Tag Archives: operational art

Barbarossa/Eatern Front Timeline in WWII

Over the past few days I have had an email conversation with Mr. George Toomes, one of my readers, and he brought up a very interesting question. It started with asking if I had or knew where to find a map of the Russian counter-attack outside Moscow in the winter of 1941. In a follow up he mentioned that he was trying to get an idea of when and where the Germans and Russians stopped in their various offensives and counter-offensives in the war in the East.


I don’t think I have ever seen a video or graphic that lays out the back and forth of the eastern front in the way this question asks. One thing is certain, the Eastern Front in World War II was dynamic throughout the entire war. From the massive gains of the Germans during the first year of the invasion to the equally massive gains by the Russians in the last, the front was always in motion somewhere. One of the difficulties when discussing the War in the East is the sheer scale of the operational area. The Eastern Theater of the war encompassed an area almost 1,500km deep by roughly 2,000km north-south., an area of roughly 3 million km2.

Best animation of the front movements of WWII I have found freely available. It is from Wikimedia Commons and unfortuantely for English speakers the labelling is in German.

During the 4 years that the war was fought the Germans started from just east of Warsaw and went almost to Moscow before being stopped and then being ground back to Berlin over the subsequent 3 years. It is not that simple though, there were constant ebbs and flows as the front line moved constantly from the huge gains of major offensives by both sides to small tactical adjustments at battalion and even company level.


The volatility, to borrow a term from the stock market, of the Eastern Front is breathtaking if one takes the time to really look at it. There are several good books post USSR that utilize newly available archives to tell the story of the Eastern Front in even greater detail than before and the most distinguished author writing on the Russo-German War is David Glantz whose best titles include: When Titans Clashed and Stumbling Colossus.

Book Review: Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe by Steven D. Mercatante

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

At first glance Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe is another of the rehashing’s of WWII in the East and West that have become so popular since the fall of communism in the 1990’s and the opening of previously closed Russian archives.  That first glance would be wrong.  Steven Mercatante has produced a very well written history of the war in the East that goes to the heart of why the Eastern Front is so important to World War II historiography. This reviewer has some issues with the work but overall it is an exhaustively researched book that presents an intriguing point of view.

The details first.  The book is fairly long at 408 pages and includes a fairly extensive bibliography although it appears that only secondary sources were used which disappoints me somewhat.  It is broken down into three parts which essentially cover Germany before the war, the war until D-Day, and the war after D-Day.  The book includes copious footnotes throughout that this reviewer, for one, appreciates.  The author has also posted a very extensive bibliography online at his personal website  Globe at War. The chapters flow logically from one to the other and are ordered chronologically making it easier to follow the progress of the war.

The book is written fairly well if a little overexcited at times.  I found the book difficult to read as the narrative was a little too breathless for my taste.  I would say that if every third adjective were removed the text would be much clearer and easier to read.  There is extensive use of hyperbole and the author brings the point up again and again of the criminal nature of the Nazi regime, often it seems only because he can, not because it contributes to the narrative.  I find it difficult to believe that any reasonably informed individual can be unaware of the Holocaust and it is redundant to continually pound the point home.  This is somewhat of a stylistic complaint though and if these instances can be ignored he does bring out some salient points. Those complaints aside, it is clear that the author has an almost encyclopedic grasp of the history of the war.  That is clear from the depth of his knowledge on the war’s conduct.  It is obvious that some deep research went into the preparation of the work.

Mr. Mercatante seems to be trying to claim that Germany could have won if Hitler had gone after strategic economic goals rather than attempting to annihilate the armies of his opponents.  His main argument is that the quality of the German army trumped the quantity of his opponents and he squandered his advantages by not solidifying Germany’s economic position in Europe soon enough, which allowed his enemies to improve the quality of their own militaries.  I don’t know that I necessarily agree with that thesis.

