Operational Thought from
Brig. Gen. Günter R. Roth
Learning Lessons from History
Scharnhorst’s conviction that history alone provides the material that sharpens man’s judgment sounds quite modern, essentially meaning that we are supposed to learn not what to think, but how to think. However, this thinking process holds within itself the misunderstanding that history, including the history of war, provides rules. Thus, we were warned long ago about using the history of war to establish precepts or applying its “lessons.” If it is argued that situations in history will never be repeated in exactly the same way, then by implication there is no regularity in history.2 To forecast the problem, Clausewitz wrote this about the Battle of Jena and Auerstädt: “When in 1806 the Prussian Generals … plunged into the open jaws of disaster by using Frederick the Great’s oblique order of battle, it was not just a case of a style that had outlived its usefulness but the most extreme poverty of the imagination to which routine has ever led.”3
Dogmatist of Envelopment: Schlieffen and the
It is simply not true that General Alfred Graf von Schlieffen was keen on wrestling control from the politicians. Any tinge of “Bonapartism” appeared foreign to him. His continued influence on German policy was the fault of Bismarck’s successors, who carelessly squandered his legacy. The first chancellor’s alliance policy, aimed at establishing a balance of power, was not continued, and the German Reich all of a sudden found itself encircled from all sides and isolated. The politicians now looked like defaulters with a bankrupt estate on their hands.
The generals, who believed they were facing the danger of a war on two fronts, filled this vacuum. Instead of a political solution, Schlieffen could only offer the Reich a military one, which resulted in a vicious circle of political and military constraints with disastrous consequences.
In the following years, the Schlieffen Plan shackled the politicians, who were seeking diplomatic alternatives. The German Chief of the General Staff believed the assault on Belgium to be an operational condition sine qua non. However, this automatically meant the British Empire’s entry into the war. The German Reich got exactly the kind of war it wanted to avoid: a war against France, Russia, and a naval power, England. For a doubtful operational success, they had thus taken the risk of a guaranteed political disaster.
In July 1914 German diplomatic circles were forced to adjust to the military deployment plans - rather than the other way around. What a perversion this was of Clausewitz’s doctrine of the primacy of politics! It is inconceivable that Bismarck would have allowed a military operations plan to dictate the principles of his policies. Gerhard Ritter, the German military historian, painted an accurate picture of the situation:
Schlieffen’s Idea of Envelopment
Schlieffen’s operational thinking can be condensed in the following sentence: “The flank attack is the gist of the entire history of war.”5 Schlieffen intended to lay down the art of operational command and control in a general rule; more precisely, he wanted to reduce it to a single fundamental formula, i.e., the flank attack. Spellbound he stared at the Battle of Cannae (216 b.c.), a battle of envelopment. He firmly believed that every great military leader in history, whether he realized it or not, had aspired to a repetition of this feat. But, as he said, “with the exception of Sedan, no second perfect Cannae” has ever been fought.6 For contemporary application, he drew the following conclusion:
Schlieffen linked this tactical-operational maneuver encirclement with two strategic considerations. As a result of its geographical situa-
tion, the German Reich was jeopardized by a war on two fronts. There was the danger of being ground between two millstones. In the event of a long war, the second consideration, the German Reich had no chances of victory if an Anglo-French sea blockade were to sever its supply of raw materials.
Schlieffen intended to solve both problems by beating France in a fast campaign immediately after the outbreak of the war. Subsequently, it would have been possible to commit almost all forces against the cumbersome Russian colossus, whose mobilization would take more time. An instantaneous decision in the West, however, could be attained only by complete encirclement of the enemy forces, i.e., by another “Cannae.”
Upon retiring from active military service in 1906, Schlieffen handed a memorandum, later to be called the Schlieffen Plan, to his successor, the younger Helmuth von Moltke. The audacity of the operational idea devised therein was breathtaking indeed: In a campaign in the West, almost the entire German Army was to march through Belgium with an excessively reinforced right wing and, bypassing Paris, advance all the way to the Swiss border in a gigantic scythe-like movement. (See Map 5.) The French Army would thus be encircled in a huge pocket.
The Marne Campaign of 1914
In August 1914 the German armies pushed westward at a speed and distance so far considered inconceivable. The operation was conducted with clockwork precision. Most important, however, the Germans succeeded in achieving a strategic surprise, since the enemy had not reckoned with such a gigantic outflanking move on their left flank. The French troops were swept aside by the German swivel wing, and it appeared to be only a question of days until the giant revolving door would be slammed shut behind the Allies. (See Map 6.)
