized on 6 April 1992, the deterrence strategy failed. In a type of blitzkrieg, Bosnian Serb armed forces, supported by the JNA, conquered the greater part of Bosnian territory within weeks. The now rather sheepish Germans had to bear the brunt of the fierce criticism leveled against them by their allies. Later, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992–1995) would spill into Kosovo (1998–1999) and Macedonia (2001).

To what degree did Germany’s foreign policy contribute to the approaching disaster? Certainly the timing and circumstances of its formal recognition were poorly considered. Why should Slovenes and Croats be permitted to exercise the right to self-determination, but not the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia or the Albanians in Kosovo? Why were no plans drawn up to provide humanitarian relief for the very probable case of the outbreak of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, when all signs pointed in the fall of 1991 to an armed conflict? The policy of recognition aimed to appease the German public and neglected the wider regional dimensions of Yugoslavia’s disintegration. The further course of events revealed, with disastrous consequences, the contradictions of the German approach. According to its constitutional law, Germany was barred from using its armed forces “out of area,” that is, for purposes other than self-defense. Thus, it could not provide any military cover to non-NATO members such as the Yugoslav successor states. To think that other governments would deploy their military and thereby risk the lives of many soldiers for a policy they considered wrong was unrealistic. That said, it is more than questionable that diplomatic means would have been able by this point to prevent or even effectively contain the war, in light of the determination of actors on the ground to use military force.

War in Bosnia-Herzegovina

During the bombardment of Dubrovnik and Vukovar, the Bosnian government in Sarajevo was deeply concerned about the future of its multiethnic republic. According to the 1991 census, the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina totaled 4.37 million, of which 43.5 percent were Muslims, 31.2 percent Serbs, 17.4 percent Croats, and 5.5 percent Yugoslavs. The remaining 2.4 percent consisted of numerous other nationalities. Not a single municipality was homogenous, and clear ethnic boundaries did not exist. Therefore, at first the Bosnian coalition government backed the idea to reform Yugoslavia, but not to dissolve it. Following the German recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, this option seemed obsolete. Bosnian Croats and Muslims did not want to remain in a Serb-dominated Yugoslav rump state, and the Bosnian Serb leadership took steps toward forming autonomous areas with quasi-state powers.

On 14 October 1991, the Muslim SDA and the Croat HDZ-BiH party groups in Bosnia’s parliament drafted a resolution for independence against the votes of the Serb SDS. The incensed Serbs then quit the coalition and, in protest, refused to participate any longer in the institutions. Reminiscent of what happened at the Yugoslav federal level in 1989/1990, all of the republic’s institutions and organizations split into ethnic components, including parliament, city councils, factory assemblies, the media, and security forces. In one public speech, Radovan Karadžić, the Serb political leader, called for ethnic segregation “like in Turkish times.” On 24 December 1991, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s rump government successfully petitioned the European Community for official recognition, along with Macedonia, Slovenia, and Croatia. In contrast, Montenegro decided to remain united with Serbia. In 1992, the two republics formed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY).

Starting in the fall of 1991, Bosnian Serbs worked on their transition to independence in much the same way as their fellow Serbs in Croatia did. In November, they held an illegal plebiscite to remain in Yugoslavia and on 9 January 1992, proclaimed the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Republika srpskog naroda Bosne i Hercegovine; later, the Serb Republic, Republika Srpska) which was to include all municipalities, local communities, and populated places in which over 50 percent of the Serbs had voted in the plebiscite to remain in Yugoslavia.

In accordance with the terms set by the European Community for the recognition of new states, the Bosnian government organized a referendum on independence, held on 29 February and 1 March 1992, which the Serbs boycotted, as was expected. Voter participation in this referendum still reached nearly 64 percent, of which 99 percent voted in favor of independence. On 6 April 1992, the anniversary of the German attack on Yugoslavia in 1941 and the day of the liberation of Sarajevo in 1945, Bosnia-Herzegovina was officially recognized by the European Community as a sovereign state. The next day, the Bosnian Serbs then declared their own independence.

Prior to these events, local skirmishes had already occurred. Both SDS and SDA members erected barricades and checkpoints in Sarajevo in order to take control of strategic buildings, military equipment, and city quarters. The first shooting began on 5 April, out of which extensive gunfire and shelling developed on both sides. Violent clashes also occurred in many other parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina in early April 1992 and quickly escalated into a major armed conflict. Once independence was declared, the armed forces of the Bosnian Serbs, aided by the Yugoslav People’s Army, launched an assault and first overran eastern Bosnia along the Drina River, the northern Posavina corridor, eastern Herzegovina, and Bosnian Krajina, thereby creating a territorial bridge between Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia. General Ratko Mladić ordered his 250,000-man army to drive the non-Serb population out of the areas they conquered. Within a couple of months, hundreds of thousands of people were on the move, and several tens of thousands were killed. The 100,000 soldiers from the Bosnian Muslim Territorial Defense Force and the SDA-loyal paramilitary troops were poorly armed and thus unable to stop the Serbs. By July 1992, barely four months after the outbreak of war, the Serb para-state controlled more than two-thirds of the Bosnian territory.

In many regions, such as in the Eastern Bosnian town of Foča, where the Chetniks, the Ustashas, and Muslim militias had committed some of the worst atrocities of the Second World War, people experienced an eerie feeling of déjà-vu. Although half of the town’s population were Bosniaks, the Bosnian-Serb leadership declared the town to be part of their new state in the fall of 1991. The region was remote and impoverished but important for the war due to its strategic location and transportation routes. On 8 April 1991, the Serb forces began shelling the town with grenades and artillery and conquered it a few days later.

Paramilitary units and volunteers like Arkan’s Tigers, Vojislav Šešelj’s Chetniks, and the White Eagles combed the streets and houses. They forced men and women to line up, then systematically separated and herded them into camps. The paramilitary bands revived practices known from the Second World War: the men were driven to the bridges, shot, and their bodies thrown into the river. Within a few weeks, nearly the entire Bosniak population had been driven out. The towns of Zvornik, Višegrad, Bijeljina, and many other locations were the scenes of similarly cruel and severe crimes.

The Serb forces thoroughly encircled Sarajevo and maintained the siege on the city for forty-four torturous months until the war ended. From the hills surrounding Sarajevo, they shelled the city incessantly, sometimes showering it with as many as 500 grenades per hour. Snipers arbitrarily gunned down civilians when they went out to get water, stood in line for food, sat in the streetcar, or simply walked down the street. “We had been encircled … from all sides. … Everybody shot at us constantly, like beasts. They were trying to kill as many of us as they could.” A man living in Sarajevo at the time, Bakir Nakaš, described how he managed to survive: “We managed to get by using only a litre of drinking water every day. We got used to it. We got used to living, getting on without electricity, without drinking water. … Every day on your way to work you ran the risk of being killed or injured.” Sheer survival became the central objective of the entire city.

Although Muslims and Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina had established joint command structures and had been fighting side by side against the Serbs since the start of the war, relations deteriorated in the autumn of 1992 when disputes arose over the future constitution of the independent state. The nationalist wing of the Croat HDZ party, centered in Herzegovina, advocated the unification of areas settled by Croats with Croatia. In November 1991 the autonomous region Herceg Bosna was formed and declared to be a separate state on 3 July 1992. Its army, the Croatian Defense Council, now began to conquer areas in which the majority of the population were Muslims. In October 1992, the so-called “war within the war” broke out between these two former allies, resulting in serious violations of international humanitarian law against civilians on both sides. Franjo Tudjman, who did not preclude the idea of annexing Herzegovina for Croatia, sent troops to support his fellow countrymen militarily. After a meeting between the Croatian president and Slobodan Milošević in Karadjordjevo on 25 March 1991, evidence grew stronger that Zagreb and Belgrade might reach an agreement on the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina at a heavy toll to the Muslims.

The “war within the war” changed the world’s image of Croatia as an innocent victim of Serb aggression and caused outright perplexity in the West. The fighting between the former allies caused horrendous destruction in central Bosnia and in Herzegovina, for which the demolition of the historic town of Mostar, including the famous sixteenth-century Old Bridge, by the Croatian Defense Council remains symbolic. Not until March 1994 could international mediators settle the conflict and commit the adversaries to the formation of a common state entity, the mutually disliked Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Yet, the fighting continued in many regions.

“Ethnic Cleansing”

As the war expanded, a form of mass atrocity thought to be forgotten suddenly confronted the shocked world community: “ethnic cleansing.” This euphemism stood for the planned and violent removal of undesired population groups from conquered territory, be it through deportation, displacement, or annihilation, as had occurred during the nineteenth century, the Balkan Wars, and the Second World War.

There is no doubt whatsoever that “ethnic cleansing” took place in a systematic and planned way. The regional context, the systematic implementation, and the summation of the results preclude any other conclusion except that homogenization was not a side effect of war but its main objective. Approximately 70 percent of the expulsions, involving more than 2.2 million people, had already occurred between April and August 1992, during which time Serb armed forces attacked thirty-seven municipalities, most notably Zvornik, Bratunac, Vlasenica, Višegrad, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Ključ, and municipalities along the Sava River Valley. In total, approximately 850 Bosniak- and Croat-occupied villages were obliterated, and entire families disappeared. Roma and Romani communities were also heavily affected.

“Ethnic cleansing” was sought after politically, prepared by administrative bodies, and carried out within the framework of military operations by special forces of the regular army or by paramilitary units. Very similar to what occurred during the Second World War, the attackers tortured and massacred civilians, and burned down houses and entire villages. The aim of “ethnic cleansing” was to reinforce claims to the conquered territory and to create there an unequivocal power structure.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was able to prove later that the political preparation of mass expulsion in Bosnia-Herzegovina dated back to the first half of 1991 when the Bosnian Serbs, led by the SDS, decided to form a separate state and to arm their fellow countrymen. When the parliament dissolved in October 1991, ethnic segregation was already evident. In December 1991, the so-called crisis staffs (later war presidencies) began to convene as extraordinary administrative bodies, which took steps in preparation for the separation of the ethnic groups. After the Bosnian-Serb parliament proclaimed the founding of the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia and Herzegovina on 9 January 1992, the new bodies brought the claimed regions systematically under their control starting in late March. Ethnic exclusion was a key organizing principle of the new state; Muslims, Croats, and other non-Serbs were not wanted there.

The ethnic composition of many municipalities changed radically. For instance, in 1991, Bosniaks and Croats made up 51 percent of the population in the eastern Bosnian town of Foča, but by the end of the war, this figure had dropped to only 3.8 percent. Overall, four-fifths of all non-Serbs were driven out of the territory of the Republika Srpska during the three and a half years of war. As a result, in thirty-seven municipalities the share of non-Serbs fell from 726,960 (53.97 percent) in 1991 to 235,015 (36.39 percent) in 1997, whereas the number of non-Serbs in the Croat-Bosniak–held territory in Bosnia-Herzegovina had increased by 41.18 percent. Altogether, the number of non-Serbs in the areas that now form the Republika Srpska had fallen by 81.74 percent. Whereas most incidents of “ethnic cleansing” were attributed to the Bosnian Serbs at the beginning of the war, the Croat and Bosniak armed forces also started in 1993 to homogenize the regions they conquered in order to consolidate territorial gains. According to estimates made by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Serb population fell between 1991 and mid-1994 from 43,595 to 5,000 in Western Hercegovina; from 79,355 to 20,000 in the Zenica region; from 82,235 to 23,000 in the Tuzla area; and from 29,398 to 1,609 in the Bihać region. Yet, a clear majority of the dead and displaced were Bosniaks.

In the spring of 1992, the world was alarmed when photographs became public of Serb prisoner of war camps that resembled concentration camps, such as Omarska, Keraterm, and Manjača. Experts would later compile a list of about 400 prisons, police stations, schools, warehouses, or factories in which the warring sides interned men, women, and children under inhumane conditions. On the heels of these revelations came shocking reports of mass executions and mass rapes, torture and mutilation. “Bosnia” became the code word for an extreme brutalization of the war—and of the guilty conscience of the international community.

The more numerous and defiant the unwanted population groups were in a region, the more brutal were the measures taken against them. “Ethnic cleansing” was sometimes carried out through intimidation and discrimination, sometimes by way of detention and deportation or by torture and mass murder. Civilians were deliberately attacked and humiliated. Acts of savagery laden with symbolism and methods of killing and mutilating known to have been used throughout history intensified the feelings of indignity, intimidation, and fear not only among those experiencing it, but also among all those who had to witness it or heard about it: Muslims were forced to recite Christian prayers; women were publicly raped; people were tortured by having religious symbols scratched into their skins—practices that evoke cultural patterns and symbolic codes.

Part of the logic behind the permanent usurpation of territory was to thoroughly eradicate the basis of existence for the unwanted populations, so that they would never return. Houses, neighborhoods, town centers, and infrastructure were targeted for complete destruction. All cultural evidence of these groups were also to disappear, which explains why the historic centers of cities were deliberately shelled and churches, mosques, cemeteries, libraries, archives, and other buildings were destroyed. Nearly every mosque and three out of four Catholic churches were damaged or completely demolished during the war. Orthodox churches and monasteries were also targeted for attack.34 Therefore, “ethnic cleansing” was not only directed against the physical presence of people, but also against sociocultural systems, meaning against institutions, identities, collective memory, and life worlds. The idea of turning these claimed regions into independent and homogeneously Serbian territory was supported in Belgrade. This would later lead, for the first time in history, to the trial of a former head of state—President Slobodan Milošević—before an international criminal tribunal on the charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva conventions, and violations of the laws or customs of war. The main counts against him were related to his command authority over the Yugoslav People’s Army, which was involved “in the planning, preparation, facilitation and execution of the forcible removal of the majority of non-Serbs.” The indictment also accused him of supporting the political leadership and armed forces of the Bosnian Serbs, participating in the planning and execution of “ethnic cleansing” operations, supporting irregular forces, and manipulating the media. Charges of genocide and complicity to commit genocide included the mass killings in Srebrenica and murder or mistreatment of Bosnian Muslims in detention facilities. Milošević’s unexpected death in 2006 at the detainment center in The Hague during the proceedings brought a sudden end to his trial.

Yet, there is ample evidence that the Yugoslav People’s Army logistically supported the campaign for a separate Serb state by providing supplies of arms and gasoline. As many as 2,000 of its soldiers fought alongside the Bosnian-Serb forces, and various Yugoslav officers served under their command. Special operation units of the Serbian ministry of internal affairs, such as the “Red Berets,” also operated on Bosnian territory. In February 2007, the International Court of Justice rejected the appeal made by Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993 to apply the charge of genocide against Serbia. But the judges did find that Belgrade had not used its influence to prevent the serious mass crimes perpetrated in its neighboring state.

The War of Yugoslavian Succession (1991 to 1999) II

Serbian-held territories of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Yugoslav wars. The War Crimes Tribunal accused Slobodan Milošević of “attempting to create a Greater Serbia“‘, a Serbian state encompassing the Serb-populated areas of Croatia and Bosnia, and achieved by forcibly removing non-Serbs from large geographical areas through the commission of criminal activity.

The Perpetrators

In every society people exist who voluntarily commit crimes. Whether due to narcissistic personality disorders or sadistic dispositions, these people experience a feeling of exuberance and liberation in their actions. The snipers of Sarajevo, for example, enjoyed putting victims in their crosshairs and having an unbridled power over life and death, as one of them stated in an interview. Among the volunteers in the special operations units were many who were filled with hatred toward an envisioned enemy, enjoyed killing, or simply craved the business of war. The warlords attracted social outsiders, petty criminals, hooligans, and weekend fighters who saw the war as an adventure or a way to earn extra income.

However, the widespread expulsion on the scale experienced in Bosnia was only possible because thousands of “ordinary men,” and very few women, participated in these crimes alongside those who were predisposed to violence. The International Criminal Tribune for the former Yugoslavia estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 people participated in planning, administering and executing “ethnic cleansing,” including members of the political leadership, the bureaucracy, the police, and the military, who acted on their own or carried out the instructions of their superiors. Many described later that they experienced the war as a matter of defense in which killing was a necessary evil. A sense of duty, an ideal of masculinity, and group pressure interacted here. “There was no choice,” testified the Serb commander Dragan Obrenović. “You could be either a soldier or a traitor. … We didn’t even notice how we were drawn into the vortex of interethnic hatred.” Others were driven by delusion, a sense of duty, opportunism, fear, sadism, or greed. Exhaustion, stress, and alcohol led to emotional deadening and lowered inhibitions. The police chief of Bosanski Šamac, Stevan Todorović, simply lost his nerve in the face of the daily artillery shelling, the mountain of corpses, and the plight of refugees. He was scared, panicky, and became an alcoholic. In this condition, he paid little attention to the butchery carried out by his subordinates. Many defended their actions on the reasoning that they were simply carrying out their superior’s orders, similar to the excuses of German executioners from the Second World War. Dražan Erdemović, a 23-year-old executioner in Srebrenica, emphasized that he had fled from the executions at the first available opportunity. Allegedly he did not kill willingly.

Amid all this, individuals still had leeway and opportunity to make their own choices. Grozdana Ćećez, a Serb woman who was raped every evening by her Muslim guards at the Čelebići camp, tried to ward off the attacks by humiliating her abusers with the question: “I could be your mother … don’t you have a mother?” The effect varied. Only one of the men was embarrassed, apologized, and left without having done what he had come for. Others, however, were not halted by her words, including one of her husband’s former work colleagues and one of her son’s classmates.

Perpetrators found it easier to justify their own actions if they could resort to symbolic forms of legitimation. The president of the Serb Republic in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Biljana Plavšić, expressed remorse and referred to her obsession over time with experiences and memories from the Second World War. Radovan Karadžić reached into the prop box of folklore to proclaim himself the descendant of the linguistic scholar Vuk Stefanović Karadžić and had himself filmed in a bizarre pose wearing historical costume. Hajduks, the Robin Hoods of the Balkans during the Ottoman era, were depicted as the role models for the warlords. Whoever took part in the battles were perpetuating the historical fight and carrying on the tradition of heroic deeds that had been celebrated in oral history for generations.

The Media and the Escalation of Violence

The International Tribunal for Yugoslavia came to the conclusion that the media was guilty of contributing significantly to the brutalization of the war. Radio, television, and the printed press created enemy images and stereotypes, spread rumors and untruths, provoked fear, hate, and revenge, and broke down moral barriers. They resorted to well-tested propaganda strategies to give the war the necessary psychological underpinning, especially by portraying everything as black or white, by demonizing the enemy, by ignoring, exaggerating, and falsifying information, by drawing parallels between current occurrences and historic events and myths, by using hateful language and constantly repeating the same messages. The authors of a study on media communication noted correctly that the Yugoslav war was “the mere continuation of the evening news by military means.”

Since the motto “no pictures, no news” prevailed in the media age, the warring parties hired professional public relations agencies abroad to promote their cause. Alone in the United States, they signed at least 157 contracts with partners between 1991 and 2002, a figure that most certainly represents just the tip of the iceberg. Among the jobs to be done, for example, was to improve the image of Slovenia and Croatia as Western European countries or to equate the Serbs with Nazis. Thanks to satellite technology and digital recording, editing, and transmission capabilities, international news channels—especially CNN, BBC, and later Al Jazeera—brought images of the war directly from the crisis regions to the rest of the world, thereby mobilizing a global civil society calling for humanitarian and military intervention.

Hate-filled tirades appeared in the media on all sides, making it soon hard to distinguish between true and false. In the Serbian evening news, an alarmed public learned that Muslim extremists had supposedly fed Serb children to the lions in the Sarajevo zoo. More dangerous than such horror myths were the many unverifiable, one-sided, or falsified news stories about events that sounded plausible, such as the report that Bosnian troops were shelling their own civilian population in Sarajevo in order to place the blame on the Serbs. German politicians were also tricked into believing a bogus report or two, including one in which Serb doctors were said to be implanting dog fetuses into Bosniak women. Such stories not only perpetuated repulsive images of the enemy, they also appealed to forms of media voyeurism.