One of the points Mercatante makes again and again, which he seems to think supports his thesis, is the massive amount of punishment the Red Army continually took throughout the war and indeed, right up until the last days.  Total Soviet losses during the war amounted to roughly 29 million dead, wounded, and missing compared to Wehrmacht losses of roughly 14.5 million including their Hungarian, Romanian, and Italian Allies.  The Soviets lost approximately 14 times their pre-war strength during the course of the conflict while the Germans lost 4 times theirs.  Much is also made of production numbers for tanks, aircraft, and artillery/mortars.  Again, once the Soviets recovered from the evacuation of the Donetz Basin factories to the Urals in 1942 they out produced the Germans and had the additional advantage of copious Lend-Lease aid from the Western Allies.  It is the disparity in both human and machine capital and the consequent scale of losses on both sides that make the brute force argument for why Germany lost so appealing.  It is simple to make thew argument that German troops were qualitatively superior to their opponents and it is also true.  It is also true that despite this qualitative superiority, the Germans were never able to kill, wound, or capture enough of their enemy’s soldiers to drive them from the war.  Thus size was a deciding factor in the war’s outcome.  Not just size of the combat theater, but also size of the material and human resources available for the combatants to draw upon.

There is no doubt that the Germans were tactically and operationally superior to the Soviets almost throughout the war.  There is also no doubt that German equipment was generally of higher quality with some tank models being notable exceptions.  What is equally remarkable is that even when the Germans were equipped with inferior tanks, they still managed to inflict an uneven casualty ratio on the Soviets because of their tactical acumen.  This tactical superiority does not mean the Germans could have won.  The sheer vastness of the Eastern Front coupled with the seeming inexhaustibility of the Russian Armies meant that the Germans were indeed swallowed in Russia.

Mercatante rightly points out that the harshness of German occupation policy added up to a net minus in German combat efficiency by requiring the deployment of some German units behind the front.  This is especially so in the Ukraine where the Germans were initially greeted as liberators.  There are also several decision points that could be argued the Germans chose poorly.  Mercatante posits that the Germans should have sought to carve southern Russia away from the Soviets so that it could be exploited economically.  His contention is that the Northern portion of the front could have been held while southern Russia was consolidated giving Germany economic mastery that they could translate into physical and military dominance.

There are several factual errors in the book but two in particular that jumped out at me.  The first  error I noticed does not concern World War II except peripherally and it is his contention that Germany had an AFV program in World War I.  While that is strictly true, Germany did build twelve tanks during the war, they did not do so with any seriousness instead concentrating on infantry/artillery training and doctrine to break the stalemate of trench warfare.  The German tank program of WWI was a footnote rather than a building block for the future German development of armored doctrine.  Lastly, and this speaks to the effectiveness of German tanks in WWII.  In his conclusion he mentions that the Panther Ausf. D had an underpowered final drive.  The recently retired soldier in me that spent over twenty years on armored vehicles was left scratching his head wondering what an underpowered final drive is.  The final drive of a tank or AFV is the part that physically turns the track assembly.  It has no organic power, it is the mechanism by which the power from the engine is applied to the tracks through the transmission.  I think he meant that the final drive was poorly or even over-engineered leading to overheating and sheared drive sprocket teeth.  However, someone with little to no knowledge of AFVs might draw a different conclusion.  Problems like these were not uncommon with German tanks, which had more complex designs than did either Russian or American tanks.

In all, Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe is  an intriguing book and worth reading for the detailed description of the various campaigns of the war.  This reviewer has not read such a good campaign history in a long time and that alone was refreshing.  The thesis that the Germans almost won interesting and worth discussing.  In my opinion, Mercatante did not make his case but the individual reader should decide for himself.  I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this work on the merits of its thesis.  That being said, as an operational and strategic level history, the book is almost unmatched and that alone makes it a worthwhile purchase.