Then there was suddenly a gap in the German right wing between the First and the Second Armies, into which the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) thrust. The commanders in chief of these two armies made a hasty withdrawal behind the Marne River. This move brought the German attack to an abrupt halt, and the lengthy period of frustrating trench warfare now began. Was there a “miracle at the Marne,” or had the German Army fallen prey to a “Schlieffen myth”?
For the French commander in chief, Joseph Joffre, this whole war had started like a nightmare. His offensive move into Lorraine, by which he intended to forestall the Germans, failed after only a few days. And it was now impossible to stop the German armies approaching his rear in an effort to envelop him. Joffre withdrew several army corps from the French Eastern Front, which was protected by strong border fortifications, and redeployed them by rail from the right to the left wing.
This move resembles General Erich von Manstein’s famous Rochade (castling move) on the Dnieper River in 1943, which we shall consider in detail later, and it enabled the French commander in chief to gain a “second-strike capability.” The newly formed Sixth Army thrust from the west into the flank of the First German Army attacking on the right wing. The latter found itself compelled to lunge at the threat, a move that resulted in that disastrous gap into which the BEF was able to thrust.
Now the German General Staff was beginning to get nervous. If German troops continued advancing southward, they ran the risk of being encircled by the Allies from the two cornerstones of Paris and Verdun. In other words, in attempting to encircle the enemy, the Germans were in danger of being encircled themselves. This is how the withdrawal of the two assault armies and the replacement of the younger Moltke came about.
The Principle of the Culmination Point
How was it possible that within reach of victory - the German soldiers on the right wing could already see the Eiffel Tower before them-a setback of such magnitude occurred? It was precisely at this crucial moment that there were no reserves available. Thus, a situation had come about that Clausewitz calls the transgression of the culmination point: “Most [attacks] only lead up to the point where their remaining strength is just enough to maintain a defense and wait for peace. Beyond that point the scale turns and the reaction follows with a force that is usually much stronger than that of the original attack. That is what we mean by the culminating point of the attack.”8 Schlieffen had already warned of such a development: “The experience of all former conquerors will be confirmed: offensive warfare requires and absorbs many resources, and these resources diminish as consistently as those of the defender grow, and this is particularly true in a country teeming with fortifications.”9
Schlieffen can certainly be accused of not giving due consideration to the often-quoted gap between operational requirements and logistical reality. Moreover, he lacked Moltke’s vision of future technological developments. It can be said with hindsight that the German General Staff should have attached more importance to the motorization of the supply system, especially for the armies on the right wing. However, Schlieffen’s successors made crucial operational mistakes in the execution phase.
The Courage to Concentrate
The Schlieffen Plan was by no means utopian, at least not at the time of its conception in 1905, by which time an extraordinarily favorable political situation had developed: Russia had just suffered a major defeat in the war against Japan and was also weakened by internal strife. The German Reich could have pitted its entire army against France. Besides, the French Army was far from its 1914 strength, since reform of the army was not begun until much later.
When, in the First World War, the Schlieffen Plan was to be implemented, its creator had already died. In the meantime, his successor, the younger Moltke, had clearly realized that the politico-strategic conditions had drastically changed. This left him with only two options: Carry out the Schlieffen Plan no matter what, but then resolutely accept the highest risk; or devise an entirely new plan.
As it turned out later, a strategic defense with a second-strike capability would have been the right alternative. The French, for their part, were planning an offensive of their own, in order to march to “Berlin via Mainz,” as General Foch demanded.10 But the younger Moltke was so influenced by his predecessor that he did not dare to step out of his
shadow. He therefore steered a middle course, which was precisely the wrong thing to do. The younger Moltke’s watered-down version of the Schlieffen Plan was divested of its basic idea and thus of its operational advantages, while the political drawback, the violation of Belgium’s neutrality, remained.
Certainly, the point-of-main-effort principle had never before in military history been as resolutely aspired to as in Schlieffen’s plan for an offensive in the West. The force ratio of the mobile offensive wing versus the static defensive wing was seven to one. While fifty-four divisions had been massed between Metz and Aachen, Alsace-Lorraine was to be covered by only eight divisions. Upon implementation of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, the younger Moltke had another eight additionally formed divisions at hand. He did not commit a single one of them on the right wing, however, using them instead to double the number of divisions on the left wing from eight to sixteen. In this way, he falsified - adding also qualitative factors - the force ratio sought by Schlieffen from seven to one to three to one.