The war allowed aggression to be acted out openly and provided a framework in which violent acts were suddenly wanted, encouraged, and socially sanctioned. Under exceptional conditions, people can certainly be tempted into committing deeds that they never would do under peaceful circumstances. This makes it almost impossible to maintain friendly neighborly relations in wartime. Once war has erupted, it becomes the source for a vicious cycle of never-ending violence. It alters ideas, emotions, aims, behavior, and identities of people from the ground up. People who are otherwise respectable citizens may carry out personal vendettas under the guise of higher national interests and thus attribute a type of private meaning to the war, and this may even prompt acquaintances to go after one another.

Insecurity and anxiety are the most important means by which to transform ethnic distance and latent nationalism into open antagonism. The 1993 British documentary We Are All Neighbors shows how uncertainty and fear, rumors and media disinformation, followed by the first violent incidents and finally the outbreak of war, turned peaceful coexistence into distrust, then rejection, and eventually hate. In a village not far from Kiseljak in central Bosnia, life seemed to be rather normal in 1993. As long as the artillery fire was only to be heard faintly in the distance, Croats and Muslims met for coffee as usual. No one believed that anything could change the good neighborly relations. But the more the war interfered with daily life and the closer the front approached the village, the more uneasy people began to feel. By the time the first refugees arrived, people were talking about “us” and “them.” Visits with one another became less frequent; some no longer greeted the others. Out of doubt grew distrust, out of insecurity developed fear, and out of that, betrayal. When Croat troops were about to launch an attack on the village and therefore warned the local Croats, not one gathered up enough courage to inform their Muslim neighbors. All Muslims could do once the assault started was to tear out of town head over heels under a shower of grenades.

Similar examples of crumbling solidarity could be observed everywhere as people became fearful of losing their homes or their lives. In mid-1991, the Croat Witness E reported that, shortly before the assault on Vukovar, his Serb friends left town. Why, he asked them. “They would shrug their shoulders and they would say, ‘We believe you will see it soon too.’” Witness DD, whose husband and two sons were murdered in the massacres in Srebrenica, described the relationship to her Serb acquaintances: “We were friends, in fact. We went to have coffee at each other’s houses. And if we were working on something, we would help one another. We would help them, and they would help us.” She later saw one of these neighbors standing among the soldiers who took away her 14-year-old son, who was never seen again. At that moment she remembered that many Serb women and children had left the area a few days before the attack. “Then someone asked, ‘Where are you going? What’s happening?’ … Their answer was very vague. ‘Some fools could come along and do who knows what.’ … And we were wondering. Until then, they didn’t do anything wrong. They didn’t hurt us and, of course, we didn’t hurt them either.”

Containment Policy

While public opinion in the West favored military intervention in light of the horrific images from Bosnia that flicked across people’s television screens every evening, political leaders remained reticent. Die for Sarajevo? Politicians and military experts knew that it would not be enough to simply make threatening gestures, but they feared the risks of deploying ground troops. Nor was there any hope that an intervention could offer political solutions since the warring parties had already rejected one peace plan after another.

Because the war continued to escalate, the credibility and reputation of the international community in dealing with Yugoslavia suffered. Miscalculations and delayed reactions as well as conflicting national interests and evaluations prevented the West from presenting a united front and made it look thoroughly helpless, disoriented, and devoid of any overall concept on how to cope with the situation. An army of special envoys, diplomats, and military experts scurried around just trying to catch up with the tumultuous events, hundreds of ceasefires were broken, and the heads of state of the world’s greatest powers exposed themselves to public ridicule by arrogant provincial politicians from the Balkans. Not only did the international community lack the political will to form a united approach, it also possessed no effective instruments of conflict management.

For all these reasons, the international community limited itself to developing a strategy of humanitarian relief and containment. It imposed an arms embargo and commissioned the United Nations in Sarajevo with the distribution of food and medicine. Serbia and Montenegro, which had united as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, were punished in May 1992 with comprehensive economic and diplomatic sanctions. In February 1993, the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia to prosecute the worst war crimes.

In light of the relatively weak response from the West, the Bosnian government received support from the Islamic world. Hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars are thought to have been spent between 1992 and 1995 on illegal weapon sales. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Malaysia, and Indonesia were particularly prominent sponsors. Radical, violence-prone groups from abroad also arrived in the embattled region, including up to five thousand Iranian, Afghani, and Saudi mujahideen fighters who joined the Bosniak armed forces. Although conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between the Sunnis and Shiites, stood in the way of a unified Islamic policy, pan-Islamic solidarity was strengthened. This encouraged the re-Islamization of Bosnian Muslims, who felt abandoned by the West.

Brutal “ethnic cleansing” continued to force thousands of people to flee to the cities, where unsustainable conditions had prevailed for months. Therefore, the UN Security Council declared Srebrenica, Sarajevo, Tuzla, Žepa, Goražde, and Bihać “safe areas” in April and May 1993. Lightly armed Blue Helmet peacekeeping forces were to provide humanitarian aid under the protection of possible NATO air strikes. The concept of the safe areas revealed serious flaws from day one, starting with the fact that peacekeepers were being sent into a region in which there was no peace to keep. The rules of their deployment referred to consent of the conflicting parties, impartiality, and nonuse of force except in self-defense. The Blue Helmets therefore did not have either the mandate or equipment and arms necessary for active battle. “Knowing that any other course of action would jeopardize the lives of the troops, we tried to create—or imagine—an environment in which the tenets of peacekeeping … could be upheld,” stated UN secretary-general Kofi Annan later. The Security Council passed more than 200 resolutions to stitch together a complex and contradictory mandate, the boundaries of which were incomprehensible to all. Where did this mandate start, where did it end? Ultimately, the tragedy was that the term “safe area” duped the population into believing these areas offered a measure of protection that actually never existed. Furthermore, there was an extreme disparity between the UN’s aims and its resources: instead of the 34,000 soldiers demanded by UN headquarters to man the six designated safe areas, the UN member states only sent 7,500 soldiers to serve.

Meanwhile, the possibility of “humanitarian intervention” was being debated throughout the West. These debates between advocates and opponents of such intervention were particularly controversial in Germany, where the central question was whether Germany should and could participate in military operations abroad in the future, although these were expressly prohibited by the constitution. Because the German air force had been participating in the international airlift to Sarajevo since July 1992, members of Germany’s Liberal and Social Democratic parties turned to the Constitutional Court in April 1993. The judges ruled on 12 July 1994 that Germany could take part in peacekeeping missions without having to first amend the constitution, as long as parliament approved the mission by simple majority. Step by step, the self-imposed limitation on military involvement that had prevailed in Germany since 1945 gave way to a greater acceptance of the idea to deploy German troops abroad and to assume a new foreign policy role in world politics.

Srebrenica

On the morning of 11 July 1995, Bosnian-Serb army and police units stormed the safe area of Srebrenica, which had been under artillery fire for days. Although the president of Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadžić, had ordered the removal of the Muslim population from the enclaves of Srebrenica and Žepa back on 8 March, the attack caught the 150 Dutch UN troops deployed there completely by surprise. During the torturous July days that followed, as many as 8,200 men and boys were systematically executed by Serb forces, making the Srebrenica massacres the first legally recognized genocide on European soil since 1945. In a tragic way, this incident symbolized the belated, helpless, and fully inadequate response of the West.

From the standpoint of the Bosnian Serbs, there were many reasons to attack the city. They viewed eastern Bosnia as ancient Serbian territory, the Drina River as an “internal river” and not a “border,” as General Mladić expressed it. “The main obstacle today is Srebrenica with which the Germans and Americans, who defend it, want to fix Serbia’s border at the Drina,” he said in addressing his soldiers. “It is your task to prevent this.” In the summer of 1995, Mladić’s troops controlled all of eastern Bosnia with the exception of a few enclaves, while the Bosnian army only launched attacks periodically against the regions surrounding what were actually demilitarized safe areas. Bosniak troops had grown increasingly strong since 1994, had retaken regions, and were preparing to break the siege of Sarajevo in the summer of 1995. In this context, the Bosnian military pulled soldiers out of Srebrenica, a clear indication that they did not intend to make a serious effort to defend the enclave. Furthermore, the Serbs could count on encountering no resistance from the UN peacekeeping troops. That spring a precedent had been set in Croatia in which the Croatian army had overrun the UN safe area in western Slavonia and driven out the Serb population living there. Last but not least, contempt and revenge against the balija, a derogatory term for Muslims, played a role after Muslim militias had caused a bloodbath in the villages of Glogova and Kravica on the Orthodox Christmas Eve of 1993. “Kad, tad”—sooner or later, Serbs vowed, there would be revenge.

A dangerous concoction of strategic scheming, nationalist incitement, and outright vengefulness was brewing as Mladić’s men waited for an opportunity for the ultimate reckoning with the Muslims. In the preceding months, thousands had flown to the safe area from the large territories under Serb control. Instead of 9,000 people, there were now 30,000 people in the city—another reason why the UN military experts believed that Srebrenica could not be taken by force. General Mladić assessed the situation differently and assumed that he could force the city to surrender without a major battle by placing it under siege. However, contrary to expectations, Muslim soldiers, along with a good number of the male population, decided to break out of town during the night of 11 July. This made the Serbs hopping mad. It was then, at the latest, that Mladić must have given the order to massacre as many men and boys as they could find. Following the assault on the city, his troops captured all those seeking protection on the grounds of the UN compound in Potočari or hiding in the surrounding woods. Thousands were taken away in buses, packed into empty school buildings or warehouses, and then slaughtered like livestock or systematically executed.

The 17-year-old Witness O, who was able to escape, severely injured, after a mass shooting on the morning of 15 July 1995, recounted the events of that night: “The situation was chaotic. We were all tied up. … the firing started, and then they would call out people in groups of five. … And when it was my turn … we were told to find a place for us, … when we were on the right-hand side of the truck, I saw rows of killed people. It looked like they had been lined up one row after the other. … And when we reached the spot, somebody said, ‘Lie down.’ And when we started to fall down to the front, they were behind our backs, the shooting started. … I felt pain in the right side of my chest. … I was waiting for another bullet to come and hit me and I was waiting to die. … I don’t know how long it took. They kept bringing people up. … Once they had finished, somebody said that all the dead should be inspected … and if they find a warm body, they should fire one more bullet into their head.” Miraculously, Witness O was overlooked, so that he was later able to crawl away on all fours into the forest.

Both the UN and the government of the Netherlands promised to investigate and report their findings on the greatest mass murder of postwar European history to a shocked world. Their reports placed responsibility on many shoulders: the UN Security Council, for limiting its involvement to containment and choosing a peacekeeping mission that was not implementable and based on an ill-conceived concept of safe areas; the UN member states, for sending too few, poorly trained, and insufficiently equipped Blue Helmets into a highly dangerous operation; the imprudent UN commanders in Srebrenica who did not have serious reconnaissance equipment at their disposal, for evaluating the situation quite falsely up to the bitter end and for not concerning themselves with the fate of those taken prisoner by the Serbs after the town fell; the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping forces in Zagreb, for turning down requests by the UN troops on site for NATO air power; and the defense minister of the Netherlands, for supporting that decision because he feared reprisals against fifty-five of his soldiers who served as Blue Helmets and who were being held hostage by the Serbs. Yet, with all that said, incidents of mass murder on this scale far exceeded what most people could have imagined.

The Dayton Peace Accord

NATO had been bombing Serb positions on a limited scale since the brutal mortar attack on the Markale market in Sarajevo on 6 February 1994, in which at least 68 people were killed and 197 injured. But the Srebrenica massacre became a clarion call to action for the West, and the alliance started a campaign of massive bombardment. With the help of foreign arms shipments and American military advisers, the Croatian and Bosniak armed forces became more professionally run, improved their military clout, and could seriously challenge the previously superior Bosnian Serb army. The myth of Serb invincibility was definitely shattered when the Croatian army overran the UN safe area in western Slavonia in May 1995 and finally conquered the so-called Republic of Serb Krajina in its Operation oluja (Storm) in August 1995, thereby driving away 150,000 to 200,000 Serbs. In cars, buses, and horse-drawn wagons, tens of thousands of men, women, and children fled head over heels, with barely any time to gather together the bare necessities. Once the political leadership also bolted, the statelet collapsed altogether. The Serbs only managed to hold onto an area in eastern Slavonia that was later reincorporated peacefully into Croatia. As far as it was concerned, Zagreb had thus solved the “Serb question” permanently. Very few of the displaced Serbs returned to their homes when the war ended.

All of these factors led to a military standoff in mid-1995. Bosnian Serbs and Croat-Muslim troops each controlled about half of the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina. That fall, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke presented an agreement that he intended to bulldoze through. For three weeks, the presidents and the delegations from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia were housed in a lockdown situation at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, until they came to an agreement on 21 November 1995. The peace accord was formally signed in Paris a month later on 14 December.

The Dayton Accord squared the circle by keeping Bosnia-Herzegovina as a unified state with its prewar borders (Muslim position) and by dividing it into two quite independent yet constituent entities (Serb position). The Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was ruled by Croats and Muslims, received 51 percent of the territory and thus a symbolic majority. A complicated system of cantons was meant to fulfill the Croat demand for autonomy (but never did). The other entity continued to be the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska), which received 49 percent of the territory. Very few competencies were delegated to the central government in Sarajevo, namely foreign policy, issues of citizenship, and monetary policy. The so-called entities governed themselves practically autonomously and were permitted their own currency, police force, and army. The agreement guaranteed that all refugees and displaced persons could return and demanded the prosecution of war criminals. To implement the accord, the international community installed a High Representative with quasi-dictatorial powers and sent a 60,000-strong peacekeeping force under NATO (and later EU) command.

The initial euphoria over the end of the war soon subsided, and the general mood sobered. Society had changed to such a degree that peaceful coexistence of the different nationalities seemed impossible. Roughly 100,000 people had lost their lives, and more than two million had been driven from their homes. The Dayton Accord created a highly complicated and barely functional state that was weakened by a general unwillingness to cooperate, political radicalism, and serious economic problems. Last but not least, the new state suffered from the fact that a major part of the population did not identify with it.

Chinese Operations in the Korean War, 1950–1953 Part I

When China’s peasant army intervened in the Korean War in October 1950, all of the material factors favored the UN armies. Led by Marshal Peng Dehuai, the Chinese attacked into Korea with roughly 380,000 men commanded by two army groups, the 13th and the 9th.6 The 13th Army Group with about 180,000 men faced the main UN force, the US Eighth Army marching up the western side of the Korean peninsula, while the 9th Army Group faced the US X Corps on the eastern side with only about 120,000 men. In addition, the units assigned to the 13th Army Group were all veteran formations from the Chinese civil war. Against them, the UN forces consisted of 450,000 men, of which about 225,000 were Republic of Korea (ROK) troops.

Peng Dehuai in his Marshal uniform

In addition to their slight numerical edge, the UN armies, and particularly their American backbone, possessed an incalculable advantage in equipment, mobility, and firepower. Chinese units were laughably underequipped compared to their American counterparts. Only one-quarter to one-third of the Chinese infantrymen even had rifles. The vast majority went into battle with only grenades. The Chinese armies attacked without any artillery. They had a few Katyusha MRL batteries but held these in reserve at first. They had no antitank weapons. Instead, every Chinese platoon carried enough TNT for 8–10 five-pound satchel charges that had to be placed in the wheels of a tank or thrown through an open hatch to have any effect. The heaviest weapons Chinese units possessed were a handful of 120-mm mortars per regiment and only light mortars and light machine guns at lower echelons. Those weapons the Chinese did have were a heterogeneous assortment captured from the Japanese and the Guomindang and so consisted of older US, European, Japanese, and some Russian small arms. The Chinese had no radios below regimental headquarters, and had so few of these that divisions generally relied on runners for communications. Finally, the Chinese entered Korea with a logistics system that had to rely entirely on porters except for about 800 old trucks, of which only 300–400 were operational on any given day.

The Chinese Intervene. The initial Chinese assault began on October 21, 1950. They struck with total surprise. Chinese CC&D efforts were phenomenal, and US intelligence never detected the movement of their vast armies into Korea. The Chinese also were greatly aided by the self-deception of UN-commander General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters. MacArthur adamantly believed that the Chinese would not intervene (and if they did that they would be easily defeated by US air power), and so he and his subordinates repeatedly disregarded evidence of an impending Chinese offensive.

When the Chinese attacked, UN forces were caught spread out all over northern Korea and completely unsuspecting. The Chinese hit so quickly and so hard that many units were overrun before they knew what was happening. Initially, the Chinese deliberately targeted South Korean formations, believing them to be weaker than American or other non-ROK formations. They enveloped the ROK 1st Infantry Division, attacking simultaneously from the rear and both flanks before the division ever knew they were there. The South Koreans fought their way out only because they were able to call on enormous US firepower to cover their retreat. The Chinese then smashed the ROK 6th and 8th Infantry Divisions, caving in the right flank of the ROK II Corps and causing the entire corps to collapse. The Chinese armies kept pushing west, trying to roll up the lines of the US Eighth Army. They enveloped and mauled the US 8th Cavalry Regiment at Unsan, before the Eighth Army commander, Lt. General Walton Walker, ordered the entire army to fall back to the Chongchon River. At the Chongchon, the United States was able to regroup and bring to bear its overwhelming firepower to halt the Chinese advance.

Marshal Peng concluded that it would be too costly to try to break through the UN lines along the Chongchon and instead opted to pull back in hopes of luring the UN armies back north. Peng’s intention was to coax the UN forces out of their fortified lines and get them on the move where they would be easier prey for another Chinese offensive. In addition, the Chinese started to suffer from logistical problems almost immediately. Within days of the initial attacks, Chinese combat units had outstripped their man-powered supply columns. Chinese units carried only three days of food, and after a week of combat were tired and starving. This too argued in favor of a withdrawal and preparation for a new offensive.

The Chinese Second Phase Offensive, their main assault against the UN, began in late November 1950. By that time, Marshal Peng had regrouped and resupplied his forces and believed he had his support services in better shape for a new offensive. He would commit 388,000 Chinese troops against a UN force in northern Korea that now numbered only 342,000. To make matters worse, the Americans had interpreted the withdrawal in early November as an indication that the Chinese had been beaten—despite the fact that they had won nearly every battle they fought—and had run back to Manchuria. Consequently, on November 24, MacArthur ordered a renewed offensive to the Yalu River, despite the misgivings of some of his more clear-headed field commanders. Once again, UN forces pushed back up the peninsula, spread out, and paid little heed to forward reconnaissance. The Chinese struck on November 25th like a hurricane. They attacked with complete surprise and their operations were devastating.

Contrary to popular belief, Chinese forces rarely employed “human wave” attacks. Human wave assaults entail hurling masses of lightly armed infantry against an enemy position in an effort to take that position through shock and attrition. The idea is that the horde of soldiers will simply swamp the position despite their paucity of skills or weaponry. The Chinese regularly employed massed infantry tactics, but rarely human wave attacks. The differences are subtle but important.

In Korea, Chinese forces were so lightly armed that they could not generate adequate firepower for virtually any military operation. Consequently, the Chinese had to employ masses of infantry for those roles in which better-equipped armies would normally use firepower. Specifically, Chinese armies could not use firepower to cover the movements of a unit or to pin an adversary while another force maneuvered against it. Instead, the Chinese had to use infantry assaults for all of these tasks. In addition, the Chinese at times employed what they called the “short attack”—a variant of the Soviet echelon attack, albeit without tanks. In a short attack, Chinese infantry formations would repeatedly attack a narrow enemy defensive sector in hope of wearing down the defenders and creating a breakthrough they could exploit. While manpower-intensive, both of these approaches represented more sophisticated uses of light infantry than what is traditionally meant by a “human wave attack.”