Given that this is the first somewhat negative review I have written and I like just about every history book I read, I gave the author the opportunity to rebut my review.  I have adjusted my review somewhat in response to his comments but my recommendation remains the same.  His rebuttal is below:

Thank you for the thoughtful review. I am flattered by the kind things you had to say about my work – particularly that it contributes to the scholarship on this subject as that was one of my primary goals in writing the book. In addition, thank you for the opportunity to respond. In deference to your much appreciated time I will keep my response brief.
First, it is quite alright that you do not agree with my conclusions as I welcome a healthy debate. In fact, that would be the one thing I would like to see more in your review in lieu of two issues you spend some time upon.
The first such issue, and my only real criticism with the review, is the time spent on discussing minor technical/factual errors that are not really germane to my thesis. There is no question that all errors should be expunged from the work, and sometimes it is the minor one’s that are so galling in that they undermine the credibility of the author. Unfortunately, ABC-CLIO (Praeger’s parent company) has refused to allow me to make such changes as they consider it not worth the expense (they would not even let me remove the title Field Marshal from Milch’s name when I was discussing his mid-1930’s era work in building up the Luftwaffe – as he was not as of that time a Field Marshal in rank so obviously I would love to excise that little oversight right out!). This is even more frustrating in as much as the first print run was small and I prepared a list of errors that I had found in the text that had escaped the initial review process – all in hopes that they would be corrected for the second print run. Instead, and with ABC-CLIO’s current stance, a well-scrubbed and hopefully error free edition of the book won’t be available until the UK publisher that just bought the rights to publish the book in the UK releases its hardcover version later this fall (as they were thrilled to see the more thoroughly edited version I had prepared following my first print run). Ironically, I know of several other authors who have battled the same process (including Robert Kirchubel who had similar problems with Osprey – though they allowed corrections for follow up print runs – and it seems that in general if an author does not get an entirely clean copy right the first time that the resources are not there for a second try; a whole another issue regarding the ever exciting publishing world). It is likely that you have run into similar issues with works you have published, and that most other historians who have published extensively will recognize these issues – hence their relatively minor status.
Accordingly, and though the majority of your readers are likely non-historians, I feel that the parts of your review where you debate the actual merits of my thesis are far more interesting. For instance, perhaps you could replace the paragraph spent on such errors with a more in-depth discussion regarding why you feel the war’s quantitative factors, such as your reference to the “the seeming inexhaustibility of the Russian Armies” was more determinative in deciding the war than the qualitative elements I focus upon. There are no doubt readers who think I have built a persuasive argument (as evidenced by the reader reviews posted on Amazon.com’s US site – no less the endorsements from the professional historians who state as such). On the other hand, there are readers who disagree and think that brute force won the war. You seem to side more with the brute force side and by expunging the minor quibbles with my book so that you can develop your brute force position further I think you build a stronger review for your own readers (some of whom may fall on one side, while others take the opposite position, and others yet remain undecided and are open to argument).
Finally, my only other criticism would be in response to this point you make: “There is extensive use of hyperbole and the author brings the point up again and again of the criminal nature of the Nazi regime, often it seems only because he cannot because it contributes to the narrative.  This is somewhat of a stylistic complaint though and if these instances can be ignored he does bring out some salient points.” I am not sure what you mean by this. However, my use of the word “criminal” or other such phrases to assist in describing various German military leaders is important and I think helps contribute to the scholarship on the war. This is for a number of reasons. One, is that the men whom I describe as “criminals” were just that – convicted as war criminals for their actions during the war. Thus, we lose something when we don’t point out this fact and only focus on their attributes. For instance, Manstein is an operational genius, almost nobody would dispute this, and few ever do. Instead this genius is often what is focused upon while ignoring the fact that, for example, during his command of the German 11th Army some of the war’s most heinous war crimes were committed either by his men or facilitated by his men in support of the local Einsatzgruppen and their ilk. Both Manstein’s leadership in the field and what happened behind the lines are germane to a complete understanding of the man, the Wehrmacht, and the regime whose crimes the Wehrmacht at best enabled and at worst participated in on a regular basis. But this may still not answer why it is important for me to remind the reader that for all their accolades many of Germany’s top military leaders were morally suspect at best. To that point I make the effort to better link the holocaust and military operations not only because the quest for Lebensraum driving Barbarossa was inherently genocidal in intent (and therefore that it is historically accurate to link the two), but because all too often casual WWII enthusiasts are not exposed to the horrific crimes of the Third Reich. Instead they read about, or look at pictures of, the cool-looking supposedly technically superior German equipment, or are entranced by the romantic notion of a brave band of men fighting to their death against hordes of enemy soldiers (as is so often the presentation of the Germans vs. Soviets), and take these ideas with them as they play their computer or board war games, build their models, and consume their WWII related media. As a result they end up romanticizing the Wehrmacht and that is something that I would very much like to see the casual military history enthusiast move away from. I hope you understand what I mean by all of this?
Once again, thank you for your time and the opportunity to respond. I hope my response was not too lengthy and has helped clarify some of the issues you were concerned about in your review – enough that you are able to more “wholeheartedly” recommend it? Otherwise I love engaging with “the other side of the hill” vis a vis the quantitative vs. qualitative adherents in explaining the Second World War’s outcome, and appreciate your intellectual honesty in granting the strength of my work where appropriate. After all it is debates such as these that continue to bring life to our understanding of what I consider to be the most important events in modern history.
All best,