When the German offensive had exceeded its culmination point on the right wing at an early stage, those divisions, which unnecessarily - and with detrimental effect, as will be explained later - were committed on the left wing, failed to provide a second echelon, a follow-on-force. Indeed, the troops needed to close the gap between the First and Second Armies threatened by the BEF were not available. But the younger Moltke committed another violation of the concentration principle. The Second Army, employed together with the First Army on the right at the point of main effort, was ordered to detach two corps to the Eastern Front after the victory on the Sambre, although no help had been requested there. Moltke himself admitted later in his memoirs that this had been his most serious mistake.11
The Revolving-Door Effect
The British historian Basil H. Liddell Hart has compared the functional principle of the Schlieffen Plan as well as Manstein’s SICKLE CUT Plan (1940) to a revolving door.12 In 1914 the pivot was near Diedenhofen (Thionville), to the south of Luxembourg. The more resolutely the French pushed into Lorraine, the more violently they would be hit in the back by the revolving door from the direction of Flanders. In 1940 the rotation was in exactly the opposite direction, i.e., clockwise; the farther the Allied intervention troops advanced into Belgium in accordance with the Dyle Plan, the easier it was for the German panzer units to thrust all the way to the English Channel behind their back.
In each case, the problem was to lure the enemy into a trap. Schlieffen insisted that a perfect Cannae required two people, a Hannibal and a
Terentius Varro.13 In 1914 the French General Joffre was on the verge of playing the role of the Roman Terentius Varro. He planned an offensive toward the northeast and thus straight into the trap. In the same way, the vengeance-seeking French soldiers could not wait to advance on Alsace- Lorraine and win it back. On the battlefield of 1914, a similar configuration could have evolved as at Cannae in 216 b.c. The German troops deployed in Lorraine would have had the same role to play as Hannibal’s infantry in this situation. In the final phase of the battle, the Romans had succeeded in indenting the latter in the middle, resulting in the Carthaginian infantry’s closing in a semicircle around it. The deeper the Roman foot soldiers now fought their way forward, the more difficult it would be to escape backward, with the threat of encirclement by Hasdrubal’s cavalry. For Schlieffen, the latter’s role was to be played by the strongly reinforced right wing.
The Schlieffen Plan formed the background to the SICKLE CUT Plan developed by General Manstein. He refers to what the French Army was going to grant to the German General Staff in 1914 as the “favor of an early offensive.” According to Manstein’s analysis, Schlieffen had “accepted the risk of initial setbacks in the Alsace and at the same time had reason to hope that the enemy, by way of an offensive in Lorraine, would assist in making the giant German envelopment operation a full success.”14
The younger Moltke’s half-hearted planning is a classic example of a misconstrued forward defense. He was not prepared to expose the left wing and to accept the risk of temporarily leaving Alsace-Lorraine to the French. Had he done this, he would certainly have been aware of the opposition from nationalist German quarters, but especially from the Kaiser. In this respect, Schlieffen’s thinking was much more consistent and not affected by ideological scruples. He went so far as to say: “If the French cross the Upper Rhine, they will meet with resistance in the Black Forest.”15 By the same token, Schlieffen also opposed the construction of a strong fortification line in the West, because he considered an advance by the French into Alsace-Lorraine even desirable.16
Besides, the German generals, just like the French, had opted for a wrong scenario. Both sides were caught up in a biased offensive philosophy and did not realize that the pendulum of the technique of war had in the meantime swung in favor of the defender. The troops deployed on the left wing - even had they been far fewer in number - could have bloodily repelled the French aggressors. Skillful leadership could also have lured the French into Alsace-Lorraine to be decimated by fire in the delay operation. For the French, a tactical success would have turned into an operational Pyrrhic victory. The recapture of most of Alsace-Lorraine would certainly have cost them too many lives. Now, however, the weakened aggressor would have faced a deadly danger in the rear - envelopment by the German right wing swinging in his direction.
Now Moltke had to pay for having reinforced the left wing contrary to Schlieffen’s intent. The French were not only barred from falling into the trap of Lorraine; they were even expelled from the place where they would have voluntarily plunged into the abyss. Worse was to come. The now-reinforced left wing developed so much momentum of its own that it went onto the offensive. However, this thrust ground to a halt right in front of the French border fortifications.