The most common Chinese tactic was to employ masses of infantry to keep constant pressure on a position—just as a Western force would use firepower to do the same—while other elements outflanked and enveloped the enemy position. Obviously, this resulted in terrible casualties because keeping pressure on a UN position required the Chinese to send large numbers of lightly armed infantry into the heavy firepower of US and allied units. The Chinese only employed true human wave attacks on occasion late in the Korean War, when so many of their veteran soldiers had been killed that they had to rely largely on raw recruits who lacked the training and experience to employ more sophisticated tactics.

Bloody or not, Chinese tactics were highly effective, securing victory after victory despite the lopsided imbalance in weapons and equipment. Chinese units employed a constant screen of reconnaissance patrols to locate enemy positions. Chinese patrols would then further probe the enemy lines looking for unit boundaries, flanks, gaps, and other weak points. Under cover of darkness, infantry units would infiltrate through these gaps or around the enemy’s flanks. These forces would be employed in the attack to surround front-line combat units; overrun enemy command posts, artillery, and other support units; and set up ambushes deep in the rear to cut the enemy’s escape route. Other Chinese units, employing painstaking CC&D, would sneak up as close to the enemy defensive positions as possible without giving themselves away. The purpose of this was to be able to rush the defender from a short distance to get into close combat immediately. This was advantageous because the Chinese were superb in hand-to-hand combat and because this hindered UN units from bringing their artillery and air support to bear.

Whenever possible, the Chinese would begin their attack suddenly and under cover of night. Ideally, Chinese infantry infiltrated earlier would combine with formations in front of the enemy to launch assaults from all sides simultaneously. When this was impossible, some units would launch a frontal assault to pin the enemy as other forces conducted a double envelopment of the position. Then, while some reduced the encircled enemy positions, others would bypass them and push on into the rear to attack the enemy’s depth. As soon as one sector was secured, Chinese forces would press on quickly deeper into the enemy’s rear or into the flanks of nearby enemy units. When enemy forces were put to flight, Chinese units pursued aggressively for as long as they could. These tactics were employed at every level of the Chinese military, from army group and army right down to company and platoon, and proved highly successful throughout the war.

The Chinese used these tactics in November 1950 to tear huge holes in the UN lines. The main Chinese attacks were directed against the center of the UN front, where the Eighth Army in the west and the X Corps in the east were separated by the impassable mountains of central Korea. The Chinese 13th Army Group attacked the ROK II Corps and the US IX Corps on the right flank and center (respectively) of the Eighth Army advance while the 9th Army Group attacked the US 7th Infantry Division and the 1st US Marine Division holding the left flank of the US X Corps.

Chinese successes were spectacular. In the west, the Chinese split and then destroyed the two forward divisions of the ROK II Corps, allowing two entire Chinese armies to push around the right flank of the Eighth Army and envelop the US 2nd Infantry Division as well as the right flank of the US 24th Infantry Division. The 2nd Infantry Division took 4,000 casualties and lost over 50 percent of its equipment fighting its way out of the Chinese encirclement. A Turkish Brigade rushed north to hold the collapsing right flank was butchered, and the US 1st Cavalry Division also took heavy losses when it was brought forward for the same purpose. Chinese forces penetrated and enveloped parts of the US 25th Infantry Division and the ROK 1st Infantry Division, forcing both back with heavy losses. In the east, Chinese forces outflanked and mauled the US 7th Infantry Division. The only significant reverse the Chinese suffered during the entire campaign was against the US 1st Marine Division, which conducted a brilliant fighting withdrawal. Although the Chinese threw two entire field armies against them, the Marines fought phenomenally and, with plentiful fire support, they crippled the Chinese 9th Army Group and cut their way south.

The Marines aside, UN forces fell back in panic and confusion and the Chinese pressed them as hard as they could. However, the Chinese advance simply ran out of steam south of Pyongyang. Several factors were at work. First, Chinese forces could not advance as quickly as the UN could retreat. Without any motor transport, the Chinese could not keep pace with the fully mechanized UN units. The Chinese lost contact with the UN on December 3 and did not catch up to them again until December 20 when the UN had regrouped and formed a new defensive line north of Seoul. Second, China’s ramshackle logistical system could not support an advance even as quick as the Chinese infantry could march. As in October, Chinese units quickly began to run out of food and ammunition. As winter crept in and they had no warm clothing, they also began to suffer heavy losses from frostbite and exposure. Many units showed superhuman endurance and kept moving south without resupply, but eventually they too had to halt. Finally, US air power prevented the Chinese from advancing during the day and complicated Chinese logistical problems by working over roads, bridges, and rail lines, and destroying many of the precious few trucks and rail cars the Chinese had.

Continuing the Offensive. The Chinese resumed their assault on New Year’s Eve. This “Third Phase Offensive” was a virtual replay of its predecessor. The Chinese again took the UN forces largely by surprise, launching 280,000 men against a 100-mile assault sector. In the center of the peninsula, Chinese units again concentrated on the ROK II Corps, again smashing through it and then turning onto the flanks of the American units on either side. In the west, the Chinese mostly broke through the ROK divisions deployed between the American divisions, and then conducted double envelopments of the US units. Once again, in the first weeks of the offensive, the Chinese inflicted heavy losses on the UN forces and sent them reeling backward. However, almost immediately, logistical problems and China’s dearth of motor transport—compounded by the relentless pressure of US air power—prevented the Chinese from turning local successes into strategic victories. Time and again, Chinese units could not move fast enough to close their encirclements before the UN units slipped from their grasp. By mid-January 1951, the Chinese had taken Seoul and pushed the UN south of the Han River, but they ran out of steam before they could obliterate the UN armies altogether.

The Third Phase Offensive was China’s last shot at victory in Korea, and when it failed, stalemate became inevitable. By late January 1951, several important changes had deprived the Chinese of the capability to achieve a decisive victory. First off, Chinese losses were staggering. According to Marshal Peng, by the end of the Third Phase Offensive, China had lost roughly half of the force originally deployed to Korea in October and November 1950. Most of these casualties were the result of combat, logistical problems, and winter weather, with combat losses being the smallest of the three categories. What mattered was that so many of those killed were the hardened veterans of World War II and the Chinese Civil War. Consequently, Chinese armies increasingly were filled out with raw recruits sent to Korea with virtually no training.

Meanwhile, Chinese logistical problems continued to worsen. American air power prevented the Chinese from effectively using the railroads inside Korea, so supplies had to be carried by porter from the Manchurian border 300 kilometers away. Chinese divisions required remarkably few provisions compared to their American counterparts, but as soon as they went on the offensive, the extra distance from the Manchurian railheads began to weigh down their advance. At the end of the Third Phase Offensive, Chinese troops were attacking UN units primarily to seize their rations rather than to take their positions or drive them out of Korea.

In addition, Lt. General Matthew Ridgway took command of the US Eighth Army in late 1950 and then succeeded General MacArthur as theater commander in 1951. Ridgway was a brilliant general who rebuilt the UN armies and devised new tactics for fighting the Chinese. With Ridgway in command, UN forces were far more dangerous than they had been in the past.

In early February, Ridgway launched a limited counterattack that made little progress and took heavy casualties. Less than a week later, the Chinese responded with their Fourth Phase Offensive. Through outstanding CC&D efforts the Chinese again surprised the UN units, but the declining strength of the Chinese armies and the growing strength of UN forces with Ridgway in command made this offensive even less successful than the last. Surprise and Chinese tactical prowess again combined to bring some short-term successes: Chinese armies again routed several ROK divisions, allowing the Chinese to penetrate and envelop nearby American units. The US 2nd Infantry Division, finally back on line after its drubbing in November, was once again encircled and mauled. This time, however, Ridgway had devised tactics that allowed the UN to employ its firepower more effectively to kill Chinese and break up their assaults. Chinese units suffered appalling losses as a result of these tactics, and again their logistics failed them, forcing pauses that let UN units slip away before they could be cut off and destroyed. After only a week, the Chinese were forced to pull back to regroup.

It took the Chinese over two months to recover from their Fourth Phase Offensive. During this time, Ridgway launched a series of limited counterattacks that succeeded in retaking Seoul. Then on April 22, the Chinese commenced their Fifth Phase Offensive. This was Peng’s last bid at victory, and for it he had assembled 500,000 Chinese and North Korean troops. Yet it too followed the trend of accomplishing less than its predecessor.

The Chinese again achieved tactical surprise, and again aimed their initial assaults at ROK units. However, Ridgway had begun a program to retrain and re-equip ROK troops and, this time, the ROK divisions were pushed back, but not routed. UN troops also had learned to defend their positions in-depth and from all sides so that Chinese infiltration was much harder and less effective. In addition, the UN now had roughly 650,000 troops (227,000 US, 400,000 ROK) defending a much shorter front, making it far more difficult for the Chinese to find gaps between their units. Finally, Ridgway had concentrated unprecedented levels of firepower and simply obliterated everything in front of the UN lines. American artillery batteries were employed to bombard suspected Chinese assembly points whenever an attack seemed possible, while the US air forces conducted over 7,000 ground attack sorties in support of UN troops.

Chinese manpower reserves and tactical skills were such that they were again able to penetrate the UN lines, but they could not translate these breakthroughs into strategic victories. Mobility and logistics problems hobbled the Chinese advance from the start, giving Ridgway time to bring up American divisions held in reserve that proceeded to check and then reduce the Chinese penetrations with overwhelming firepower. As their supplies dwindled and their casualties soared, Chinese morale disintegrated and whole units began to crack under American pummeling. The Chinese pushed to the outskirts of Seoul, but were unable to retake the city.

The War Drags On. After the failure of the Chinese Fifth Phase Offensive, the fighting in Korea bogged down into a bloody stalemate. Both Peng and Ridgway recognized that they could not score a decisive victory over the other. Chinese maneuver skills and manpower resources essentially balanced out American firepower, mobility, and logistics. Both sides conducted frequent limited offensives meant to secure more advantageous defensive terrain, but neither attempted another grand “end-the-war” offensive.

Instead, the Chinese dug-in deep. They built elaborate trench and tunnel complexes with interlocking fields of fire, strongpoints, minefields, and hidden exits from which the defenders could launch sudden counterattacks from unexpected locations. According to Marshal Peng, the Chinese dug 1,250 kilometers of tunnels and 6,240 kilometers of trenches by war’s end. In the late summer of 1951, after the failure of China’s great offensives, the USSR began to provide Beijing with modern weaponry. The Soviets sent tanks, artillery, trucks, infantry weapons, and advanced fighter aircraft such as the MiG-15 to China. This new arsenal gave the Chinese considerably more firepower than in the past and a better ability to hang on to their defensive positions.

As a result of the sudden influx of Soviet equipment into China, the war in the air over Korea became interesting just as the war in the ground deadlocked. The Chinese Communists had never had an air force before, and their pilots had no more than a year of training before they took to the skies, so Beijing set only modest objectives for the new service. Essentially, Marshal Peng asked only that the Chinese Air Force provide air defense for his ground armies. At first, the Chinese fighters tried to intercept US bombers—mostly B-29s—attacking the Chinese logistics network in northern Korea. The B-29 was no match for the MiG-15 and thus Chinese pilots began doing considerable damage to US bomber formations in late 1951. However, these operations prompted the United States to deploy advanced F-86 Sabre and F-84 Thunderjet squadrons to Korea to escort the bombers and clear out the MiGs. In dogfights with the US fighters, especially the Sabres, the Chinese were initially mauled. The Sabre was a slightly more capable aircraft than the MiG, but the big difference was that virtually all of the US pilots were veterans of World War II while the Chinese were brand new to flying. Nevertheless, over time the Chinese pilots gained experience, and some became quite good.

As the size of China’s air force grew and the experience of its pilots improved, Beijing tried more ambitious air operations. First, in April 1951, the Chinese attempted to make a major air effort in support of their Fifth Phase Offensive by employing large numbers of IL-10 Sturmovik ground-attack aircraft they had received from the USSR. However, in ferocious battles with the US Sabres and Thunderjets, the MiGs could not clear the sky for such a ground-support campaign.

Next, the Chinese attempted to halt the US air campaign against Chinese lines of communication that was hampering the flow of supplies south to the front lines. In the summer and fall of 1951, the Chinese deployed 690 combat aircraft in Manchuria, of which 525 were MiG-15s, to try to gain air superiority over the battlefield. At that time, the United States had only one wing of Sabres and another of F-84s in Korea. United States’ pilots reported that the Chinese were better led, better trained, better organized, and employed better tactics than in the past. In some cases, this was because the Soviets had dispatched some of their own veteran pilots to fly the MiGs for the Chinese (and North Koreans).

Although the Chinese continued to be on the losing end against the Sabres, they were able to put up such huge numbers of aircraft that they began to seriously interrupt the US tactical air campaign against their logistics system. In response, the US air forces threw all their assets into a massive offensive counter-air campaign consisting of fighter sweeps and constant attacks on Chinese forward air bases. The MiGs rose in defense and fought huge, swirling dogfights with the American fighters. Although the US Air Force was unable to knock out the Chinese airbases altogether, they shot down hordes of MiGs in this way. Nevertheless, in 1952, the Chinese Air Force became even more aggressive, deploying ever greater numbers of aircraft (1,800 aircraft, including 1,000 jet fighters) and flying them farther and farther south. Still, although Chinese dogfighting skills continued to improve, they could never beat the Sabre pilots, and so over the course of 1952 and 1953, attrition began to wear down the Chinese Air Force, forcing it back on the defensive, and reducing its ability to interfere with other US air operations. Ultimately, the American Sabres would shoot down 566 MiGs for the loss of about 100 of their own.

With the fighting deadlocked on the ground and the United States having defeated the Chinese air threat, both sides agreed to peace talks in 1951. Nevertheless, it took two years of on-again, off-again negotiations to produce a ceasefire agreement on July 27, 1953, largely because of disagreements over the handling of prisoners of war. Actual costs for the Chinese remain unknown, but the most recent assessments suggest that probably around 450,000 Chinese were killed in the fighting. On the other hand, the South Koreans suffered 137,899 killed and the Americans 36,516 dead, most of whom were killed fighting the Chinese.

Patterns of Chinese Military Effectiveness

Overall, Chinese military forces fought very well during the Korean War. Chinese forces labored under a variety of important disadvantages, many of them derived directly from the poverty and underdevelopment of Chinese society at the time. Yet they scored major victories, knocking the UN armies out of North Korea and then fighting them to a draw around the 38th Parallel. Of greater importance, the specific performance of Chinese military forces in battle showed little similarity to that of the Arab armies. Although there were areas of overlap, primarily related to limited technical skills, even in these cases the similarities were not identical.

Chinese Strategic Leadership. China’s generals mostly showed a high degree of competence. Peng Dehuai obviously stands out as a first-rate commander, but Beijing’s strategic direction in general was very good.36 Allan Millett has argued that if Peng had deployed more of his force east of the Chongchon River in the November 1950 Second Phase attack, it would have produced an even more crushing victory than Peng achieved. That may be a correct appraisal, but it still does not detract from Peng’s performance under difficult conditions, nor the scope of what he did accomplish on this and many other occasions. In particular, Peng and China’s other generals seemed to have had an excellent understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their own forces and carefully crafted their operations to suit those capabilities.

Peng’s various offensives in Korea were well conceived, and had UN forces been less mobile and his own logistical system been more robust, the UN might easily have been thrown off the peninsula altogether. Even working under these constraints his operations achieved remarkable results. His offensives always featured a single-minded concentration of force against the decisive points coupled with deft maneuvers to confuse and cut off enemy formations. Nor would it be fair to criticize Peng for failing to incorporate his own logistical weaknesses and the enemy’s mobility into his planning: Peng’s mission, throw the UN off the Korean peninsula, probably was unattainable given the capabilities of his forces, yet he came remarkably close.

The direction of Chinese operations also was first class in every category. China’s military moves were thoroughly planned and meticulously prepared. Chinese generals used feints, deception, disinformation, and maneuver in superb combinations to achieve surprise and defeat otherwise superior opponents. They were extremely diligent about reconnaissance and intelligence operations. Although willing to pay heavily in casualties, it is difficult to say they squandered lives: Chinese operations were well-thought-through and there was a clear, well-reasoned purpose to their sacrifices. Chinese strategic leaders kept the control and organization of their forces simple and straightforward and commanded enormous armies with remarkably primitive communications systems. Chinese offensives were noteworthy for consistently securing surprise, uncovering the weak sectors in an enemy’s defense, concentrating overwhelming force at the decisive point on a battlefield, and forcing the enemy to fight at a disadvantage through rapid maneuver. On the defensive, Chinese operations were marked by a thorough appreciation for the terrain, extensive and well laid-out fortifications, and an ability to sense the flow of battle and shift forces appropriately in response to changes.

Before we move off the topic of China’s strategic leadership, it is worth noting that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was heavily politicized at this time in commissarist fashion.39 Political officers were present down to company level, and numerous officers and soldiers were Communist Party members who enforced party dogma. Chinese officers generally assumed that the political commissars were more powerful than they were since all military orders had to be countersigned by the ranking political officer.40 Patrick Coe has noted that in the Chinese military of the Korean War, “Decisions in combat (and elsewhere) not only had to be militarily or tactically correct; they also had to be politically correct.” Mao Zedong was a notoriously paranoid, capricious, and bloody-minded dictator who terrified his generals. Peng’s own rise was primarily a result of his steadfast loyalty to Mao, yet Mao endlessly micromanaged Chinese operations, often pushing strategically foolish ideas that drove Peng and his staff to distraction.

All of this reinforces the point that while politicization can be an impediment to military effectiveness, it is not inevitable, and various armies have found ways to compensate. Likewise, emphasizing the promotion of loyalty over competence does not mean that every general in a politicized military will be incompetent. There are brilliant loyalists too, especially in armies with considerable recent combat experience where the audit of battle can help sort the wheat from the chaff.

Chinese Operations in the Korean War, 1950–1953 Part II

Chinese Tactical Leadership.

Chinese junior officers performed equally well, perhaps even better, than their generals. The Chinese employed a highly decentralized command system that placed a heavy burden on tactical leaders. Because Chinese operations were often conducted at night, involved large-scale infiltrations, had few radios, and placed a premium on stealth, it was often impossible for senior commanders to direct their forces in the midst of battle. The Chinese also placed a premium on decisions made on the spot in response to immediate circumstances. In particular, they emphasized the immediate exploitation of gaps and weak points such as unit boundaries, which meant that junior officers were expected to recognize such opportunities and act on them without direct orders. As one historian observed, “The nature of the Chinese Red Army, with its paucity of modern military equipment, placed a great deal of responsibility on unit commanders, they were to follow the general plan if they could, but not be afraid to deviate if it seemed appropriate.” To facilitate this, the Chinese army conducted extensive pre-attack briefings, with senior officers providing remarkable amounts of information to their subordinates to ensure that more junior commanders would be able to make smart decisions during the battle based on a full understanding of the plan and the intelligence regarding enemy forces and intentions. Indeed, virtually all Chinese operations were planned only at general levels, and the specifics were typically left to the commanders in the field to decide as the circumstances dictated.

Chinese junior officers performed extremely well in this system. They kept up a constant stream of patrols to find the enemy, and then to probe for routes of attack, flanks, gaps in the line, unit boundaries, etc. Once they had a reasonable picture of enemy dispositions they formulated a plan of attack and put it into action. They showed tremendous individual initiative and aggressiveness. They rarely seemed to let an opportunity pass, and reacted quickly and flexibly to the ebb and flow of combat. At times, they did miss opportunities to exploit, but typically because their logistics failed them or they had suffered such heavy casualties taking the position that they had too little left to follow through. When one approach failed, Chinese junior officers devised a new plan of action and then put it into effect. They also showed a real flare for improvisation in their approach to combat situations. As just one example of this, in 1950 one Chinese company commander had his men light the dried grass near an American position on fire when they could not find a way to flank the American lines. The grass burned straight up the hill the Americans were holding, forcing them to abandon the position.