Sun-Tzu & Clausewitz: A Comparison

Both Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz have something to offer for the serious student of warfare.  The biggest distinction between the two seems to be their different approaches to the art of war.  Sun-Tzu advocates a more subtle and indirect approach to the art of war while Clausewitz advocates a more direct approach.

The essence of Sun-Tzu’s philosophy seems to be winning through superior generalship.  He almost seems to advocate a type of warfare by superior maneuver similar to that practiced in Renaissance Italy.  He preaches the avoidance of pitched battles unless the attacker is assured of winning.  This view is summed up in chapter III verse 3: “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill.  To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

Clausewitz, on the contrary says that in war the combat or battle is everything.  He regards armies as tools to be used for their intended purpose, waging war.  Clausewitz makes the argument that combat occurs even if the opposing armies don’t meet; if a general forces his opponent out of position through maneuver a combat has still occurred though only potentially.  Clausewitz also makes a large distinction between tactics and strategy, a distinction that seems to be somewhat missing in the philosophy of Sun-Tzu.

Personally, I think the Clausewitzean model is more applicable to modern warfare though his theory is more limited to actual warfare than that of Sun-Tzu.  Sun-Tzu presents a more unified theory, which takes more account of political and societal factors than Clausewitz does.  The philosophy of Clausewitz seems truer to me because I believe, as he does, that the objective in war is to dominate your opponent and the only sure way to do that is to force him prostrate.  I would say that my views reflect not only my European heritage but also my own combat experience and frustrations with the eastern way of war.  It seems to me that the avoidance of combat unless on favorable terms is the weasels way of war, though recent American experiences in Asia over the last forty years have proven its effectiveness.  While I think there are compelling lessons to be learned from the study of both philosophers, Clausewitz offers the more cohesive theory with a decisive conclusion.

Battle Analysis-The Ludendorff Offensives of Spring 1918

In the spring of 1918 the German army attempted a series of war winning offensives on the Western Front that ultimately were to fail and their failure led directly to the German signing of an armistice in November of 1918.  The failure of the Ludendorff offensives as they were known was strategic and operational in nature.  The German army had devised a new tactical system and doctrine that broke the stalemate of the Western front.  What they could not do was follow through once the front had been broken.

The Germans had developed the tactical system known as infiltration in response to the stalemate of trench warfare.  This system concentrated on short sharp artillery bombardments followed by small groups of infantry attacking and infiltrating around points of resistance in order to maintain the momentum of the attack.  This system worked admirably in piercing the defenses of the allies.  By concentrating and achieving local superiority and tactical surprise, the Germans were able to break through the trench lines into open country.  They proved this in the four offensives launched during the spring of 1918.

The problem was that after the front lines had been pierced and maneuver room gained the Germans were unable to capitalize on these gains.  They faced a severe shortage of manpower and more importantly, of transport.  The German army was not able to mass pursuit forces behind the attackers, due to requirements in the East and elsewhere on the Western Front.  If the imperial army had had the troops available to exploit their gains, they still would have faced the obstacle of how to get them to the battlefield.  Manpower considerations caused the German army to stagger the opening of their offensives with allowed these to concentrate their defensive forces to limit German gains.  Additionally, the German army was not motorized to near the extent necessary to effect a pursuit once breakthrough was achieved, to say nothing of the difficulties involved with crossing the old trench-lines.  The German lack of manpower and logistical difficulties eventually caused the offensives to run out of steam and the fighting then bogged down into positional warfare.