At the operational level the tactical victory in Lorraine resulted in an about-face. The direction of the German thrust on the left wing was diametrically opposed to the planned revolving-door movement. How was the right wing supposed to prepare a Cannae in Lorraine for the French if the left wing in turn expelled them from Lorraine again? Thus, the French forces were no longer committed in the east, but were available for a counteroffensive against the German right wing, i.e., for a second strike.
The Danger of Dogmatism
Modern researchers have come to the conclusion that strictly speaking there is no Schlieffen Plan, only a memorandum. One historian states that “the memorandum may have been the basis for actual German deployment in the West; in a narrow sense, however, it did not by itself constitute a deployment or even an operations plan. This is one reason why most of Gerhard Ritter’s criticism of the Schlieffen Plan is widely off the mark. On the other hand, the question arises in this connection whether Ritter is criticizing the plan itself or rather the myth surrounding it created by later epigones.”17
This is exactly the point. Many epigones were “more Schlieffen-like than Schlieffen himself.”18 Strictly speaking, there was not just one Schlieffen Plan, but several variations. Schlieffen himself never insisted that the wide swivel movement bypassing Paris was absolutely necessary. In this connection, there is one key scene. During the last staff ride Schlieffen lead, in the summer of 1905, the “favour” version was also discussed, i.e., a French offensive into Lorraine. Schlieffen explained that in this particular situation this wide swivel movement “against Lille must not be carried out, but it would be necessary to veer sharply to the left to conduct a battle of encirclement in Lorraine.”19
It was precisely this situation that arose in 1914. Why then did the younger Moltke not take the decision that Schlieffen would have taken? His attitude is all the more difficult to understand, as he himself had favored this solution during war games and staff rides. The Israeli military historian Jehuda Wallach practically implies that a “second Moltke” could have fought a “second Battle of Sedan.”20 The breakthrough to the south would have been achieved where his uncle had once fought this fa-
mous battle. At any rate, he missed the real chance of encircling a major section of the French Army. It would not have been a gigantic Cannae, as intended in the Schlieffen Plan of 1905, but a “Sedan in Lorraine.” But in 1914, Moltke, and in fact the entire general staff, concentrated so much on the “all-embracing solution” that they could not content themselves with an early turn to the south (via Sedan).
Historians are faced with an amazing phenomenon here: an operational idea developed into a dogma to such an extent that it finally became an ideology, even an end in itself. Schlieffen’s epigones paid the penalty for this envelopment mania. For Clausewitz and Moltke, the victor at Sedan, a Cannae was much more an oddity only to be achieved by a coincidence of especially favorable factors and mistakes by the enemy. Schlieffen’s disciples believed that complete encirclement of the enemy should be a constant goal.
The last chance of an operational envelopment in 1914 due to the hybrid attempt to achieve a strategic envelopment can be attributed to Schlieffen’s exaggerated Cannae mania. General Hans von Seeckt commented bitterly, “Cannae - no other catchword has become so disastrous for us as this one.”21
Manstein as Creative Military
In 1939 the German General Staff was faced with a situation similar to that in 1914. Hitler the gambler misjudged the situation when he thought he could isolate and defeat Poland in a limited war. To his surprise, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. Thus, he had provoked the specter of World War I. Again, a shortage of raw materials meant that the German Reich was unable to endure a long war against the western naval powers. Therefore it had to attempt a Blitzkrieg to reach a quick military decision.
The chief of the German Army’s General Staff suddenly had to submit an operations plan for the campaign against France. His deployment directive on the Case Yellow included three versions, dated 19 and 29 October 1939, as well as 30 January 1940,22 and envisaged defeating the enemy by a more or less frontal attack in Belgium and Northern France. (See Map 7.) It was basically a second edition of the Schlieffen Plan. The essential difference, however, was that this time the French General Staff would be expecting it. Manstein rejected this plan, as it offered only a partial operational success, not a strategic decision. His view was based on the following estimate of the enemy situation: With skillful military leadership, the enemy could avoid a crushing defeat in Belgium. He would then succeed, as in the autumn of 1914, in establishing a strong
defensive front on the lower Somme. Besides, there was the danger of an operational counterattack into the left flank.23
Manstein’s operational move called for the point of main effort to be shifted from Army Group B in the north to Army Group A in the south. The main thrust would have to be accelerated through the Ardennes and across the Meuse at Sedan toward the Channel coast. Thus, all the forces that the enemy might send into Belgium would not be repulsed head on but cut off behind the rear on the Somme.24
Furthermore, this meant that the entire operation, which was to lead to the defeat of the enemy and thus to a political decision, was to be planned in two phases and with two different points of main effort. Initially, the enemy forces deployed in Belgium and Northern France were to be cut off on the Somme and defeated there. This operation, dubbed Case Yellow, was to be followed up by a second operation, Case Red, for which it would have been necessary to veer to the south so as to crush the enemy forces still remaining behind the Somme-Sedan Line. Contrary to Schlieffen, who wanted to accomplish everything in a single operation, Clausewitz’s culmination principle had thus been given due consideration.