Chinese tactical units operated at a quick operational tempo, especially given their lack of motor transport. Chinese junior officers fully recognized the need to hit hard and fast and to keep hitting the enemy with rapid blows so that he could not recover. Consequently, they bypassed resistance when possible and drove as far and as fast into the rear as they could to overrun command posts and keep the enemy reeling. In one incident, Chinese troops smashed the ROK 15th Infantry Regiment and then pursued so quickly that they passed the retreating South Korean troops, overran the regiment’s command post, and then turned to ambush the combat units (again) as they fled south.46 Even when one Chinese unit might stop to regroup on an objective, other elements of the force—or other units of the same formation—would take it upon themselves to keep moving forward to maintain the pace of advance and not give the enemy any breathing space.

One of the greatest strengths of the Chinese military at every level was their predilection for maneuver. Shu Guang Zhang notes that the PLA itself believed that its forces could overcome American advantages in firepower because they were “good at maneuvering, flexibility and mobility and, in particular, good at surrounding and attacking [the] enemy’s flanks by taking tortuous courses, as well as dispersing and concealing forces.” The PLA’s favored form of attack—and counterattack—was what Lin Biao referred to as the “one point, two sides” maneuver, which consisted of a frontal assault to pin the enemy coupled with a double envelopment. Chinese forces at every level from army group to squad employed this approach, and when it proved impossible, they found other ways to maneuver against their foe, performing a single envelopment or simply attacking from an oblique angle to the defender’s lines. American, South Korean, Turkish, British (and in 1962, Indian troops) reported being constantly outflanked and hit from the rear by Chinese units.

These traits were equally apparent in defensive operations. Chinese tactical commanders were just as diligent about reconnaissance when on the defensive. They were careful to disguise their positions and built ingenious defensive networks. Chinese forces were also extremely active on defense and rarely sat passively in their trenches while being attacked. In battle, Chinese units would abandon their positions if they thought that they could move into a better one, preferably one from which they could fire or counterattack into the attacker’s flank or rear. Chinese units counterattacked vigorously and quickly at every level. Indeed, many Chinese defensive positions were designed to lure the enemy in and crush him with a devastating counterattack (often from several sides simultaneously). Whenever possible, the Chinese attempted to conduct flanking counterattacks to cut off the attacking force and crush it. Moreover, if they repulsed an attacker, Chinese units frequently seized the opportunity to pursue or even launch an immediate attack of their own.

The Chinese appear to have done adequately in combined arms operations when their very limited experiences are taken into account. In Korea, the Chinese initially employed pure infantry formations, but by the end of the war they also fielded considerable numbers of artillery batteries. By and large, the Chinese did well in employing their artillery to support their infantry formations both when attacking and in defense.

Chinese Rank and File Performance. China’s soldiery did all that could be expected of them. Personal bravery among Chinese units was very high. The Chinese Army attacked with great confidence and enthusiasm. In Korea, this remained the case until the cold, the lack of food and other supplies, as well as the terrifying losses in combat began to set in during 1951. Chinese unit cohesion was likewise excellent. Although numerous Chinese units did begin to crack in 1951 at the end of the Fifth Phase Offensive, what was impressive was just how much hardship and adversity these formations endured before that happened. By that time, many of the Chinese soldiers were literally starving to death, clinically exhausted, and numbed by five months of attacks into the teeth of UN firepower. Most armies would have fallen apart long before.

Chinese weapons handling was mostly poor, albeit with several bright spots. Chinese marksmanship was lousy across the board. Chinese infantrymen could do little with their small arms. One exception to this rule was that Chinese units were often inexplicably good with light machine guns. Chinese forces also suffered heavily from the limited technical skills of their personnel. Consequently, few could handle electronics equipment, heavy weaponry, or other technology-intensive machines. To at least some extent, the Chinese had to forgo certain weapons that were simply beyond the technical skills of their men. Moreover, Chinese troops rarely got the maximum performance out of even the relatively simple weaponry they employed.

By contrast, Chinese artillery and mortar operations were very competent. Although Chinese forces entered the war with only light mortars and almost no artillery, by 1952 they had learned to employ their new Soviet-supplied indirect-fire weapons in a fairly sophisticated manner. As the war progressed, the ability of Chinese mortar and artillery units to mass their fire became an important element in their defensive operations. Chinese artillery batteries could rapidly combine their fire even when geographically dispersed, their fire missions were often very accurate, and they could quickly and flexibly shift their fire from one target to the next as required by front-line commanders. Chinese mortar units even got so good that they could silence US mortars in counter-battery duels.

Chinese Combat Support and Combat Service Support Performance. Above all else, logistics was the bane of Chinese military operations. In Korea, China might have scored one of the most impressive victories in modern history had its supply services been able to keep pace with its combat units and had its combat units been able to move faster than they did. As one historian has said of Marshal Peng, “It was not the Americans who were defeating him; it was winter, and the Chinese inability to fight this sort of war on a straight offensive basis. The logistics of an attacking army are perhaps six times more difficult than those of a defending army, and Marshal Peng’s logistics, by his own statements, were so ridiculous as to be laughable.”

The causes of these logistics problems may not be as clear as they may seem. The most obvious problem the Chinese faced was that they had too few trucks and trains to supply their army, and too few air defenses to protect the logistical network from air attack. In addition, they had other material complications. For example, in Korea, Chinese forces used a multitude of small arms, none of which were manufactured in China and most of which were no longer manufactured at all. Consequently, providing ammunition and spare parts to the combat units was a nightmare. However, it is unclear whether Chinese logistics problems also were related to China’s low levels of education or other socioeconomic factors. Logistics for an army that is even crudely modern requires quartermasters able to read and do arithmetic and often more complicated mathematics. In addition, supplying such a vast army, over such great distances with such a multitude of different weapons, is a complex project to say the least.

Very little information exists regarding China’s maintenance capabilities. During October and November 1951, the Chinese generally were able to keep 300–400 of their 800 trucks running on any given day. A 50 percent operational readiness rate is usually considered very poor, and this would fit well with the pattern of difficulties the Chinese experienced in other aspects of military operations related to technical skills. Still, it would be rash to conclude based on this single scrap of evidence that Chinese armies experienced considerable problems with maintenance and repairs. The Chinese were using mostly very old trucks captured from the Guomindang and the Japanese. It is unclear what kind of shape they were in when the Chinese Communists got them, or what kind of an inventory of spare parts and lubricants they had by 1950. Moreover, 800 trucks is an absurdly low number to try to support an army of over 300,000 men, so those trucks may have been driven to death. For all of these reasons, this meager evidence on its own cannot support the conclusion that Chinese maintenance practices were poor, even though this would fit the pattern suggested by Chinese problems with logistics and weapons handling.

Limited evidence suggests that Chinese combat engineers were reasonably good. Although the Chinese were known to use infantry battalions to clear paths through minefields by having them walk across in line-abreast, they generally could rely on a competent corps of engineers. In Korea, Chinese engineers built impressive fortifications very quickly. Chinese engineers showed a tremendous ability to cross water obstacles. The US Air Force was constantly frustrated by the speed and ingenuity of Chinese engineers building, repairing, and circumventing bridges knocked down by US air strikes.

Chinese Air Force Performance. China’s air force made a reasonable effort given its newness. The Chinese did not necessarily do “well” in any category of air operations, but deserve high marks for learning quickly.

The planning and direction of Chinese air operations was reasonably good. Chinese Air Force leaders initially recognized that their squadrons were only capable of defensive counter-air missions, and so they concentrated on trying to disrupt the US campaign against Chinese logistics. Later, as the forces available to them improved, they took on more ambitious missions. The Chinese quickly deduced the weaknesses of the F-86 Sabre, specifically its limited range, and designed tactics to try to take advantage of that problem. Although the United States quickly countered, the Chinese in turn devised a counter to the Americans’ counter-tactic. The United States ultimately prevailed in this contest, but this rapid interplay indicates that Chinese Air Force leaders were intelligent, creative, and resourceful and actively tried to shape aerial encounters, rather than passively accepting situations as they occurred.

Chinese air forces concentrated almost exclusively on counter-air missions; consequently, this is the only category of air operations in which the Chinese performance can reasonably be assessed. The Chinese began very poorly but had made major improvements by war’s end. The chief factor was the experience of Chinese pilots. At the start of the war, the Chinese Air Force was brand new and had only a handful of qualified pilots, none of whom had participated in air-to-air combat before. When these men went up against the World War II veterans of the US Air Force they were slaughtered. The Chinese began sending large numbers of pilots to the USSR for training, and over time, they began to give the American pilots a harder time. There was never a month during the Korean War when Chinese MiG squadrons did more damage to the Americans than they sustained themselves, but by 1952 they had reduced the number of losses they were taking and had increased the number of US planes they were shooting down.

Chinese Air Force Performance.

China’s air force made a reasonable effort given its newness. The Chinese did not necessarily do “well” in any category of air operations, but deserve high marks for learning quickly.

The planning and direction of Chinese air operations was reasonably good. Chinese Air Force leaders initially recognized that their squadrons were only capable of defensive counter-air missions, and so they concentrated on trying to disrupt the US campaign against Chinese logistics. Later, as the forces available to them improved, they took on more ambitious missions. The Chinese quickly deduced the weaknesses of the F-86 Sabre, specifically its limited range, and designed tactics to try to take advantage of that problem. Although the United States quickly countered, the Chinese in turn devised a counter to the Americans’ counter-tactic. The United States ultimately prevailed in this contest, but this rapid interplay indicates that Chinese Air Force leaders were intelligent, creative, and resourceful and actively tried to shape aerial encounters, rather than passively accepting situations as they occurred.

Chinese air forces concentrated almost exclusively on counter-air missions; consequently, this is the only category of air operations in which the Chinese performance can reasonably be assessed. The Chinese began very poorly but had made major improvements by war’s end. The chief factor was the experience of Chinese pilots. At the start of the war, the Chinese Air Force was brand new and had only a handful of qualified pilots, none of whom had participated in air-to-air combat before. When these men went up against the World War II veterans of the US Air Force they were slaughtered. The Chinese began sending large numbers of pilots to the USSR for training, and over time, they began to give the American pilots a harder time. There was never a month during the Korean War when Chinese MiG squadrons did more damage to the Americans than they sustained themselves, but by 1952 they had reduced the number of losses they were taking and had increased the number of US planes they were shooting down.

Nevertheless it is still the bottom line that, throughout the war, the Chinese never performed as well as the Americans in air combat maneuvering. They fought aggressively, and they maneuvered, and some of their pilots were able to really exploit the capabilities of their aircraft, but they were never able to do it at the same level as the Americans. As a result, US Sabre pilots racked up at least a 5:1 kill ratio against the Chinese for the war.

Decisive Factors in the Korean War.

Chinese forces did as well as they did in combat for several reasons. Chinese leadership at both strategic and tactical levels was unquestionably the most important factor in Chinese successes. China’s generals did a superb job employing the resources at their disposal to achieve Beijing’s political objectives. In many of their campaigns, the Chinese achieved spectacular results that almost certainly would have been beyond the reach of less competent generals commanding the same forces. Similarly, it is difficult to fault Beijing’s generals for Chinese failures. Ultimately, the tasks set for them by their political masters may well have been unachievable.

Chinese tactical competence was just as important as the skill of their strategic leadership. In battle, the Chinese were an extremely dangerous foe, and what is so incredible is that they achieved this level of tactical prowess despite pitiful weaponry and illiterate soldiers mostly incapable of taking full advantage of the meager equipment they possessed. It is remarkable that Chinese infantry companies of roughly 100 men equipped with no more than a few dozen rifles, perhaps three or four light machine guns, and maybe a light mortar or two, could attack and defeat entrenched American units of roughly equal size but lavishly armed with the most modern weapons and backed by fearsome air and artillery support. Chinese tactical formations maintained a torrid pace of operations, although this inevitably outstripped what their logistical train could support. Their units displayed this tactical excellence from squad to division levels, and the credit for this has to go to China’s tactical commanders. With only a few exceptions, the Americans were never able to match Chinese tactical skills in Korea, and only were able to achieve a stalemate through the application of overwhelming firepower to bleed the Chinese army white—and they could do so only because Chinese logistical failings prevented them from overrunning the peninsula altogether.

Another important aspect of China’s victories was its superb intelligence capabilities. In Korea, China won the intelligence war, and in doing so, went a great distance toward winning the entire war. China’s constant attention to reconnaissance and its persistent efforts to gather information on its adversary in any way possible usually gave Chinese military leaders at all levels an excellent understanding of the adversary they faced. On the other hand, China’s meticulous attention to operational security and CC&D prevented their enemies from knowing much if anything about their own operations. At the grandest strategic level, the Chinese moved over 300,000 men into Korea without the United States realizing it. At tactical levels, Chinese platoons and battalions often passed right under the noses of US, ROK, and other Western units before and during a battle.

Chinese military setbacks were largely the product of two weaknesses: logistics and weaponry. Chinese deficiencies in supplying and moving their forces were literally crippling because they led to widespread starvation and frostbite. In 1950–1951, this failing was unquestionably the most important factor that prevented China from turning a remarkable victory into a decisive one.

China’s arsenal was its other great problem. The Chinese simply lacked the equipment that their adversaries possessed, both in terms of quantity and quality. The gap between the arms of a US, or even a ROK, unit and those of comparable Chinese units was immeasurable. Nevertheless, China’s deficiencies in terms of arms should not be exaggerated: the Chinese armed forces achieved stunning successes despite this problem, and their defeats do not seem to have been the result of deficiencies in weaponry. Had the Chinese been better armed, their operations almost certainly would have been even more successful, but there is no reason to believe that this would have compensated for the logistical problems that brought their Korean offensives to a halt.

An important aspect of this issue is whether Chinese deficiencies in weaponry and logistics were purely the product of their poverty, or the result of an inability among Chinese personnel to read and write, to understand machinery, and to handle the complex requirements of a modern army. Was the problem simply that the Chinese could not afford to build or buy adequate numbers of modern arms, trucks, and combat consumables? Or, was the problem that even had Beijing been able to acquire adequate supplies of this materiel it would have made little difference because Chinese soldiers and officers would have been unable to employ them properly?

This is a crucial question to understand the impact of underdevelopment on military effectiveness. If the problem is simply one of availability, then this says little about the impact of underdevelopment on the performance of the personnel themselves. Of greatest importance, it would argue that underdevelopment probably was not a very good explanation for Arab military ineffectiveness, because in most of their wars the Arab armies had a surfeit of weapons, mobility assets, and supplies. Unfortunately, very little evidence is available, and what is available is contradictory. For example, the poor dogfighting skills of Chinese pilots suggests that the problem was an inability to fully exploit modern technology. On the other hand, the excellent machine gunning and artillery skills of Chinese ground forces indicate just the opposite, that the problem was simply the inadequacy of the available hardware.

As a final note, although China’s enemies have often blamed their losses on Chinese numerical superiority in manpower, this excuse unconvincing. In Korea, Chinese quantitative advantages were not great. The Chinese often had fewer men in the field than the UN forces. Of course, the UN armies had a much lower “tooth-to-tail” ratio so the Chinese frequently had more combat soldiers available than did the United States. But these imbalances should not have been decisive. For instance, in November 1950, China fielded 388,000 men against 342,000 UN soldiers. Even if one assumes that as much as 80 percent of Chinese manpower were combat troops while only 50 percent of UN manpower were, the net figure is 310,000 Chinese soldiers against 205,000 UN soldiers. Given the immense material disparity between the two sides, such a difference in manpower should not have been decisive. In 2003, an Anglo-American army of about 75,000 troops with similar material advantages crushed an Iraqi army of 300,000 and conquered their country in under a month. If the issue were merely mass versus materiel in Korea, the Chinese advantage in mass should not have outweighed the UN advantage in materiel.

Regardless of the raw balance of manpower, the crucial point is that the Chinese did not win by overwhelming numbers. The Chinese were forced to employ mass as a substitute for firepower in their tactical maneuver schemes. This should not take away from the fact that their victories over the US-led armies in Korea were achieved by superior tactical competence. The Chinese won battles by deceiving, confusing, and outmaneuvering their opponents, not by drowning them in a sea of manpower. Especially prior to Ridgway’s reforms, American military units in Korea were very mediocre, and weren’t even as competent as their World War II antecedents. For the Americans, having more such units would not have made nearly as much difference as having more capable ones.

Chinese and Arab Military Effectiveness.

Comparing Arab military performance since 1948 with the Chinese military experience in the Korean War shows pretty much the same thing as the Libya-Chad case: vast differences in military effectiveness existed between many Arab and non-Arab forces despite comparable levels of socioeconomic development. China’s extreme backwardness does not appear to have produced the same patterns of ineffectiveness in Chinese forces that characterized Arab operations during the postwar era.

Aside from those categories related to limited technical skills, the only areas in which Chinese and Arab armed forces appeared comparable was in the high degrees of unit cohesion and personal bravery displayed by both. Other than this, it is difficult to find areas in which the Arabs fought as well as, or even just similar to, the Chinese. In particular, the Chinese manifested none of the problems the Arabs had with information management and tactical leadership in terms of initiative, creativity, flexibility, responsiveness, etc. Instead, these were areas in which the Chinese excelled. For the Chinese, maneuver warfare and information management were arguably their greatest strengths, whereas for the Arabs these were their greatest weakness.

Hungary Fights On!

The Arrow Cross Regime

Following the failed armistice and his initial refusal, Horthy – practically being in Waffen-SS custody – was eventually persuaded by the Germans to name Ferenc Szálasi as the new prime minister. Soon after the new prime minister was officially inaugurated in power, he and his new Minister of War, General Beregfy, reviewed the first Honvédség unit which had changed allegiance to him, greeting the troops with the straight-arm Nazi salute. Soon, other units of the Budapest Garrison pledged allegiance to the new leader. Only sporadic fights took place between German and Hungarian units due to improper information flow, mostly in countryside, with few casualties from both sides. The political and military takeover in the Honvédség was carried out smoothly, as the Hungarian soldiers were educated not to mix with politics and to strictly follow orders from their official leaders.

Immediately after the Arrow Cross takeover, reprisals followed. Colonel General Lajos Veress, commanding officer of the Hungarian Second Army, an old fashioned Szekler officer loyal to Horthy, was arrested on the orders of Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici, commander of the 1. Panzerarmee stationed in Hungary, and interned. Veress had earlier been nominated by Horthy as Homo Regius, i.e. the King’s Trustee, in the event that the Regent was incapacitated, to perform the duties of the head of state, and thus it was important for the Germans that he be quickly eliminated. Command of the Second Army was taken over by Major General vitéz Jenő Major (born Mayer), commander of the 1st Armoured Army Corps and Chief Inspector of all armoured units. The commanding officer and the Chief of Staff of First Army, Colonel General Béla Miklós and Colonel Kálmán Kéri, avoided arrest only by crossing the frontline over to the Fourth Ukrainian Front. Command of First Army was taken over by Lieutenant General vitéz Dezső László (born Laucsek), while Colonel László Csettkey was hastily named to the position of Chief of the General Staff. The commanding officer of the Honvédség’s last army, the Third, Lt. Gen. vitéz József Heszlényi, was a well-known nationalist and anti-Soviet. Therefore, he was not even initiated by Horthy into his plans. Upon hearing the Regent’s proclamation, he took a firm position against switching sides and co-operating with the Soviets. Therefore, Heszlényi was the sole army commander allowed by the Germans to retain command of his army after 16 October. He was even promoted to full general (colonel general) on 1 November.