Even though the German army managed to mass almost 4,000,000 troops on the Western Front, they still did not outnumber their opponents.  With the addition of America into the war in 1917, the German army had no choice but to attempt to win the war in early 1918, before American numbers began to be felt in the fighting.  The fighting also cost the German army dearly, as they suffered around 500,000 casualties in the spring.  These losses could not be made good and the Germans were thus left defending a longer line with fewer troops than before the offensives.

The Ludendorff offensives were a grand failure, while the tactical system the Germans employed was superb the strategic and operational concept was flawed.  Ludendorff violated the principles of mass, concentration at the point of attack, and operational unity.  The offensives were misguided from the outset and the German army would have been better served if they had instead stood on the defensive while the political leadership sued for peace.



Chickering, Roger. Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 2004. Second edition, paperback. pp. 175-180

Keegan , John. The First World War, New York, NY:  Random House, 1998. pp. 309-364

Strachan, Hew. The First World War, New York, NY: Penguin, 2003.  pp. 267-301

Why the Western Front Stalemated in WWI

The conventional explanation for why the Western Front in World War I settled into a stalemate is that the power of defensive weapons was stronger than the offensive methods employed.  The theory is that the defensive potential of machine-guns, artillery, repeating rifles, and trenches was unbreakable with infantry and artillery alone.  This simplistic explanation does not suffice under close scrutiny though.  If this were so, why were the Germans not stopped in France until after they had removed troops to the Eastern front for the Battle of Tannenberg and why were the French stopped cold when they attempted to invade Germany in August 1914?

The reasons for stalemate are complex; they are both systemic and technical.  The machine-gun certainly played a major role but even more decisive was the cult of the offensive prevalent in the British and especially French armies.  The French disdained anything but the headlong attack, they thought the way to fight was to charge with the bayonet and trained their army that way.  This accounts for the staggering number of casualties the French army suffered in the opening months of the war, over 350,000 French soldiers died by the end of August 1914.  The British army was the only completely regular force in Europe and their performance in the opening months showed it.  They stopped the Germans at Mons for two days using their rifles.  They were trained to fire fifteen aimed rounds per minute and the Germans thought they were using machine guns when in reality they faced rifle fire.

Among the technical reasons for the stalemate, the most obvious is the lack of a means to effectively communicate between the different levels of command and between the front line and supporting artillery.  Telephones were used but the wires were easily cut by artillery and often units were reduced to using runners, which caused a delay of hours if the message got through at all.  Radios existed but they were too bulky for use in the trenches.  Artillery was forced to fire by meticulously developed fire plans, but they did not have the flexibility to shift targets based on the tactical situation, this deficiency would not be remedied until after the war when radio was perfected.

Another shortcoming was the lack of battlefield mobility, even when a breach in the enemy line was opened the artillery that allowed the breach to be made was unable to support a continued advance because the ground was so broken it could not move up into new positions.  Even cavalry had trouble advancing through the mire and devastation of no-man’s land.  Until the advent of the tank in 1916, armies had to rely on infantry alone to sustain the advance, and this they could not do in the face of prepared defense as developed by the Germans.

Lastly, the Germans chose stalemate, the picked the line they would retreat to after the Battle of the Marne and they chose the most defensible ground in northern France to hold.  They chose the defensive in order to free troops up for use in the east in hopes of knocking Russia out of the war.  Between First Ypres in 1914 and the Ludendorff Offensives of 1918, the Germans only launched one major offensive in the west at Verdun, the rest of the time they were content to remain on the defensive.  In consequence of this, the Germans developed one of the most elaborate defensive systems in history while they proceeded to try to knock Russia out of the war.  They did not resume the offensive in the West until the spring of 1918 when an additional million troops were available due to the Russian collapse.

Stalemate in World War I was not inevitable, but it was probable given the mix of military systems available and the state of military doctrine at the outbreak of the war.  The wonder is that so few generals understood the implications of the technology and tactics they would employ.  There was ample forewarning in recent wars that pointed the way, most importantly the Boer War and Russo-Japanese wars.