In the meantime, the Army high command had completed an about-face and had gone over completely to Manstein’s idea. The 4th Deploy-
ment Directive of the OKH (Army high command) states unequivocally: “The point of main effort of the attack to be conducted through the territory of Belgium and Luxembourg lies south of the line Liege-Charleroi. The forces committed there will force the crossing of the Meuse between Dinant and Sedan (both included) and open the way through the border defenses in Northern France toward the lower course of the Somme.”25
Manstein simultaneously perfected and surpassed Schlieffen’s operational thinking. He combined the method of envelopment proposed by Schlieffen with the method of the breakthrough rejected by the latter. Thus the sickle cut actually consisted of two partial operations: the frontal breakthrough near Sedan generated the gap for the subsequent enveloping operation toward the Channel coast. However, in this pincer movement it also became clear that there was a fundamental departure from Schlieffen’s linear thinking. Schlieffen could conceive of envelopment only as the completed revolution of a wing. He wished to see entire armies swing as companies on parade. Manstein, however, had the unconventional idea of having a tank wedge penetrate deep into enemy territory without regard for exposed flanks.
This new plan constituted an operational surprise for the Allies, because the French leadership had been thinking exclusively in terms of a repetition of the Schlieffen Plan. In expecting the main German thrust through Flanders, they were being quite realistic. The Allies assumed that the Maginot Line protected their own right flank, while in the center, the Meuse and Ardennes formed a geographic double barrier. It was therefore obvious to concentrate the main force on the left. However, so as not to leave Belgium unprotected, French and British intervention troops were to advance to the so-called Dyle Line, stretching from Antwerp along the Dyle River to Namur and from there along the Belgian Meuse. When the offensive began, the main Allied forces were in the wrong place at the wrong time: To their great surprise, the Germans had concentrated seven of their ten panzer divisions where it had been least expected. They pushed through the woods of the Ardennes, a terrain allegedly unsuitable for tanks, toward the weakly defended Meuse sector near Sedan. As a result of their swivel move, the Anglo-French forces ran right into the trap of the sickle cut. The more resolutely they pushed to the north, the easier it was for the German panzer divisions to force their attack to the mouth of the Somme behind their rear. Thus we are looking at a clockwise rotation. This was, as Liddell Hart has pointed out, contrary to the rotation that had occurred in 1914 under the Schlieffen and Joffre Plans.
Liddell Hart has drawn yet another, very descriptive, comparison, and this time with a bullfight. Army Group B in the north stood for the “capa,” or red cloak of the matador. It was to provoke the Allied inter-
vention troops into racing to Belgium like an enraged bull-right into the trap. The panzer divisions concentrated in Army Group A could now thrust like the matador’s sword straight into the exposed right flank.26
In 1940 it was a lot more difficult than in 1914 to lure the Allies into the trap. Thus, the spectacular German airborne operations in Holland and Northern Belgium (e.g., Eben-Emael) did not so much serve the tactical intention of facilitating a rapid advance by Army Group B. It was rather the operational intention to make the Allies, who were now staring northward as though hypnotized, believe that this was where the point of main effort of the attack was located. The German propaganda boasted of even the smallest success on the northern wing. The tank attack through the Ardennes Mountains and the emerging operational breakthrough near Sedan, on the other hand, were positively downplayed. On top of this, the much-feared bombers and Stukas were initially employed away from the actual operational point of main effort. When the Allies realized the actual scope of the German breakthrough near Sedan, it was too late. They no longer succeeded in escaping to the south, because in the meantime the German panzer divisions had forced their way to the Channel behind their rear. The trap had snapped shut.