Besides the key military men, many political figures were also arrested and thrown into jail – often trading places with freshly released Arrow Cross and other far-right sympathisers as well as common criminals. A total of ten Honvédség generals were arrested, including retired high officers – Vilmos Nagy and Ferenc Szombathelyi, former Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff of the Honvédség – Horthy’s trusted men, known also for their pro-Western stances. Others, such as General Lajos Csatay and his wife, committed suicide while under arrest. Some others, such as General János Vörös, managed to avoid arrest by defecting to the Soviets. Finally, there were a handful of officers who, as a protest against the new rule, asked to be relieved from their respective posts and placed in reserve. Their wish was duly granted. Most Honvédség officers, however, obeyed the new leader’s orders, and believed that their country must be defended against the Soviet Army at any costs. They reluctantly pledged allegiance to Szálasi and carried on with their respective duties after taking a new oath, mandatory from 20 October. It has to be stressed again that even if most Magyar officers continued to serve under Szálasi’s regime, it does not necessarily mean that they were Nazis or extremists – a notable exception being Colonel General Beregfy, the new Minister of War, an open follower of the Nazis. As officers, they were educated not to mix with politics, and to follow the orders given by the country’s rulers. They were also ready to continue to defend their country until the very end, as this was their duty.

Szálasi’s new Government of National Unity – which proclaimed him Nemzetvezető (the Nation’s Leader), on 3 November – was made up by fifteen people. Theoretically, the government was a coalition of four far-right parties; however, practically all powers were concentrated in the hands of Szálasi. All but five were Arrow Cross and so-called Hungarist Movement members. The role of deputy prime minister (without portfolio) was taken over by Jenő Szőllősi (born Naszluhácz), a pharmacist from Makó, and Szálasi’s long-time follower. Gábor Vajna became Interior Minister.

The young baron Gábor Kemény was charged with Foreign Affairs. As mentioned, Colonel General Károly Beregfy took over the Ministry of Defence as both commanding officer and Chief of Staff – a novelty in the Honvédség. The economic portfolio was handed over to Lajos Reményi-Schneller, a long time Member of Parliament, who was always Germany’s trusted man in the Budapest Parliament. Szálasi’s right hand, Emil Kovarcz, headed a new institution, tasked with the ‘nation’s total mobilization for war’. Colonel General Vilmos Hellebronth was tasked with organising the (war) industrial production.56 The Kingdom of Hungary was renamed the Hungarist Labour State (Hungarista Munkaállam) and restructured, liberally intertwining far-right (fascist and nationalist-extremist), as well as left (socialist) and far-left (communist) ideologies. The Germans did not assist Szálasi in his political restructurings, being interested only in the total military mobilization and economic exploitation of Hungary for the joint war effort. Berlin had no particular interest in the ‘specifically Hungarian fascism’.

Along with the traditional national red–white–green flag, the Party’s red–white striped flag – based on another traditional Hungarian symbol, the so-called Árpád-striped flag, in use from the eleventh century by the House of King Árpád – with the four-arm Arrow Cross symbol in its centre became official. Even the country’s traditional coat-of-arms was changed to reflect the new reality, introducing an Arrow Cross and a large ‘H’ for ‘Hungarism’.

As Hungary’s new leader, Szálasi became the head of the Honvédség as well. He did not assign any rank to himself, calling himself a rank-less Honvéd or private. In fact, he was a well-decorated officer in the First World War, who achieved the rank of major. He renounced his rank in 1935 when he entered politics. Accordingly, when he first visited Hitler in Berlin in December 1944, he showed up in a common Honvéd’s uniform, with no rank or decorations – in sharp contrast to most other foreign dignitaries. This attitude was reportedly appreciated by Hitler, who also did not take any military rank, or wear any medals except the few ones he was awarded with during WWI. Despite the first positive impression, Hitler was unimpressed by Szálasi and his incoherent line of thought. Nevertheless, he had no choice but to deal with him on the few issues he wanted to share with the Hungarians.

Under the direct supervision of Szálasi, the Honvédség was fundamentally restructured. In direct contrast to the army’s traditional non-political stance, emphasis was placed on the soldiers’ ideological re-education, in line with the new doctrine. The Honvédség Headquarters’ 6th Department was reorganized and charged with controlling printed media (censorship) and spreading party propaganda. The usage of the word ‘Sir’ and all other ‘old-fashioned’ courteous appellations – many dating from the k.u.k. Austro-Hungarian Monarchy era – were abolished, every soldier being called only by his rank. From late December 1944 on, the straight-arm Nazi salute was ordered to be used in the army, along with shouting a slogan, ‘Persistence! Hail to Szálasi!’ (Kitartás! Éljen Szálasi!). However, this order had little, if any, effect among the Honvédség rank and file. In many units it was not even officially announced, let alone applied. This Nazi salute was therefore used only by a handful of party members and ardent followers of the extremist ideology. It has to be noted that a few progressive elements were introduced in the army as well. Among them was a more significant emphasis on the NCOs, offering to the worthy and skilled a better chance for promotion to officer rank. Their living conditions improved somewhat as well. Several anachronistic traditions were also abolished. These few progressive steps were overshadowed by the retrograde manner of Szálasi’s vision, however.

In late October 1944, a new government office was established to oversee the total mobilization of industry and agriculture on behalf of the war effort, headed by Colonel General Ferenc Farkas. As of 10 December 1944, a general mobilization was proclaimed. Later on, with the war situation turning to the worse for Hungary, all able-bodied men between fourteen and seventy were ordered for duty, most employed as workers in the ‘Hungarist Labour Army’, established on 15 February 1945. Selected men were sent to Germany, to be trained in German-style warfare and equipped with modern German weapons. Szálasi and his entourage envisaged raising not less than twenty new army divisions, placed under direct command of the party – denoting their deep distrust of the traditionalist Honvédség. In parallel – as detailed earlier – in accordance to Berlin’s wishes, four Hungarian Waffen-SS divisions were to be raised as well. The Germans promised to use these main units solely on Hungarian soil, against the Red Army. Needless to say, these grandiose plans lacked any substance, as there was no manpower left in the still unoccupied part of Hungary to man these ‘paper’ divisions.

Under the leadership of opposition leftist Parliament Member Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, a new underground resistance organization called The Liberation Committee of the National Hungarian Uprising (Magyar Nemzeti Felkelés Felszabadító Bizottsága) was formed on 9 November 1944. The organization was made up of the left-leaning parties, which had earlier united in the so-called Patriotic Front, as well as a variety of leftist civilian and military resistance groups. The military wing of the committee was led by Lieutenant General (retired) János Kiss, a pre-war infantry commissioner assigned to the Honvédség’s commanding officer. The committee’s intention was to issue a proclamation to the nation, the Soviet government and the Allies and to establish contact with Red Army commanders approaching the Hungarian capital. The resistance movement’s final goal was to persuade the Honvédség to turn arms against the Germans and to assist the Soviets in taking over Hungary. This ill-organized group lacked any proper support; thus it was doomed from the start. Csendőr detectives of the National Accountability Detachment (Nemzeti Számonkérő Különítmény) soon begun to track its members’ movements. In the end, the committee was betrayed by one of its members. The leaders, including Lieutenant General Kiss, were captured on 22 November and hanged on 8 December following a court-martial. The resistance movement’s leader, Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, was executed on Christmas Eve at Sopronkőhida, after the Parliament refuged at Sopron revoked his immunity.

On 4 December, the Hungarian leader, accompanied by the Hungarian Minister of Home Defence and the Foreign Minister and other officials, paid an official visit to Berlin. Initially, the Führer was visibly relieved to welcome the new Hungarian leader instead of Horthy. He shared with them his unabated belief that soon there would be a sharp turn in the war’s outcome with the introduction of the so-called wonder weapons, including the V1, V2 and the mysterious V3. Hitler reaffirmed his trust in Hungary and his plans for a massive counter-attack in south-west Hungary, which would drive the Red Army out of the country. However, the series of talks, which also involved von Ribbentrop and Guderian, ended with no concrete results, Hitler not promising anything to the new Hungarian leader. At the end, both men had developed mistrust in each other. Nevertheless Szálasi sought a new round of talks in April–May 1945. He also planned to meet Mussolini in February–March 1945, which obviously did not materialize either.

Despite the disappointment on a personal level, the Hungarian leader left Berlin firmly trusting in the ‘final victory’. However, by then, the Red Army was already at the gates of Budapest.

Army Group South. 29 October-30 December 1944

The Siege of ‘Fortress Budapest’

The day following the last wartime Christmas Eve, Soviet troops completely encircled the Hungarian capital. Hitler named SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS und Polizei Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch as commanding officer of what he had earlier declared ‘Fortress Budapest’, which had to be defended at all costs. Besides approximately 800,000 civilian inhabitants and refugees, Budapest was defended by less than 100,000 armed men. To the 51,000 regular Hungarian and 41,000 German soldiers, several hundred policemen, gendarmes and guards, approximately 2,000 men of Arrow Cross special detachments as well as party members can be added, the number being completed by ad hoc defence units formed from the civilian population. Soviet Army commanders trusted with the speedy capture of Budapest seriously inflated the number of defenders, mentioning 188,000 combatants, to better explain to Stalin the reason for the long siege of over two months, and in order to justify the considerable number of civilian citizens taken prisoner, or pressed into forced labour after the fall of Budapest (a total of 138,000 prisoners were reported taken during the fight for Fortress Budapest, exceeding by far the total number of armed men, about half of which died or were wounded during the fighting). The defenders faced a total of approximately 157,000 Soviet and Rumanian soldiers, assembled in the ‘Budapest Group’. Additionally, a similar number of other Red Army troops were also indirectly committed to the assault.

There was a small group of 2,534 Hungarian volunteer soldiers who fought alongside the Soviets in capturing the western district of Budapest. Six hundred additional soldiers joined them later on. These men, mainly former prisoners of war and deserters, were assembled in the ‘Volunteer Regiment of Buda’ – the only Hungarian unit that officially fought alongside the Allies against the A xis – placed under direct command of the Red Army and not the pro-Allied Interim Hungarian government, formed earlier at Debrecen. These Hungarian volunteers, led by former Lieutenant Colonel Oszkár Variházy, suffered appalling losses. Over six hundred men, representing almost one quarter of the regiment’s initial strength, were killed, and many more wounded. Ironically, after the siege of Budapest ended, most of the pro-Soviet survivors were disarmed by the Soviets and transported into the USSR as prisoners of war, along with Budapest’s surviving defenders and captured civilians.

Despite stiff resistance offered to the attackers, failed repeated German counter-attacks from the west and the desperate efforts to supply the Axis troops with ammunition and other supplies via a massive air bridge, the defenders’ situation became desperate by mid-January 1945. The last Axis troops withdrew from Pest to Buda, the capital’s western district, and blew up behind them all standing bridges spanning the Danube river. Soon, most of Buda also fell to the Soviets. On 11 February the survivors finally decided to defy Hitler’s order and tried to break out of the encirclement. The desperate attempt was a complete failure, as communication had either been intercepted, or someone had betrayed the plans to the Soviets, who massacred most of the weakened escapees. Eventually, of the approximately 14,000 German, and 2,000 Hungarian soldiers, along with about 2,500 Arrow Cross members and civilians who attempted to break out, only 785 people managed to escape death or Soviet capture and reach the Axis lines. The actual fight for the Hungarian capital ended on 13 February.

During the fifty-one days the actual operation to capture Budapest lasted, more than half of the capital’s armed defenders were either killed or wounded. Officially, 19,718 inhabitants died during the siege and 32,753 houses were destroyed. The attackers lost an estimated 75–80,000 soldiers.

 Officially, Soviet (and contemporary Russian) history, along with a handful of current Hungarian left-leaning politicians and historians, label the fall of Budapest as a ‘liberation’. In fact, for most Hungarians, it was merely an occupation – one occupying force being replaced by another one. However, while the German occupation lasted only one dreadful year, the Soviet occupation of Hungary lasted until 1991.

The territory taken over by the Soviet Army and the so-called Ideiglenes Nemzeti Kormány (INK, Interim National Government), was formed on 22 December in Debrecen, eastern Hungary. The members of the new pro-Soviet government were chosen from leftist politicians, high-ranking officers who had earlier defected to the Soviet side or had been sent by Horthy to negotiate the failed armistice, as well as respected local personalities who were willing to deal with the Soviets. Initially, the communists – some in exile in Moscow for many years – received only second-ranking portfolios. However, they had the real power behind the scenes. General Béla Miklós became the prime minister, General János Vörös the Minister of Defence with Colonel Kálmán Kéri the Chief of Staff, General Gábor Faragho the Minister of Public Affairs, and Ferenc Erdei the Minister of the Interior. In its first public declaration, the INK ascertained legal continuity with Horthy’s deposed old government. The next major step was to declare war on Germany. This bold declaration – most probably made under Soviet pressure – was, in fact, hollow, as the INK did not possess any troops. Moreover, even the so-called ‘democratic Hungary’ was technically still in a state of war with the Allies for a short while, as the official armistice between Moscow and Debrecen was signed only on 20 January 1945. The actual forming of the envisaged new Hungarian armed force, officially known as Magyar Honvédség (thus devoid of the royal appellation) – what the left-wing press called ‘Democratic Honvédség’ – could thus only be started after the armistice became official.

Building, training, arming and then engaging in combat, the new army took high priority for the Interim National Government. The Hungarians hoped that by taking an active part in the closing stages of the anti-German war they could obtain favours from the Soviets, and could thus influence the final outcome of the Hungary’s post-war status – particularly her borders. However, Stalin was not interested in a rapid building of a ‘democratic’ Hungarian Army, so the efforts by members of the INK were in vain. Unaware of the Soviet dictator’s intentions, the Hungarian delegations signed the armistice, which stipulated, among other things, the forming of eight heavily equipped infantry divisions. However, this was quite unrealistic, as the chance of enlisting approximately 150,000 men in a war-ravaged country – half of which was still in Axis hands – was virtually impossible. Nevertheless, Vörös, Kéri and other high-ranking officers in charge started fervently to raise the first two divisions (the 1st and the 6th) in early February 1945. Both new divisions were formed at Jászberény, some 120 kilometres west of Debrecen and 70 kilometres east of Budapest. The 1st Infantry Division was placed under command of Colonel Tibor Szalay, while the 6th Infantry Division was commanded by Colonel László Székely. The soldiers came from various prisoner of war camps and local volunteers. Soon, more than 50,000 men had been assembled under the flag of the new Magyar Honvédség. Therefore, the INK started to form two additional divisions. The main problem now was not the manpower, but the armament, supposed to be delivered exclusively by the Red Army. However, deliveries did not arrive, being delayed for various reasons. When some armament finally arrived in March, with further time necessary for training, the first combat-ready units started to deploy to the front, already located in Austria, only in mid-April. By the time the Hungarian soldiers arrived in the actual front zone, the war was over. Therefore, they saw no combat, and thus could not achieve any war merits on behalf of the new ‘democratic’ Hungary.

Parallel to the forming of the new ‘democratic’ Honvédség, the old Royal Honvédség still held under its control the western part of Hungary and kept fighting the intruders. Of the three armies, only two existed in mid-February: the First Army under the command of General Dezső László, deployed in the area north of Danube, in the Felvidék region, and the Third Army, under the command of General József Heszlényi, controlling parts of the Transdanubia (western Hungary). At this stage, the total manpower of the Honvédség stood at less than 210,000 men, down from the over one million soldiers available prior to Horthy’s proclamation of armistice.

Following the fall of Budapest, the increasingly irrelevant Hungarian Parliament sought refuge in Sopron, the last major city in western Hungary, located just a few kilometres from the Third Reich’s borders. The office of the prime minister and the Ministry of Defence relocated to Kőszeg, while the Ministries of the Interior, External Affairs and Finance moved to Szombathely, also close to the German borders. Szálasi set up his quarters at a villa close to Velem village. From there, he regularly toured the remaining areas of Hungary still under Axis control, trying to persuade the soldiers and civilians for continued resistance to the ‘Soviet menace’. Despite these desperate measures, defections among the rank and file were commonplace. Many soldiers, mostly from the First Army, tired of the war, believed the Soviet propaganda and crossed the frontline, in hope of a quick return to their homes. However, despite the Soviets’ promise, most found themselves in closed railway cattle cars on the way to the USSR as prisoners of war.

In the meantime, Hitler decided on a last stand in south-western Hungary in early March. The Axis counter-attack between Lake Velence and Lake Balaton, known as ‘Operation Spring Awakening’, was to be the last large Axis offensive and the last major tank battle of the war. The goal was to secure the vital oilfields in Zala County and cut the Soviet frontline in two. A total of 140,000 German and Hungarian soldiers, supported by an impressive one thousand tanks and assault guns, 3,200 guns and mortars, as well as around 850 aircraft, were amassed for Hitler’s last large-scale offensive. The attack, launched on 6 March, initially surprised the Red Army. However, after a promising start for the Axis, the operation proved to be a failure in less than two weeks. Although an armoured spearhead did reach River Danube at Dunapentele, one of the offensive’s main goals, it could not keep this achievement due to lack of sizeable supporting infantry. After only eleven days, the Germans were driven back to the positions they held initially.

The failed offensive was followed by a hasty retreat beyond the Reich’s borders, into Austria (Ostmark). Hungary’s second largest city, Győr, fell on 28 March. A day earlier, the last Crown Council was held on Hungarian soil. The Minister of Home Defence, Beregfy, was still optimistic, although his troops controlled only a fraction of the country. Next day, Szálasi and his government abandoned the headquarters and moved it into German-held Austria. On 12 April 1945, the last shots were fired in Hungary proper. Hungary was completely overrun by the Red Army.

Armored Forces of Barbarossa I

Whatever might be the Reich’s advantages on the levels of policy and strategy, the approximately 130 German infantry divisions in Barbarossa’s order of battle carried weapons looted from a half dozen armies. There were five divisions of Waffen SS, with greater reputations for ferocity than fighting power. Client states—Romania, Finland, Slovakia—provided between 20 and 30 more divisions of limited operational value. Occupied Europe was stripped of everything with four wheels and an engine to provide logistic support for this mixed bag. Trucks were purchased from Switzerland. Other trucks were requisitioned from French North Africa. And in the final analysis, sustaining the invasion still depended heavily on captured railroads whose track gauge had to be altered to fit Western rolling stock.

Traditional logistics were just the tip of an iceberg of improvisation. The army expected to sustain itself directly from the campaign’s beginning by utilizing captured Red Army resources and systematically exploiting the civil population. Whatever the military merits of this approach for foot- marching, horse-powered formations, its applicability to the mechanized troops was marginal. To cite only the most obvious example, German tanks had gasoline engines. In the West they had been able to refuel from local filling stations. In Russia such facilities were limited, and Russian gas was of sufficiently lower octane to be a positive risk for already overworked motors. If anything at all went wrong, solutions would have to be improvised. Meanwhile, the theater-level planning for Barbarossa virtually guaranteed problems.

Hitler based Operation Barbarossa on the assumption that success depended on shattering the USSR in one blow. His directive of December 18, 1940, could not have been plainer: the bulk of Russian forces in the west was to be destroyed in a series of bold operations. The generals concurred. They never proposed to match the Russians face-to-face, gun-for-gun, and tank-for-tank. Mechanized war depended on timing: a dozen tanks on the spot were preferable to 50 an hour later. Mechanized war depended on disruption: confusion produced entropy while discouraging resistance. And mechanized war depended on hardness. An enemy could not merely drop his weapon and raise his hands. He needed to feel defeat in his ductless glands—and in his soul. The close synergy between Nazi principles and military behavior demonstrated from the beginning of the Russo-German War was not entirely a consequence of shared racist values. It reflected as well the “way of war” the German army had been developing since at least 1918.

How best then to break the enemy comprehensively? The first operational study began in July 1940. It projected a dual strike, one directly on Moscow, the other on Kiev. This should be enough to destroy the Red Army and disrupt the Soviet state. The ultimate objective was a line: Rostov-Gorki-Archangel; anything to the east would remain “Indian country” until further notice. A parallel study projected three simultaneous assaults, toward Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev. From the beginning, in other words, long before Hitler’s direct involvement, the army’s plans incorporated dispersion of the army’s striking power.

