Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942

Robert M. Citino
February 18, 2020

A little over a year ago I reviewed another work focusing on the importance of doctrinal culture to a military's performance in conflict, and to that of the German Army in particular. David T. Zabecki, a former Major General in the United States Army detailed the failures of Germany's 1918 Offensives in France, a failure which he blamed on the German commander, Erich Ludendorff's obsession with tactical problems to the exclusion of operational objectives. That obsession, in turn, Zabecki blamed not on Ludendorff personally, as many German officers and their admirers later tried to do, but on the entire culture of the German army. That culture was one which favored initiative and aggression among officers, and lionized those who had seen unexpected opportunities and took advantage of them. In the midst of closely fought battles, it was a recipe for acts of daring and genius which could turn the tide. When it came to the attritional nature of modern war, where the objective was to end to end the war, the approach only worked so long as winning enough battles meant inevitably winning the war. In the First World War, the Germans proved adapt at winning battles. Very adapt. But with the exception of Russia, winning battles failed to bring political victory. Even the crushing defeat of the Italian army at Caporetto in 1917 or the disastrous repulse of the Nivelle Offensive which triggered mutinies in the French Army failed to drive either nation out of the war.

Rather than reconsidering this strategy, the German leadership under Ludendorff doubled down on the "lessons" of their only clear success, driving Russia out of the war. Ignoring both the resilience of the Russian army in the face of numerous defeats between 1914 and 1916, and the political factors involved in its collapse, the entire strategy of 1918 was to win enough tactical successes to trigger the "collapse" of the Allies. The result was a series of impressive but ultimately empty victories which exhausted German resources and left Berlin, and more importantly, Germany's allies with no hope of victory. Collapse followed.

The German performance in the Second World War is often hailed by military historians as revolutionary. There is almost a Wehrmacht fetish, if one may call it that, in many circles, which led to a whitewashing of the role of the German Army in war crimes. Equally, it promoted a myth that the German Army was undefeated, and as the memoirs of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein implied in their title, "Lost Victories" were only overwhelmed by superior numbers and the incompetent meddling of Adolf Hitler. This is, as Citano argues compellingly, face-saving nonsense. If anything, German Generals were more, not less enthusiastic about the prospects of a successful invasion of Russia in 1941, and showed little insight into political or strategic matters. Hitler was without a doubt blind politically, but at least saw value in strategic resources such as oil and industry.

Even on the military level, while the Germans learned much from the First World War, almost all of their innovations came on the tactical level in answer to tactical problems. At the core was the question of mobility. Their conclusion as to the reason why they were defeated in their 1918 effort to break the stalemate on the Western Front was not that they should have avoided war with the United States, made a compromise peace, or withdrawn to a defensive line. Rather it was that their error was getting bogged down in static warfare in the first place in 1914. Almost all of their innovations, from the focus on air support through the Stuka to the Panzer division was based around maximizing an advantage in mobility such that they would never be caught in static conflict. As to how to win static warfare if it nevertheless occurred, the only answer was to somehow restore mobility. Little interest was shown in firepower, except by Hitler whose interventions were eccentric, nor to what mobility was supposed to do strategically or politically except to aid in the defeat of enemy armies in the hope it would lead to the collapse of enemy nations. In the case of Poland and France this worked, but only through luck to a large degree in the case of the latter. The Western Allies psychologically collapsed in early May of 1940 when they were far from militarily defeated. That was vindication of the German belief that superior mobility could lead to battlefield victory, and that battlefield victory could lead to political victory.

By the end of 1941, however, this strategy had failed. It had not failed tactically where Barbarossa represented one of the greatest triumphs of human military history. It had failed operationally to knock the Soviet Union out of the war. Nor was Britain defeated. The United States had once again entered. The German army was not defeated in December of 1941, but it had failed to win a victory. Given that its entire doctrine was based on winning enough battles to win a war, the situation did not call for a rethink of doctrine but a doubling down. If the German army could win enough battles, in Russia and North Africa, the war would be won. What this would look like or how was never considered.

Citino's argument is not that the German campaigns of 1942 failed, though in many ways they did, but that they could not have succeeded because their success would have been meaningless. They had no objective or point. Rommel had twice maneuvered around superior British Armies previously, but he lacked the strength to engage in frontal assaults and success only brought him further from his supply lines and air support, and face to face with superior opposition. He stopped at El Alamein long before he was "stopped" and his failed effort to "breakthrough" was an act of desperation given Hitler's refusal to authorize a retreat and the certainty of disaster which would follow remaining in position. In Russia, German forces achieved impressive territorial gains in Case Blue, but launched their offensives into empty space as Soviet forces withdrew. They very nearly took Stalingrad and came within a few miles of Grozny in the Caucuses, but it would have made little difference if they had succeeded in taking both. Two extra miles on the Volga would have been of no strategic or tactical value, and would have still left the German Sixth Army in a vulnerable position having expended its entire mobile force, and it still would have been surrounded. The German Panzer spearheads in the Caucuses were down to less than a dozen tanks which would have struggled to hold Grozny much less ship any oil back to the Reich. Taking such a value target might have made Hitler unwilling to withdrew German forces from the Caucuses the following year resulting in a second Stalingrad. In North Africa, the German occupation of Tunisia in response to the Allied landings in Operation Torch was a brilliant operation but its only strategic purpose would have been to enable the withdrawal of the Afrika Korp. Winning battles would have been little value against the infinite resources of the Americans and British in the region as well as their naval and air superiority.

Citino compellingly argues that despite their brilliance, German operations in 1942 were designed such that even their success would have left Germany worse off. In the end their failure was a consequence not of mistakes in execution such as Hitler's diversions of troops towards Stalingrad, but of the lack of any operational objective. They were the 1918 Offensives in France on a mass scale.

Citino does so in one of the best written works of military history i have read. The author is not afraid to be opinionated or to pass judgement on the decisions of participants. He has a thesis and is not telling the stories of battles(though he does so in an entertaining way) but passing judgement on a way of war. In the process he is also indicating military historians who for two long have worshiped at the myth of the invincible and noble Wehrmacht. Citino is funny, sarcastic, and informative, and I think even lay readers, albeit ones with some background in history, maths, or science, may find much to like. It is military science done right in an entertaining way.

Most importantly, Citino is interested in evaluating the decisions individuals made at the time, which means considering the information they had, the resources they possessed and the options this made available. Sometimes this produces a much more generous conclusion than expected. There is a clear sympathy for professionals who faced an impossible problem their training had not prepared them for. Nevertheless, the theme is to be critical of a caste who for all their ability and occasional genius, consistently fell back on what they knew. Innovation and originality were all in tactics. It never occurred to anyone to question the strategy. Equally, while not a defense of Hitler, this book and especially its sequel examines not the self-serving memoirs of German generals but the official minutes to show how little useful advice or information Hitler actually received from his generals who generally refused to provide straight answers or clear advice on anything. Hitler took responsibility for decisions not because he didn't trust his generals but because they consistently refused to. Deep inside they seemed to know there was no point to what they were doing and if it was to fail either way they wanted no responsibility. It was a position they maintained for decades. In the end, they lost the war but won the historiography.

Citino's book is a win for the historical genre and is strongly recommended.

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