If in 1940 the deception maneuver of the Sickle Cut Plan worked so successfully, it was because the French were still haunted by the ghost of Schlieffen. They believed that the “dogmatic Germans” - as they saw them - would now, more than ever, attack through Flanders in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan, only this time with mechanized and motorized forces. Thus it was the irony of history that the French fell victim to the Schlieffen Plan not in 1914, but only in 1940.
Manstein’s Rochade: The Counterstroke on the Donetz
At the beginning of the Russian campaign, the German Wehrmacht, implementing the Blitzkrieg concept, succeeded in breaking through the units of the Red Army deployed far forward on the western border of the Soviet Union and crushing them in unprecedented battles of encirclement. Yet in the winter of 1941–1942 it became evident on the outskirts of Moscow that the German Eastern Army was completely exhausted, in terms of both materiel and personnel. When the first phase of the attack had reached its culmination point and when, as a result of the first counterattacks by the Red Army, there were initial signs of a setback as described by Clausewitz, there was no strategic reserve with which to overcome the crisis before Moscow.27
In the winter of 1942–1943, after the disaster of Stalingrad, the Red Army succeeded south of the theater of operations in going over to a
“German style” mobile war. In general, the situation had developed as follows:
The Soviet plan, which was only fully revealed in the course of the operation, bears a striking resemblance to Manstein’s Sickle Cut Plan in the 1940 western campaign. Then, the German tank attack was directed at the lower course of the Somme to encircle the northern wing of the Allies on the Channel coast. In February 1943 the main Soviet thrust was directed at the lower course of the Dnieper, to sever the entire German southern wing on the Black Sea coast. Both Army Groups A and Don would have been trapped, and the possibility of a repetition of the “miracle of Dunkirk” on the Crimean peninsula was highly unlikely in view of the few German vessels on the Black Sea. Field Marshal Manstein is not only accepted as being the creator of the SICKLE CUT Plan, the most brilliant envelopment idea of the Second World War. He is also the originator of the “congenial” counterproposition: the “second strike.” He implemented this operational art of countering an imminent envelopment with his counterattack from the Dnieper to the Donetz in 1943. It was Hitler himself who paradoxically turned out to be Manstein’s most dangerous opponent. Hitler was still enthralled by the linear thinking of the trench warfare of the First World War and, wishing to prevent the collapse of the front, insisted on giving “hold-the- position” orders. He rejected Manstein’s proposal to use the depth of the area as a “weapon” and to go over to a mobile conduct of operations. At this point, the Soviets inadvertently influenced the conflict. From 17 to 19 February Hitler had a meeting with Manstein in his headquarters near Zaporozhe. Suddenly, Soviet tanks, having broken through the German lines, drew closer to the city. Upon Hitler’s departure, they were only thirty
kilometers away from the airport. In view of this dramatic worsening of the situation, the supreme commander of the Wehrmacht agreed to make unusual concessions; he granted operational freedom to Manstein.
Unlike Hitler, the field marshal viewed the approaching Soviet tanks with the greatest of calm. He even noted their tempestuous advance with a certain satisfaction. The farther the bulk of enemy tanks advanced to the west, the deeper they would enter the trap, and the more promising the planned counterattack. In considering the situation, he was mindful of Clausewitz’s principle of the culmination point. The field marshal was not going to attack until the Soviet offensive had reached its culmination. By now enemy supply lines were overstretched and their flanks exposed.
In principle, Manstein’s operations plan was quite simple. It was made up of a static and a dynamic element. First he ordered the front salient to be withdrawn from the Donetz bend near Rostov to the Mius position. The Hollidt Army Task Force had to maintain that position at any cost. As a result of this shortening of the front, the First and Fourth Panzer Armies were now available for mobile operations. It was now time for the famous Rochade, in the process of which the Fourth Panzer Army was shifted from the right wing of the army group to its left wing. With this clever move, Manstein managed to implement an entirely new deployment of forces. He had reorganized his troops from a partly hectic retreat into a counterattack from three different directions.
Manstein’s conduct of operations was facilitated by the fact that the Soviets were eccentrically fanning out their assault elements rather than concentrating their entire thrust on the main objective, the Dnieper River crossings near Dniepropetrovsk and Zaporozhe. Therefore, the field marshal decided against a classic pincer operation into the flanks. Instead, the scattering Soviet spearheads were attacked one by one and defeated with some of them wiped out after they had been enveloped. By 2 March the middle course of the Donetz River had been regained. In the immediately ensuing operation, Manstein scored a notable success by recapturing the city of Kharkov on 14 March.