This was not a manifestation of ignorance, willful or otherwise. German planners were fully aware of the size of the Soviet Union. They had reasonable ideas of the kinds of changes it might impose on an operational approach designed for application against small countries. Attaché reports and clandestine reconnaissance flights provided information both negative (on such issues as the lack of roads appropriate for rapid movement) and positive (indicating significant recent buildup of industrial capacity on both sides of the Urals). A series of map exercises in early December 1940 indicated significant problems of overstretch, producing results much like those of a similar exercise in 1913: German forces hung up in the middle of Russia as the enemy massed for a general counteroffensive. The conclusion was that German forces were barely sufficient for the assigned mission. And that was at the beginning.

Germany’s overall mobilization might have been incomplete, but by the summer of 1941, 85 percent of men between 20 and 30 were serving in the Wehrmacht. The remainder were considered indispensable to the war economy. In May, Halder informed the Replacement Army that the initial battles would cost 275,000 casualties, with another 200,000 expected in September. The available replacement pool for the army was 385,000. Simple arithmetic indicated that the pool would be empty before autumn even given Halder’s optimistic time frame.

Shortfalls were certain in another crucial area. The success of mobile war as practiced in Germany depended heavily on air support in a context of air superiority. The planes need not always be present, but they had to be available. The Luftwaffe had exponentially more experience than the Red Air Force, along with significantly superior aircraft and tactics. The Luftwaffe was also fighting in the West and the Mediterranean, suffering steady attrition of planes and crews. It would be covering a far greater geographic area than in 1940, with corresponding extension of technical and logistical demands. Even in a short campaign, the ground forces were correspondingly likely to be depending on their own skills and resources a higher proportion of the time than ever before.

Planning for Barbarossa rolled on, moving from conceptions into details without a bump. Private reservations, expressed in such passive-aggressive ways as buying and reading Baron Caulaincourt’s memoirs of Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 campaign, did not prevent participation of the middle-ranking officers who would be the field commanders. What emerged, significantly independent of Hitler’s direct involvement, was a sophisticated version of what was essentially a military steeple-chase: three army groups lined up on the frontier, and at the starter’s barrage, going as fast as possible in three extrinsic directions. Instead of the single clenched fist of Frederick the Great, or the elder Moltke’s “moving separately and fighting together,” the projected operation resembled a martial artist spreading his fingers as he struck what was intended as a killing blow. Instead of being structured into a decisive point, soldiers, cities, and resources shifted priorities in an ever-changing kaleidoscope. The closest thing to prioritization was Hitler’s emendation of the army’s original plan to provide for Leningrad’s capture before mounting a decisive attack on Moscow. And all this was to be achieved on a campaign of four or five months’ duration.

Scholars and soldiers increasingly, one might say overwhelmingly, describe Barbarossa as fundamentally flawed, a program for defeat even in a narrow military context. But while its dysfunctional genesis may have been in the fever swamps of hubris and racism, a steel thread linked Barbarossa to the real world: the panzers. The Führer and his generals were convinced that the army of the Third Reich had developed a style of war not merely countering the historic Russian strengths of mass, space, and determination, but rendering them irrelevant: a heavyweight boxer confronting a sawed-off shotgun. In his December directive Hitler emphasized “bold armored thrusts.” The army’s map exercises concluded that mobile units would decide the campaign and the war. At every turn the structure of Barbarossa was an inverted pyramid, with the panzers at the tip. Va banque, all or nothing—the Reich’s fate rode with the tanks.

Barbarossa Commences

The barrage opened with Teutonic precision at 3:30 AM on June 22, 1941. A half hour earlier, Luftwaffe bombers had crossed into Russia to strike major air bases. Earlier still, special operations detachments had infiltrated Russian territory, setting ambushes and seizing bridges. As dawn broke, three million men crashed forward under an umbrella of more than a thousand planes.

The Russians were taken completely by surprise at all levels. A train carrying Russian goods had crossed into Germany shortly after midnight. One unit of the Red Army reported it was under attack only to receive the response, “You must be insane!” Stalin suffered a nervous collapse. Foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov confronted the German ambassador: “Surely we have not deserved this!”

Martin van Creveld’s careful calculations have long since discredited the long-standing argument that the Balkan operation delayed Barbarossa by a significant amount of time—enough, perhaps, to set up the Germans’ eventual defeat by “General Winter.” Instead the unexpectedly rapid collapse of Yugoslavia made it possible to transfer and refit the mobile divisions ahead of the originally projected schedule. The reason their transport was not expedited was the slow arrival of the motor vehicles for the panzers’ rear echelons. There was no point in rushing movements from the Balkans when trucks and related equipment were still arriving at what Halder called the last moment: the end of May and early June. Drivers and unit mechanics had scant time to get acquainted with their vehicles’ quirks even had they nothing else to do—an unlikely circumstance in the context of the great invasion.

Spring also came late to western Russia in 1941. Thaws were heavy; streams and rivers overflowed; ground was soft. Here was a case when losing time in the short run meant saving it in the long run—especially given the ramshackle nature of the mobile divisions’ supply columns.

The scale of Barbarossa and the subsequent operations of the Russo-German War preclude continuing at the level of detail presented earlier in the text. It is correspondingly useful to begin with a scorecard. Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group North included Panzer Group 4. Erich Hoepner had three panzer and three motorized divisions, with two corps headquarters. One was commanded by Erich von Manstein. Restored to favor, in the coming weeks Manstein would emerge as a rising star of the armored force. Bock’s Army Group Center had two panzer groups. Number 3, under Hermann Hoth, had three panzer and three motorized divisions. Panzer Group 2 was Heinz Guderian’s: five panzer and three motorized divisions, plus Grossdeutschland. Guderian was also assigned the army’s only horse cavalry division—an apparent contradiction in technological terms that reflected the potential threat from the waterlogged Pripet Marshes on his flank. Rundstedt commanded Army Group South, with five panzer and three motorized divisions along with the Leibstandarte, all under Kleist’s Panzer Group 1.

As in France, the command relationships between panzer groups and field armies were left ambiguous—a situation that would contribute significantly to friction and ill- will as Barbarossa developed. In contrast to 1940, however, each group was assigned a number of infantry divisions: two for Hoepner, three for Hoth, no fewer than six each for Guderian and Kleist. As early as February, Hoth protested that the infantry would slow his advance and block the roads for the panzers’ rear echelons. Bock and Guderian were unhappy for similar reasons. Bock’s comment that his superiors did not seem to know what they wanted reflected Halder’s ongoing concern about the mobile formations getting too far ahead of the marching masses. But in 1941, Guderian commanded more infantry than panzer divisions, and had fewer tanks than in the previous year. In 1940 his corps frontages rarely exceeded 15 miles; in Russia, the norm for his group would be 80 and more. Precisely how the infantry was supposed to cope remained unaddressed.

The generally accepted rule of thumb is that an attack needs a local advantage of three to one in combat power to break through at a specific point—assuming rough equality in “fighting power.” On June 22, tactical surprise produced a degree of operational shock denying conventional wisdom. The Red Air Force lost almost 4,000 planes in the war’s first five days—most of them destroyed on the ground. Other material losses were proportional. Command and control at all levels seemed to disintegrate. The Germans were nevertheless encountering not an obliging enemy, but one caught between two stools. The impact of Stalin’s purges on the officer corps has recently been called into question on the basis of statistics indicating that fewer than 10 percent were actually removed. The focus on numbers overlooks the ripple effects, in particular the diminishing of the mutual rapport and confidence so important in the kind of war the Germans brought with them.

At the same time, in response to substandard performances in Poland and Finland, the Red Army had restored a spectrum of behaviors and institutions abolished after the revolution of 1917, designed collectively to introduce more conventional discipline and reestablish the authority of officers and senior NCOs. These changes did not sit well with a rank and file appropriately described as “reluctant soldiers.” Nor did they fit well on officers who were themselves profoundly uncertain of their positions in the wake of the purges..

One result was a significant decline in training standards that were already mediocre. Western images are largely shaped by German myths describing the Russian as a “natural fighter,” whose instincts and way of life made him one with nature and inured him to hardship in ways foreign to “civilized” men. The Red Army soldier did come from a society and a system whose hardness and brutality prefigured and replicated military life. Stalin’s Soviet Union was a society organized for violence, with a steady erosion of distinctions and barriers between military and civilian spheres. If armed struggle never became the end in itself that it was for fascism, Soviet culture was nevertheless comprehensively militarized in preparation for a future revolutionary apocalypse. Soviet political language was structured around military phrasing. Absolute political control and comprehensive iron discipline, often gruesomely enforced, helped bridge the still- inevitable gaps between peace and war.

The winter campaign in Finland during 1939-40 had shown that Russian soldiers adapted to terrain and weather, remained committed to winning the war even in defeat, and maintained discipline at unit levels under extreme stress. But a combination of institutional disruptions and prewar expansion left too many of them ignorant of minor tactics and fire discipline—all the things the German system inculcated in its conscripts from the beginning. The Rotarmisten, the Red soldiers, would fight—but too often did not know how to fight the Germans.

The quality of Soviet tanks in the summer of 1941 has often been misrepresented. The Red Army fielded about 24,000 of them on June 22, 1941. More than 20,000 dated from the mid-1930s. The major types were the T-26 infantry tank, 9.5 tons with either a 37mm or a 45mm antitank gun; and the BT-7 “fast tank,” a 14-ton Christie model with a 45mm gun whose road speed of 45 miles per hour had been bought at the expense of armor protection. Frequently and legitimately described as obsolescent, these tanks were nevertheless a reasonable match for anything in the German inventory, one for one, on anything like a level field.

The Red Army’s institutional behavior prior to Barbarossa could not have been less suited to providing that level field had it been designed by the Wehrmacht. Since the 1920s the USSR had been developing sophisticated concepts of mobile armored warfare, and using the full resources of a command economy to produce appropriate equipment. By 1938 the Soviet order of battle included four tank corps and a large number of tank brigades whose use in war was structured by a comprehensive doctrine of “deep battle” that included using “shock armies” to break through on narrow fronts and air-supported mobile groups taking the fight into the enemy’s rear at a rate of 25 or 30 miles a day. But in November 1939 these formations were disbanded, replaced by motorized divisions and tank brigades designed essentially for close infantry support.

One reason for this measure—the public one—was that the Spanish Civil War had shown the relative vulnerability of tanks, while large armored formations had proved difficult to control both against the Japanese in Mongolia and during the occupation of eastern Poland. Reinforcing operational experience were purges that focused heavily on the armored forces as a potential domestic threat. Not only were the top-level advocates of mobile war eliminated, including men like Mikhail Tukhachevsky; all but one commander at brigade level and 80 percent of the battalion commanders were replaced—and many of those they had replaced had succeeded men purged earlier.

German successes in 1940 combined with the running down of the purges to encourage reappraisal already inspired by the Red Army’s dubious performance in Finland. Beginning in 1940 the People’s Commissariat of Defense began authorizing what became a total of 29 mechanized corps, each with two tank divisions and a motorized division: 36,000 men and 1,000 tanks each, plus 20 more brigades of 300 T-26s for infantry support! The numbers are mind-boggling even by subsequent standards. Given the Soviets’ intention to equip the new corps with state-of-the-art T-34s and KV-1s, the prospect is even more impressive. Reality was tempered, however, by the limited number of the new tanks in service—1,500 in June 1941—and tempered even further by maintenance statistics showing that 30 percent of the tanks actually assigned to units required major overhauls, while no fewer than 44 percent needed complete rebuilding.

That left a total of around 7,000 “runners” to face the panzer onslaught. It might have been enough except for, ironically, a command decision that played directly into the Soviet armored force’s major weaknesses. Recently available archival evidence shows that, far from collapsing in disorganized panic, from Barbarossa’s beginning the Red Army conducted a spectrum of counterattacks in a coherent attempt to implement prewar plans for an active defense ending in a decisive counteroffensive. The problem was that the mechanized corps central to these operations were too cumbersome to be handled effectively by inexperienced commanders, especially given their barely adequate communication systems. Their efforts were too often so poorly coordinated that the Germans processed and described them as the random thrashings of a disintegrating army. Most of the prewar Soviet armored force, and more than 10,000 tanks, were destroyed in less than six weeks.

Yet even in these early stages the panzers were bleeding. War diaries and letters home described “tough, devious, and deceitful” Russians fighting hard and holding on to the death. What amounted to a partisan war waged by regular soldiers was erupting behind a front line at best poorly defined. Forests and grain fields provided favorable opportunities for ambushes. Isolated tanks could do damage before they were themselves destroyed. Casualties among junior officers, the ones responsible for resolving tactical emergencies, mounted as the Germans found themselves waging a 360-degree war.

In Poland and France, terrain and climate had favored the panzers. From Barbarossa’s beginnings they were on the other side. Russian road conditions were universally described as “catastrophic” and “impossible.” Not only impressed civilian vehicles but army trucks sacrificed suspensions, transmissions, and oil pans in going so makeshift that armored cars balanced precariously on the deep ruts. Russian dust, especially the fine dust of sandy Byelorussia, clogged air filters and increased oil consumption until overworked engines gave in and seized up. Personal weapons required such constant cleaning that Soviet hardware, especially the jam-defying submachine guns, unofficially began replacing Mausers and Schmeissers in the rifle companies.

The earlier major campaigns had lines of communication short enough to return seriously damaged tanks to Germany. Divisions needed to undertake no more than field repairs. Russian conditions demanded more, and maintenance units proved unequal to the task. Not only was heavy equipment for moving disabled vehicles unavailable; workshops began running short on replacement parts almost immediately. Too often the result was a tank cannibalized for spares, or blown up before being abandoned.

Then conditions worsened. By early July episodic storms became heavy rains that turned dirt roads to bottomless mud and made apparently open fields impassable morasses. A first wave of vehicles might get through, but attempts at systematic follow-up usually resulted in traffic jams regularly described in words like “colossal.” Dust and mud combined to make fuel consumption exponentially higher than standard rates of usage. Empty fuel tanks as well as breakdowns began immobilizing the panzers. Though figures vary widely, the histories and records of the panzer divisions in Army Groups South and Center present rates of attrition eroding combat-effective strengths to levels as low as 30 or 40 percent. Even small-scale Russian successes—three tanks knocked out here, a half dozen there; one searing encounter that left 3rd Panzer Division 22 tanks weaker in just a few minutes—had disproportionate effects on diminishing numbers.

Vehicle losses were only part of the panzers’ problem, and arguably the lesser part. Effectiveness decreased as men grew tired and made the mistakes of fatigue, ranging from not checking an engine filter to not noticing a potential ambush site. Infantrymen constrained to leave their trucks to make corduroy roads from tree trunks, motorcyclists choked with dust that defied kerchiefs soaked with suddenly scarce water, and tankers trying to extract their vehicles from mudholes that seemed to appear from nowhere were a long way from blitzkrieg’s glory days. There were still plenty of volunteers for high-risk missions. But by its third week Barbarossa had already cost more lives than the entire campaign in the West. And Moscow was a long way off.

With supply columns increasingly vulnerable to ambushes and concentrating on bringing up material, the panzer troopers helped themselves to what was available. Stress and fatigue synergized with ideologically structured racism to underpin behavior that from the beginning caused levels of bitterness noticed even in German official reports. It usually began by “requisitioning” food: portable items like chickens, eggs, fruit, and milk; stores of grain; cattle and hogs for impromptu butchering. Looting was regularly accompanied by destruction, and the effect on the victims was compounded by personalized meanness: smashing dishes, ripping up clothes and bedding, using boots and rifle butts in place of words and gestures.

The Germans as well found themselves facing “colossal” tanks against which German panzers and antitank guns seemed to have no effect. The T-34 disputes the title of the war’s best tank only with the German Panther. Its design, featuring sloped armor, a dual-purpose 76mm gun, and a diesel engine and Christie-type suspension allowing speeds up to 35 miles per hour, set standards in the three essentials of protection, firepower, and mobility. Germans sometimes confused the T-34 with the BT-7. Few made that mistake a second time. Distributed in small numbers and manned by poorly trained crews, from Barbarossa’s beginnings not only did the T-34 prove impervious to German armor-piercing rounds at fifty feet and less; it ran rings around Panzer IIIs and IVs used to dominating in speed and maneuverability.

More frightening, because it could not be mistaken for anything else, was the KV-I. At 43 tons, it was undergunned with a 76mm piece. It was mechanically troublesome and not particularly maneuverable. But with armor up to four inches thick, the KV did not have to move very often. Panzer Group 4 initially found the dense northern forest a greater obstacle than the Russian army. Manstein’s new LXVI Panzer Corps covered almost 100 miles in four days, crossing Lithuania in a knife-thrust that carried it into Daugavpils and across the vital Dvina River bridges. The course for Leningrad seemed well set. Then the KVs made an appearance. The 37mm guns were useless. Mark IV rounds made no impression from front or sides. Six-inch howitzer shells burst harmlessly on the plating. One KV rolled right over a bogged-down 35(t), crushing it like a tin can. Another, in an often-told vignette, held up the entire 6th Panzer Division of Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLIV Panzer Corps for two days, blocking a key crossroads, defying even 88mm rounds until, in an attack coordinated by a full colonel, pioneers were able to shove grenades into the turret.

Initially Leeb gave Hoepner a free hand. His group remained unattached to either of the armies and was allowed to make its own way forward. But more and more KVs appeared in the van of Soviet counterattacks. Sixth Panzer Division’s 35(t)s engaged them at 30 yards. They overran the 114th Motorized Regiment, leaving in their wake a trail of crushed and mutilated bodies that sparked and fueled stories of unprovoked massacre. First Panzer Division’s command post was caught so badly by surprise that the staff and commander used their pistols. The roads, few, narrow, and unpaved, had a way of disappearing entirely. Closely flanked by forests and swamps, they channeled and constrained German movement and were ambush magnets even for demoralized stragglers. Tanks, trucks, and half-tracks lurched from village to village as bemused officers discarded useless maps and sought directions from local civilians who offered only blank stares and shrugged shoulders.

Nor could towns be bypassed readily. Clearing them took time and lives. As the panzers approached Pskov their purportedly supporting infantry was mopping up in Daugavpils, 60 miles to the rear. Leeb’s repeated reaction was to halt the armor despite vehement objections from Hoepner and his corps commanders that operations were being sacrificed to tactics. And Leningrad seemed ever farther away.

In contrast to Leeb’s sector, Army Group South had ample open ground in front of it. Rundstedt used his infantry to make the initial breakthrough on a 50-mile front, and by the morning of June 23 the Landser were past the frontier positions. Breakout was another matter. The commander of the Southwestern Front (the Soviet counterpart of a German army group), Colonel General M. P. Kirponos, had four infantry armies and six mechanized corps under his hand, and understood how to use them. Panzer Group 1 met resistance featuring large-scale counterattacks better organized, and fighting withdrawals more timely, than those facing its counterparts. Not until early July would the panzer spearheads crack Soviet defenses and erode Soviet command and control to a point where one can speak of systematic maneuver operations beginning. Even then Soviet attacks regularly threw the Germans off balance.

Army Group Center’s sector is usually referenced as the site of Barbarossa’s greatest initial success. Panzer Groups 2 and 3 drove so deeply into the Soviet rear on each side of the fortress of Bialystok that on Day 2 of the offensive, Halder spoke of achieving complete operational freedom. On June 28, Hoth’s and Guderian’s spearheads linked up at Minsk in history’s greatest battle of encirclement. The Germans claimed 5,000 tanks and 10,000 guns destroyed or captured. A third of a million Russians were dead or wounded; another third of a million were on their way to German POW camps.

Seen from the sharp end, the situation was less spectacular and less tidy. The mobile forces so far outpaced the marching divisions that the “pocket” was in many places no more than a line on a headquarters map. Red Army units might have been cut off but they neither surrendered nor dissolved. “Worse than Verdun,” grimly noted one infantry colonel. Russian soldiers filtered through and broke through the purported encirclement in numbers that set German generals quarreling. Guderian and Gunther von Kluge, commanding 4th Army in Guderian’s wake, reprised the earlier debate in France by disagreeing over whether it was best advised to seal the Minsk pocket tightly or continue driving along the high road to Moscow. Bock and Halder could see the advantages of both prospects too clearly to decide on either.

The High Command’s decision to make another army headquarters responsible for clearing the pocket and put Kluge temporarily in command of both panzer groups (and confusingly retitled his command 4th Panzer Army for that period) has been interpreted as simplifying the command structure, and as braking the overaggressive panzers. Both were Band-Aids that did nothing to resolve the fundamental issue of overstretch. What they did was signal a level of indecision that encouraged Hitler to extend his direct involvement with operational issues.

To a degree the generals’ behavior in these critical weeks reflected the ambiguities of the matrix established 70 years earlier by Helmuth von Moltke. While he stressed the importance of realizing that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy,” he also asserted that the original plan needed to be good enough to allow improvisations within its overall framework. What held this dialectic together were the nineteenth century’s limitations on mobility and shock. Subordinate formations—armies and corps—lacked the fighting power to achieve decisions separately, but could not usually move far enough away from each other to create real risks—at least when properly commanded.

The internal combustion engine and the radio had changed those parameters—but to what degree? When exactly did the “artistic” daring and initiative postulated by the “German way of war” cross the line into chaotic solipsism? Or had that question lost its relevance to war-making through what would later be called a paradigm shift?

The bones of contention, or perhaps the pawns on the board, were the panzer and motorized divisions, consistently and haphazardly shifted among higher commands, now as fire brigades cleaning up the rear, now as spearheads restoring momentum at the front—and always eroding their fighting power. But the panzer generals understood better than their more conventional superiors that the battles of the frontier were no more an end in themselves than their predecessors in 1914 had been. They understood as well, albeit more viscerally than cerebrally, the volcano’s rim on which the campaign was dancing. No matter the initial victories’ costs and successes, they were the first stages of a campaign whose outcome depended on the armored force maintaining its cohesion, its mobility, and its focus. Intelligence was reporting new Soviet forces occupying positions on the road to Moscow. The schoolboy wisdom of running faster to restore balance after stumbling seemed all too applicable.

Armored Forces of Barbarossa II

Before the officially sanctioned date of July 3, Hoth and Guderian sent their tanks toward the next geographic objective: the Dvina-Dnieper line—more than 300 miles distant. By this time it was clear to everyone involved that the gaps between panzer groups and infantry armies could only grow wider. The Soviet forces still active behind the panzers’ axes of advance could only grow larger. In a sense Panzer Groups 2 and 3 were replicating Rommel’s behavior in the desert. Just as logistics was a rear-echelon problem, so was cleaning up whatever the armor left behind.

From the beginning of this phase the panzers encountered resistance stronger than expected. Stalin had assigned Marshal Semyon Timoshenko to organize the defense, concentrate reserves, and, above all, counterattack at every opportunity. Timoshenko was no master of mobility but he was a hard man even by Soviet standards. His tanks and riflemen made the Germans pay for their tactical victories. A battalion of the 35th Panzer Regiment occupied the town of Staryi Bychoff on the Dnieper, only to be pinned down by a defense that cost 33 men and nine tanks—the regiment’s heaviest losses in a single day since the start of the war. Its report describes the Russians as “hard-fighting, very brave soldiers.” The Red Air Force reappeared in strength, and with new material. Nine Il-2 Sturmoviks, a formidably armored ground attack plane, gave Rommel’s old division a taste of its French medicine on July 5, delaying the advance most of a day. One Il-2 took more than 200 ground-fire hits and made it home. Rain and terrain slowed the Germans as well. On one 50-mile stretch of road in Hoth’s sector, 100 bridges in succession failed to take the strain of tanks and trucks. The often-overlooked pioneers were correspondingly vital for both panzer groups: bridging flooded rivers, repeating the job when the bridges collapsed, and all the time keeping watch for die-hard Soviet stragglers.

The Germans were winning on an increasingly frayed shoestring. Third Panzer Division was down to a third of its authorized tank strength. Fourth Panzer Division sent a staff officer all the way back to Germany in search of spare parts. A single tank battalion of 7th Panzer Division reported no fewer than five lieutenants killed in a few days—shot through the head by snipers who had a free hand because the riflemen’s trucks could not keep up with the tanks. The motorized artillery as well was having increasing difficulty keeping pace, especially the heavy corps and army battalions so valuable for taking out Soviet prepared defenses. The result was increasing reliance on the Luftwaffe, and the air crews gave their best. Richthofen’s VIII Air Corps, its Stukas using an early version of the cluster bomb, climaxed three weeks of constant effort by taking two of Hoth’s divisions across the Dvina on July 8. The medium bombers of Air Fleet 2 hammered roads and rail junctions and interdicted troop movements—but against increasing fighter opposition that drew more and more German fighters into the air battle.

The tank and the airplane might be the Wehrmacht’s concept of an ideal couple. But like most couples, stress brought out the worst sides of both partners. The ground units’ war diaries contain an increasing litany of complaints about Russian aircraft being “masters of the skies,” about the damage to tankers’ morale from repeated attacks by low-flying Soviet aircraft, about Stuka strikes promised but never delivered. The Luftwaffe responded by describing the soldiers as “outrageously spoiled” by direct air support, and too quick to halt or even retreat in the face of opposition if German planes were not overhead. Richthofen himself upbraided his ground-pounding opposite numbers for refusing to recognize that in order to be effective, air power must be concentrated and could not be distributed piecemeal.

These arguments have been common in the air-ground relations of all armed forces, from North Africa through Korea and Vietnam, down to Desert Storm. Nevertheless they highlight the growing erosion of the German mobile forces, to the point where maneuver would become their only viable option.

And yet the panzers kept advancing—as far as 100 miles a day for some units. When movement stalled, group, corps, and division commanders probed for weak spots. When none existed, the colonels, captains, and sergeants created them. As Hoth smashed the Russian right, Guderian crossed the Dnieper south of Mogilev, and the panzers sought once more to create a giant pocket by meeting at Smolensk. With Soviet defenses in shreds and Soviet mobile formations scattered, the first German troops entered Smolensk late on July 15.

Eleven days later the German High Command declared the Smolensk pocket closed. The call was premature, but German skills showed to particular advantage against the major counterattacks mounted beginning in late July. German tank companies took advantage of Soviet inexperience to knock out two or three dozen T-34s at a time. On August 5, Bock announced the end of the fighting, the capture of another 300,000 prisoners, and the destruction of more than 3,000 tanks and almost as many guns.

It was the climax of a series of virtuoso performances that combine to make a case that the relative tactical and operational superiority of the panzers over their opponents was never greater than in the first half of July 1941, on the high road to Moscow. Guderian spoke of attacks going in like training exercises. Guderian’s senior subordinates in turn praised his common sense and goodwill, the Fingerspitzengefühl, and not least the unflagging energy that marked him a master of mechanized war at the operational level. If Hoth lacked his stablemate’s flair (and his gift for securing headlines), his handling of Panzer Group 3 produced results at the same level.

These successes were, however, the point of the spear—or better said, the tip of an iceberg. Army Group Center’s mobile forces had by now outrun their logistics to a degree impossible for even the most operationally minded generals to overlook. Losses in tanks continued to mount. Rifle companies were shrinking to the strength of platoons. As a result, for the first time in the campaign, the panzers lacked the strength to force the pace of engagements. Instead they were increasingly constrained to wear down Soviet attacks and throw them off balance before counterattacking themselves. That pattern would become characteristic of German tactics and operations in the second half of the Russo-German War. Its systematic appearance at this early stage was another of Barbarossa’s many warning signs.

Like the giant Antaeus of classical mythology or the Green Knight of medieval English lore, the Red Army seemed to derive strength from being knocked down. Initial estimates had allowed for around 200 Soviet divisions. By the end of the Smolensk operation, more than 300 had appeared on German charts. The USSR outproduced Germany in tanks during 1941. But in six weeks, the best Soviet commanders had been discredited, the best Soviet formations had been eviscerated, thousands of tanks, guns, and aircraft had been destroyed, and tens of thousands of square miles overrun. Was it entirely wishful thinking that sustained the German belief that one more strike would finish the job? And was that viewpoint underpinned by an unacknowledged but growing sense of the panzers as an ultimately wasting asset, best employed to their limits while they could still shape the campaign?

As early as July 8, Hitler had informed the Chief of Staff of his intention to divert mobile forces north and south with open options: to reinforce the attack on Leningrad, to cooperate with Army Group South in capturing Kiev, and to regroup for a drive on Moscow. Depending on the operational situation, this represented a flat denial of the concept of the decisive point. It also represented the downplaying of the moral importance of Moscow. The city’s loss would be a prestige victory and an ideological triumph for National Socialism—a double body blow to the Soviet Union.

A fable with many versions in many languages describes a donkey starving to death because he is unable to choose among a half dozen full mangers. Franz Halder was no folklorist, but on July 23 he informed Hitler that the Russians had been decisively weakened—not decisively defeated. Every new operation had to begin by breaking enemy resistance, but overall infantry strength was down by 20 percent, and the panzer divisions averaged 50 percent short of establishment.

On the other hand, Kiev was the transportation and communications hub for the great industrial centers of southwest Russia. Leningrad, Lenin’s city, was arguably more the USSR’s moral center than was the official capital. Its capture would give Germany control of the Baltic Sea, create a united political and military front with Finland, and free Panzer Group 4 for employment against Moscow.

And if the enemy’s army was considered the primary objective, as opposed to resources and territory, the pickings were likely to be easier on the wings than by continuing headlong into a sector the Soviets must defend at all costs, and where their counterattacks indicated they were doing just that. The pace of Army Group Center’s advance was slowing perceptively enough to cause concern. At the same time, that advance was creating an increasingly exposed salient. Securing its flanks, especially the southern one, was a defensible response, especially in the context of those suddenly emerging reserves Wehrmacht intelligence had asserted the Red Army did not possess.

Rundstedt, whose army group could expect to benefit massively from a southern option, argued in public for the importance of continuing the drive on Moscow. He and Leeb, however, also had a particular sense of what they were on the verge of accomplishing with just a few of the right kinds of resources. Reduced to its essentials, the revised plan projected sending elements of Panzer Group 2 south with the mission of enveloping and destroying the Soviet forces engaging Rundstedt’s left. Hoth’s Group would turn north to assist in capturing Leningrad, then swing toward the Volga in cooperation with Panzer Group 4. Army Group Center would continue advancing on Moscow with infantry and sort out its rear areas and logistics until the mobile divisions returned.

When the Army High Command asked whether the campaign now sought economic objectives or destruction of Soviet military forces, the answer was “both.” It would be oversimplified hindsight to describe Hitler as playing his senior generals against each other. It would be an equal oversimplification to describe the generals as blindly obsessed with their respective places in the history of war. Both factors were undeniably present—and it must be particularly emphasized that generals without high levels of alpha ambition are likely to be liabilities in senior command. What is significant about the decisions made as the Smolensk pocket closed is the underlying consensus that affirmed them: a conviction that the panzers could still move fast enough and strike hard enough to make ultimate choices unnecessary. Barbarossa’s second stage would be predicated on what might be called a postmod ern construction: a “flexible Schwerpunkt.”

Depending on perspective, that placed the panzers in the role of either a chameleon placed on a plaid shirt, or a cartoon character running through a china shop shattering one glass after another by flicking his finger. In a month, XLI Panzer Corps had fought its way across 650 miles of forest and swamp to within 100 miles of Leningrad. Air supply sustained the final stage of an advance that by July 14 had thrown two bridges across the Luga River, the last major natural barrier before a city that was only two days’ march away—on the maps. But Leeb was a cautious general; the Soviet defense was desperate; and Reinhardt’s depleted divisions lacked the fighting power to overrun a city with two and a half million inhabitants. For armored forces, getting into a city was far less a problem than getting out of it—especially given the constrained time frame in which the attack on Leningrad was conceptualized.

Had Manstein’s corps been directly involved, the story might have played out differently. Instead Leeb and Hoepner had turned Manstein southeast toward Novgorod and the Moscow-Leningrad railroad. It was the kind of maneuver operation basic to panzer doctrine, in which Manstein possessed unusual skill—and which the Soviets were determined to frustrate. A well-executed counterattack cut off 8th Panzer Division and took out half of its 150 tanks in the four days Manstein required to break the 8th free. Pushing slowly forward, the corps eventually also bogged down along the Luga River.

As for the projected reinforcement by Panzer Group 3, not until August 16 was Army Group Center formally ordered to transfer four of its mobile divisions to Army Group North—a consequence of increasingly forceful debates between and among Hitler and the relevant generals. The new arrivals proved just enough to encourage Leeb and Hoepner and not enough to turn the tide in their sector. With both of Hoepner’s corps immobilized on the Luga, when Hoth’s divisions finally arrived, Leeb committed them to strengthen his thinly manned front as opposed to reinforcing one of Hoepner’s corps as a striking force. On September 8, Hoepner nevertheless renewed his group’s attack.

Schlisselburg, widely regarded as a keystone of the defense, fell after heavy and expensive fighting. The Russians threw in everything they had. First Panzer Division engaged tanks literally fresh from factory assembly lines. But the city held—and the Army High Command grew increasingly insistent on transferring Panzer Group 4 south for the drive against Moscow. Sixth Panzer Division was ordered south on August 18. By the twenty-fifth the front had “stabilized” in a blockade that plunged Leningrad into three years of horror as Hitler ordered the starving of the city his tanks failed to conquer.

Army Group North’s series of tactical victories between June and September neither camouflage nor compensate for unhandiness at the operational level. Leeb has come under especially heavy criticism for repeatedly halting or slowing the armored spearheads to allow the infantry to close up: a fits-and-starts process that gave the Soviets time to improvise Leningrad’s defense. The dispersion of Hoepner’s panzers in the first half of July further diminished blitzkrieg’s prospects in the northern sector. Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, in short, will never go down as a master, or even an apprentice, of mobile war.

In Leeb’s defense, arguably even more than in Barbarossa’s other sectors, logistics and rear security controlled the pace and nature of operations in the north. The first phase of the German advance had been through the relatively developed territory of the Baltic states: Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, which had been occupied by the Red Army in 1940 and were as yet relatively spared the blessings of Marxism-Leninism. The Germans benefited from overrunning large amounts of stockpiled Red Army supplies, and from capturing a number of major bridges and rail connections undamaged. Crossing into the USSR proper meant entering a literal wilderness, historically left undeveloped to provide a glacis for Russia’s northern capital. The near-literal absence of infrastructure made exploiting local resources nearly impossible: there were no surpluses, however meager, to requisition, confiscate, or steal.

That put a rapid, unexpected burden on a supply system stretched to move its own bases forward into the northern wasteland. It was not mere reflex caution that led Leeb to insist repeatedly on the necessity for bringing the infantry forward as the price of the next advance. Guerilla activity in Army Group North’s rear grew so serious that beginning on August 5, the entire 8th Panzer Division was withdrawn from the front and assigned to anti-partisan duties on the line of communications.

Developments in Army Group South followed a different pattern. Kleist shook off the initial Russian counterattacks, broke through an improvised “Stalin Line” on July 5, and started his tanks toward Kiev. In their wake marched the infantry of 6th Army, who were intended to do the heavy work of actually capturing the city. Fighting through strong resistance, especially by units officially overrun and reported as scattered, Panzer Group 1 had its first sight of Kiev’s skyline on July 10.

With the infantry and heavy artillery a hundred miles to the rear, III Panzer Corps commander Eberhard von Mackensen nevertheless considered storming the city with the two panzer divisions and one motorized division coming on line. Sixth Army CO Walther von Reichenau, anything but battle-shy, compared the prospect of fighting house-to-house in Kiev to Verdun—not least because of the constant losses his infantry were already taking from persistent air and ground attack. It was Hitler, however, who pulled the plug, forbidding a direct attack on Kiev for the present and freeing Mackensen’s corps for what seemed a far more promising mission.

The other two mobile corps of Panzer Group 1 had turned south of Kiev toward Uman. Red Army counterattacks, heavy air strikes, and poor weather slowed and disrupted the operation. Mutual envelopment operations at times left troops uncertain who was encircling whom. Nevertheless between July 16 and August 3, Kleist’s group created and sustained a pocket that, when cleared, yielded more than 100,000 prisoners—no mean bag even by the standards of Minsk and Smolensk. Large numbers of Russians managed to escape a trap that, like the others in Barbarossa, never fully closed. They did so at the expense of their organization and much of their equipment as the Red Army began a full-scale retreat from Bessarabia and the western Ukraine, abandoning the Dnieper River line. An enraged Stalin ordered the dismissal of some generals, and the execution of others.

Uman was no more than second prize in the blitzkrieg lottery. Halder and Rundstedt originally projected an even bigger encirclement in the area of Kirovograd, one cutting off the entire Soviet force west of the Dnieper. That had exceeded the panzers’ capacity. But with most of the Soviet front in apparent disintegration, with the Romanians advancing on Odessa and the Black Sea coast, the military prospects of a “southern strategy” began to match Hitler’s original economic visions—particularly when the major alternative involved a direct assault on Moscow in the best traditions of the Great War. Blitzkrieg was about creating opportunities and seizing them. Panzer Group 1 had begun Barbarossa with the lowest force-to-space ratio of the four. The increasing development of the southern front had increased the distances among possible objectives. But Rundstedt, Kleist, and the mobile corps commanders had done well—better than well—playing cape-and-sword with the Red Army. Suitably reinforced, they could finish the job.

Orders might be given, but mobile war German style depended on informed consent. The pivotal figure in the developing shift of operational focus was Heinz Guderian. He was considered firmly in the Moscow camp—so firmly that on August 23 he flew to Hitler’s Rastenburg headquarters with the intention of protesting in person against the projected reassignment of his group. By his own account at least he made a compelling presentation. Hitler then responded with his reasons for the Kiev option. Guderian’s self-described reluctance to make a scene in the face of a firm decision need not be taken at face value. But nor should his critics’ descriptions of careerism overriding principle be accepted without modification.

Guderian was at best a medium-sized fish in what had suddenly become a very big pond. His focus since June 21 had been to his front: operational and tactical. During the discussion Hitler had asked him a question: Did Guderian’s men have one more great effort in them? Guderian answered yes—if given an objective whose importance was self-evident. Kiev was not Moscow. But keep Panzer Group 2 together, give its commander a free hand, and there was a solid chance of completing the operation before the autumn rains shut down southern Russia entirely. Hitler conceded the point, and Halder flew into an enduring rage at what he called Guderian’s capitulation.

In Guderian’s terms, that was just another sign that the Chief of Staff might talk the talk of mobile war, but could never walk the walk. When matters grew dark, it was time to step on the gas. It is always ill-advised to throw spitballs at an adversary armed with rocks. Guderian began his move south minus one of his corps, transferred at Halder’s orders. But with massive Luftwaffe support, Panzer Group 2 broke the Soviet front within days. Third Panzer Division’s commander Walther Model was one of a rising new breed of hard-charging risk-takers willing to make bricks without straw and mobile war with only a few tanks. In a tactical tour de force, a battle group of the 3rd Panzer Divsion captured a key bridge over the Desna River on August 26, motorcyclists and half-tracks shooting their way across as German and Soviet pioneers dueled under the roadbed for control of the demolition apparatus.

The panzers drove south, shrugging off poorly coordinated flank attacks. As he had done in France, Guderian chivied subordinates mercilessly. Soviet commanders at all levels were bewildered by the speed of the German advance and the ability of the Germans to be where they were not expected. By September 7, Panzer Group 2 had opened a twenty-mile operational gap between the Southwestern Front and its right-flank neighbor the Bryansk Front.

Meanwhile, Panzer Group 1 struck for the Dnieper. The first permanent bridgehead came at Kremenchug. Then, on August 25, the 13th Panzer Division captured an intact bridge at Dnepropetrovsk, opening a way into the Soviet rear. Semyon Budenny, commanding the Southwestern Front, was an old-line horse cavalryman, an anachronism in the internal- combustion era. But he knew well enough what mobile troops could achieve in empty space. He requested permission to retreat—and was promptly replaced. Stalin’s determination to hold the line in part reflected the ongoing battle for Kiev, which fully justified Reichenau’s grim prediction. It was street by street and house by house, with the Germans making little progress. Stalin ordered Kiev held and threw in reinforcements, as the Germans began turning two breakthroughs into one envelopment.

Facing massive counterattacks around Dnepropetrovsk, Kleist feinted north and drove through Kremenchug. The starring role went to one of the new formations: 16th Panzer Division, under another newcomer, Hans Hube. Crossing the Dnieper on September 11, by the thirteenth the division was 20 miles into the Soviet rear with two more divisions in close support. Again Stalin ordered Kiev held: no retreat without his authorization. Panzer Group 1 was down to half strength and less in tanks, but on the cusp of the kind of objective Guderian had described to Hitler. Hube led from the front as his tanks overran an army headquarters whose commander was constrained to escape through a window. The Luftwaffe, with V Air Corps supporting Kleist and II Air Corps supporting Guderian, pounced on every Soviet effort to establish blocking points and scoured the sky clean of Soviet aircraft. On the evening of September 16—at 1820, to be exact—3rd and 16th Panzer Divisions met to close the Kiev pocket at Lokhvitsa, more than 120 miles behind the city itself.

Kiev was the third of Barbarossa’s major pocket battles, and the greatest. Serious resistance ended around September 24; mopping up took ten days longer. German official figures give more than 800 tanks and almost 3,500 guns captured, along with more than 650,000 prisoners. Salvaging the equipment and transferring the men took weeks. Kiev was also the smoothest of the envelopments. Leakage was minimal—only around 15,000 Soviet soldiers managed to escape across the steppe. Panzer Group 1 was worn thin, like a long-used knife blade. Winter was close enough for Rundstedt to recommend suspending operations. On October 1, Kleist’s men, renamed the 1st Panzer Army, instead turned south first to the Sea of Azov, then toward Rostov and the oil fields of the Caucasus, 180 degrees away from the revitalized attack on Moscow the High Command was calling Operation Typhoon.

The upgrading of Panzer Group 1, and eventually all the rest, to army status was more than cosmetic retitling. On one hand it was positive: a recognition that the mobile forces’ effectiveness depended heavily on the kind of autonomy denied when they were subordinated to army commanders rather than reporting directly to the army groups. In particular the tension between Guderian and Hoth and their nominal superior von Kluge had contributed significantly to a level of friction and delay clearly unaffordable in the circumstances of the Russo-German War. On the other side of the coin, establishing the higher panzer headquarters as armies downgraded their specialist function. Increasingly they would be used in the same way as other armies, commanding mixed bags of mobile and marching divisions, occupying sectors as often as conducting mobile operations—in short, following the patterns developing in Army Group North but on a larger scale.

Kiev remains a subject of controversy among scholars and soldiers. One school argues that the operation was a digression. It did not end the war; the USSR did not collapse. Instead, Kiev (and Leningrad) further strained an already overextended panzer force. Kiev arguably delayed the attack on Moscow by a month, giving the Red Army and General Winter time that could not have been bought in battle. But Kiev also destroyed or neutralized massive Soviet forces that would have been available against the right flank of the Moscow offensive. Nor could Stalin and his generals overlook the near-free strategic hand Kiev gave Rundstedt in southern Ukraine: diversion of strength and attention is usually a two-way process. And as Robert M. Citino dryly puts it, “Can any battle that nets 665,000 prisoners be considered a mistake?” Even the USSR’s deployable resources, human and material, were not infinitely renewable.

Kiev was a crucial benchmark in another, no less decisive way. On September 24, a series of explosions shook the city. Preset, remote-controlled demolitions started fires that destroyed much of what remained intact after the fighting. Hitler ordered retribution. The army enthusiastically cooperated not for the first time in such exercises, but in a visible, spectacular way that made its position on the Jewish question unmistakable. Its culmination was the shooting of more than 30,000 Jews at Babi Yar—an operation that would have been impossible without army-supplied transport, administration, and area security.

Events in Kiev reinforced the growing awareness among Russians who had worked and sacrificed to build a Soviet future that the Germans were no less committed to destroying that future. The Soviet people did not become overnight the united and determined force of Communist myth. Panic, looting, wildcat strikes—a general breakdown of law and order prevailed in Moscow during the fighting. Well before then, however, it was increasingly obvious that whatever might be wrong with the USSR, it was nothing the Germans could fix—or wanted to.

Stalin’s obscene treatment of his own people had created a significant opportunity the Germans failed to utilize. Stalin himself acknowledged the possibility in a speech of May 1945. Prospects for extending individual and local cooperation with occupation into a call for a joint war against Soviet tyranny nevertheless foundered from the beginning on Nazi-structured racism. Hitler forbade any consideration of Slavs as allies. Independently of Hitler, atrocities became a rear-area norm. Soldiers took snapshots of mass hangings and mass shootings, often sending them home to their families. Such messages as “1,153 Jewish looters shot,” or “2,200 Jews shot,” grew into boasts of 20,000, 30,000 shootings and more.

These body counts had little to do with actually fighting partisans. The vast, consistent discrepancy between the numbers of weapons seized and people executed make that point eloquently. The perpetrators submitted detailed reports to Berlin in codes so simple that British intelligence had been reading them since 1939. The information went unpublicized because the British government believed its release would jeopardize other code-breaking operations deemed vital to the war effort—especially the decryption of German raidio messages by the ULTRA operation.

Nor was the work confined to Nazi organizations. Einsatzgruppen, Waffen SS, and army “ field-grays” came together in a common cause across occupied Russia. While generals like Leeb and Bock offered token protests, Reichenau called for “severe and just retribution against subhuman Jewry” and for a campaign of terror against all Russians. Hoth issued a more extreme version. Guderian declared he “made the order his own.” Manstein, promoted to army command in the Crimea, took up his new post by demanding the eradication of partisans and “Jewish Bolsheviks.”

Arguably more crucial to the war’s metastasizing brutalization were the junior officers. In 1939 about half still came from more or less traditional sources: the educated middle classes broadly defined. With the outbreak of war, combat experience became the dominant criterion. There was less and less time to provide more than basic instruction to officer candidates who saw their survival to date as prima facie proof of skill and luck, and who tended to regard training courses in the Fatherland as an opportunity for unauthorized rest and recreation. After the fall of 1942, any German over sixteen could become an army officer if he served acceptably at the front, demonstrated the proper character, believed in the Nazi cause, and was racially pure. The Waffen SS was more overtly egalitarian, but its basic criteria were essentially the same.

This relative democratization in good part reflected the growing synergy between National Socialist ideology and the demands of the front. Hitler wanted young men “as tough as leather, as fleet as grey-hounds, and as hard as Krupp steel,” correspondingly unburdened by reflection or imagination. The Red Army at its best did not offer sophisticated tactical opposition. What division and regimental commanders wanted in subordinates was tough men physically and morally, those willing to lead from the front and publicly confident in even the most desperate situations. One might speculate, indeed, that a steady supply of twentysomething lieutenants with wound badges and attitudes helped older, wiser, and more tired majors and colonels to suppress their own doubts about Hitler and his war. And men with such conditioning were more likely to encourage than restrain aggressive behavior against “others” and “outsiders.”

Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign and the Decline of the Ottoman Empire I

With Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the chain of events that followed, it was suggested, centuries of decline, inertia, and neglect finally ended and the Middle East rose, albeit awkwardly, to meet the challenges of modernity. The clock started ticking to mark this passage of Middle Eastern civilization from a previous era into the present.

The voyages and land expeditions to the Middle East during the Crusades (or, conversely, the Wars against the Saracens) pulled back the curtain on a larger world than was previously known in Europe during the Middle Ages. With the infusion of the works of ancient Greece and Rome, new principles, new concepts, and new ways of investigating the empirical world soon animated society in Western Christendom. The divine right of kings would soon face scrutiny under the rediscovery of Greek philosophy and rational inquiry. The concepts inherent in demos kratos, or the people rule, would, over time, come to drive the aspirations and hopes of an expanding middle class. The desire for liberty would eventually drive the Americans and French to revolution, while British intellectual curiosity and the desire for empirical exploration would catapult the island nation into a leading role of the early Industrial Revolution.

With the landlines of communication and trade routes that characterized the Old Silk Road between Europe, the Middle East, and South and East Asia monopolized by the Ottomans and their allies, in the fifteenth century, in terms of access to Asian markets, the European seafaring nations began exploring alternatives to the traditional overland trading routes. Accordingly, with the development of ocean-traversing technology and skills, the maritime trading nations in Europe increased their ability to expand trade and protect sea lines of communications (SLOCs). By the mid-eighteenth century, Britain had risen to global prominence by virtue of its prowess in sea power, trade, technological innovation, and military effectiveness. As London and Paris competed for control in North America and following the loss of its franchise within the original North American 13 colonies, Britain increased its involvement in India. In order to facilitate the movement of goods, Egypt became a key route of trade, extending from the Mediterranean, overland to the Red Sea, and on to South Asia.

By the late eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire’s control in Egypt was declining, as was its overall strategic position in the eighteenth century. The British, Russians, Habsburgs, French, and other powers in Eurasia and the Middle East were engaged in maneuvering for advantage in the event of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1776 the Baron de Tott submitted to Louis XVI a memorandum recommending that France acquire Egypt on the grounds that the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire was inevitable … In 1782 Joseph II of Austria suggested to Louis XVI that France should acknowledge that the Ottoman Empire was no longer capable of protecting itself and Louis should take advantage of that weakness and annex Egypt.

The Mamluks had been provided significant levels of autonomy in administering Egypt as Ottoman vassals following their defeat in the Ottoman-Mamluk War (1516–1517). However, by 1784, decades of mismanagement of agriculture coupled with conditions of drought had led to famine in Egypt followed by outbreaks of plague. Simultaneous to these events, the Mamluks had also stopped making the required payments to the Ottoman treasury. As a result, during 1786–1791, the Ottoman leadership tried unsuccessfully to bring their vassals in Egypt back under control.

Further west, the rising vitality and energy of the liberated people of France had overthrown the monarchy and were intent on spreading revolutionary ideals—along with acquiring new trading opportunities—and a young military commander, Napoleon Bonaparte, was meeting with success in the French campaign in Italy. The use of both diplomacy and military power that had been honed and expertly practiced by the French for centuries, coupled with the collective energy of a newly liberated people that the Prussians had come to refer to the energy of the French as leidenschaft, helped propel France toward continental leadership (along with a centuries-long tradition of military excellence) as a wide range of European states and principalities entered agreements with the new French government.

Nonetheless, the competition and conflict between France and the British monarchy continued unabated to the point where the British withdrew all Mediterranean naval ships, in October 1796, in order to protect the home islands from a potential invasion.

… Had it not been for Admiral John Jervis’s defeat of the Spanish in the Atlantic off Cape St. Vincent in February 1797 and Admiral Adam Duncan’s destruction of the Dutch fleet at the Battle of Camperdown in October, her [Britain’s] enemies might have achieved a sufficient combination of force to achieve the necessary conditions for a Channel crossing.

From a French strategic perspective, the end of the eighteenth century brought with it an opportunity to test the vacuum created in the Eastern Mediterranean by the withdrawal of the British fleet. More specifically, French control in Egypt would provide leverage in challenging British commercial interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and in cutting Britain’s overland route to India via the Red Sea. If Napoleon could establish control in Egypt, the French would be in a position to more effectively challenge Britain’s vast commercial interests in India, interests which helped finance British naval power projection. British naval power would have to be reduced, French military commanders believed (including Napoleon), before a channel crossing could be successfully mounted.

Given the weakness of the Ottoman Empire and the strategic position of Egypt in terms of British communications with its vast holdings in India, a campaign in Northeast Africa aimed at Cairo would degrade British trade and, eventually, British sea power. In fact, as early as the seventeenth century, King Louis XIV of France had proposed a canal linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas across the Egyptian Isthmus.

While France maintained what was generally considered the most effective land army in Western Europe—a martial tradition that had earlier blocked the Islamic invasion of Western Europe in 732 CE—Britain had concentrated on building what was arguably the most capable navy in the world. The French military successfully convinced the civilians in the French Directoire to make Cairo the objective, rather than London, at least for the time being. Thus, the invasion plans for Britain were shelved, and the strategy was to challenge British sea power by extending French power throughout the Mediterranean, which would undermine Britain’s access to India. Following the establishment of a beachhead in Egypt, the objective was to leverage France’s relationship with Tipu Sultan, then ensconced as the ruler of the Sultanate of Mysore and a hindrance to the British East India Company in South Asia. The French Directoire approved the Egyptian campaign on March 5, 1798.

As Napoleon gathered his expeditionary forces in Toulon, France, for the Egyptian campaign, he addressed the assembled troops on May 19, 1798:

You have made war on the mountains, on the plains, and on the cities; it remains for you to fight on the seas … The genius of liberty which made you, at her birth, the arbiter of Europe, wants to be genius of the seas and the furthest of nations.

Napoleon’s assembled force consisted of 40,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors, 280 transport ships, 14 frigates, and 13 ships-of-the-line (64 to 120 guns). The French expeditionary force consisted of 31,000 infantry formed into five divisions, with each division having elements of cavalry (approximately 600 per division), artillery, and engineers (artillerymen and engineers totaling about 3,000). The artillery consisted of 171 assorted howitzers, mortars, and field guns firing shells, canister, and ball shot. Napoleon also brought a new weapon, a weapon which would factor into many modern-era wars and campaigns yet to come: a printing press, in this instance, an Arabic printing press, which he would use to help him communicate to the Arabs. When his forces arrived in Egypt in the summer of 1798, this marked the arrival of the first printing press in the Middle East.

One of his first messages using the press was a proclamation in Arabic to the inhabitants of Alexandria, Egypt, on July 1, 1798, stating that it was the intent of France to bring the blessings of liberty to the people of Egypt and to free them from the tyranny of the Mamluks. The printed proclamation, in Arabic, read in part: “… If Egypt is the Mamluks’ farm, then they should show the lease that God gave them for it.”

While Napoleon was intent on spreading the ideals of the Revolution in the Middle East and ultimately marching to the Indus River in India as did his hero, Alexander the Great, he like all great military leaders in history, whether operating in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia, needed to “incentivize” his military operations in such a manner that would motivate individual soldiers and in language they would understand. As his troops later prepared to disembark upon arrival in Egypt, he sent a message to his soldiers: “I promise to each soldier who returns from this expedition enough to purchase six arpents of land.” Soldiers and warriors throughout history, whether Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jew, required incentives, whether it be a unifying religious-political ideology or immediate material inducement or, as in the case of the most successful armies in world history, both. Thus the French Revolution, not unlike the Roman expeditions or the Islamic expansionary campaigns of the seventh to seventeenth centuries, offered not only lofty, heroic, and “universally” valid ideals but also material reward.

On July 1, 1798, Napoleon’s Army of the Orient, as the force was now being called, arrived off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. Napoleon had brought with him, in addition to the Arabic printing press, a commission of scholars and scientists from L’Academie whose function was to examine all aspects of Egyptian history and culture while simultaneously sharing concepts arising from the Enlightenment regarding science, the arts, and self-government, for which they brought a substantial library. The proceeding interactions marked the introduction of Western modernity into the Middle East and the reciprocal movement of ideas (particularly about ancient Egypt) to European civilization. Nevertheless, Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign (1798–1801) also has a less noble distinction in world history as being “the largest and most violent meeting between Western and Muslim Arab armies since the Crusades.”

The main objective was the city of Cairo, which had a population of approximately 300,000 and was along the Nile River (the longest river in the world). Napoleon understood that if he suffered significant delays in reaching it, his army might become victims to the great flooding that occurred in the river on a regular basis. Even on the relatively short journey to Alexandria, Napoleon’s troops found that nomadic Bedouin tribesmen had filled many of the wells along the army’s advance, and, as a result, the Army of the Orient was already parched and suffering from a lack of potable water. To add to the discomfort, the French were outfitted in wool uniforms and carried heavy packs in a summer environment where temperatures often rose to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Moreover, French commanders mistakenly assumed that the population would welcome an army bringing them liberty from autocratic rule. The French military found themselves surrounded by a generally unwelcoming population, unprepared for the extreme heat, and suffering from a lack of food and water. Morale immediately took a turn for the worse.

The first French units left Alexandria on July 3. They lacked sufficient horses … and one division even had to leave its artillery behind. Napoleon sought to obtain horses and camels from local Bedouin leaders, but the sheiks in Cairo convinced the tribesmen to switch sides and they harassed the French along the entire line of march. The khamsin, the desiccating wind that blows up the dust of the Libyan Desert into great choking, blinding clouds, had begun … Thirst quickly became the deadliest enemy … Before the march was over, hundreds had died, some by their own hand.

Hence, the campaign unfolded in both a harsher physical and harsher cultural environment than French planners had anticipated. While much of the Egyptian population was indeed in a state of relative political captivity under ruthless autocrats, the French were unable to effectively convey their message of liberty and the rights of man, finding them-selves outmaneuvered in terms of messaging and communications by a merchant elite and ruling class well vested in the current status quo. They were not interested in French achievements in liberal reform, science, the arts, or in French business establishing a presence in a society where a handful of powerful agriculturalists and wealthy merchants had long controlled commerce as well as Egyptian society.

The Egyptian elite, armed with a more expansive knowledge base regarding cultural fears and hopes, were better positioned for delivering an effective strategic narrative to the masses and outmaneuvered French efforts at proclaiming the benefits of liberty and equality. While Napoleon’s use of an Arabic printing press was a pragmatic first step in the modernization and evolution of the Middle East and, over the long term, proved beneficial to the masses, the reality was that since most of the population was illiterate at the time of the French Egyptian campaign, it proved to be of limited value in furthering the realization of the immediate objectives of Napoleon’s operations, which was to control the country, deprive the British access, and to sever London’s lines of communication to India, followed by the invasion of Britain and the overthrow of the British monarchy.

Prior to departure from Alexandria, Napoleon divided his army sending some 12,000 troops with generals Dugua and Murat and the remaining forces from Kleber’s command onto the town of Rosetta with orders to proceed south along the Nile after meeting up with a flotilla, which carried arms and supplies under Admiral Peree. Marching with Napoleon was the main body of 25,000 men, which took a direct route across the Beheira Desert to the village of Damanhur and then to El Rahmaniyah where both sections of the Army of the Orient would link up before proceeding to the main objective at Cairo.

While the Mamluk cavalry, inheritors of a tradition of excellence that had stopped the Mongol army at Ain Jalut in 1260 CE, was generally considered one of the finest (if not the finest) cavalry forces in the Mediterranean during the late Middle Ages, the Franks had assembled the finest infantry in the world as early as the eighth century CE and had maintained that status, arguably, for a thousand years (the Swiss and the Prussians, notwithstanding). Now, after having achieved complete surprise in terms of the Ottomans, the British, and the Mamluks, that infantry, now armed with muskets and artillery and commanded by one of the most successful generals in world history, suddenly appeared off the coast of Egypt, disembarked, and proceeded to march on Egypt’s largest city. For the Ottoman-Egyptian army, the “Franks” had returned, and Napoleon had achieved the desired shock of surprise, including the psychological impact in the minds of enemy commanders and the individual soldiers. The initiative had been seized, and the enemy was forced to scramble in order to react to the next move.

Napoleon, failing with the strategic narrative in a foreign land, was now ready, however, to introduce the most proficient practitioners of nomadic steppe cavalry maneuver (the Mamluks) to the most proficient infantry army and practitioner of early modern-era warfare (a Napoleon-led French army). The Mamluks had paid a price by not adopting gunpowder weapons in their battles against the Ottoman Empire. The nightmare was about to be repeated with the arrival of the muskets and cannon of the French army.