Having encircled the Sixth Army on the Volga, the Soviets wanted to prepare a massive “Stalingrad” for all the German armies on the south wing. However, not only did the plan fail, the tables were turned on them. In his counterattack Manstein crushed four armies and left two more armies with heavy casualties. On this occasion, Soviet losses were considerably higher than those of the Germans at Stalingrad. The attacking Soviet soldiers believed that the German units had been beaten long ago and imagined them to be fleeing towards the Dnieper. They were all the more shocked when the latter literally turned around suddenly and confronted them with an energetic counterattack. They had run straight into the trap.
The element of surprise was decisive to this operation. As if from nowhere, out of apparent chaos, a perfectly organized battle array consist-
ing of two panzer armies and an army detachment had suddenly formed up for a counterattack. According to Manstein the force ratio in that sector of the front was one to eight. Field Marshal Manstein thus managed to concentrate the right troops in the right place at the right time.
He explained to Hitler that he believed the strategic defensive, in conjunction with the operational counterattack, or the second strike, to be the best means of defeating the enemy who was superior in numbers. A counterstroke against a deep enemy thrust would automatically lead to a free-reeling operation. Here, the German officers could capitalize on their greatest asset, i.e. flexible command and control within the framework of Auftragstaktik (mission-oriented tactics).
In the summer of 1943, Hitler insisted on reverting to the strategic offensive. Unlike Manstein, he insisted on the first strike. It was the Kursk salient, which had been developed by the Soviets into an antitank fortification, that he specifically selected as the objective in Operation CITADEL.
CITADEL and SICKLE CUT Operations Compared
Operation SICKLE CUT (Case Yellow) constitutes just about the exact opposite of Operation CITADEL. Manstein’s sickle cut aimed at the weakest point of the enemy front, Sedan. Operation CITADEL, however, was directed against the strongest, Kursk.
By comparison, at Sedan, the enemy antitank (AT) artillery density was 4.7; at Kursk, it was 30 guns per front kilometer.28 The French Second Army, in whose left sector Sedan was situated, had a total of only 16,000 AT mines.29 At the Kursk salient, however, the average for each front kilometer in the most important sectors is said to have been 1,500 AT and 1,700 antipersonnel (AP) mines.30 The Allies never reckoned with a major German attack on Sedan. The offensive against the Kursk salient, however, hit exactly the front sector where the Soviets were expecting it. Furthermore, their intelligence had found out the precise time at which the attack was scheduled to be launched. Not only was the operational element of surprise missing, but also the tactical one. The German attack in the vicinity of Kursk resulted in a head-on collision with the numerically superior Soviet tank and antitank arm. In this offensive, as ordered by Hitler, it was decided against outmaneuvering the enemy with a far-flung operational move (like the sickle cut); attempts were to be made instead to win the battle at a tactical level. This “mobile battle of attrition” at Kursk became the “Verdun” of the German panzer arm.
It is interesting in this context that Manstein, prior to the offensive against Kursk, temporarily entertained quite an unconventional idea: He suggested cutting off the Kursk salient not in a double-pincer move from the north and the south, but instead attacking where the Soviets least expected it - head-on from the west. After the relatively easy breakthrough,
deployment to the left and right would have been possible so as to push the Soviets into their own minefields. This would have resulted in an eccentric enveloping movement rather than a “classic” concentric pincer move. Hitler also pursued this idea. However, after he had postponed the start of the offensive several times, it now seemed impossible, for reasons of time, to completely regroup the units.31
Having chosen the line of least resistance for the breakthrough at Sedan in 1940, the Germans were now following the line of the greatest possible resistance. However, tactics was not the only deciding factor in the failure of the German offensive. The Red Army command, in anticipation of a German breakthrough, had kept available in the depth of the area mobile reserves to carry out a second-strike against the already-exhausted enemy forces.
Kursk stood for the strategic turning point in the German-Soviet war. The Wehrmacht lost the initiative once and for all. This also foiled the “draw” peace Manstein had sought. It transpired that the successful handling of individual military catastrophes only served to put off the final catastrophe while sustaining huge losses. Following Clausewitz, a call to end the war should have been made at that point, when there was nothing more to gain and everything to lose.
Clausewitz: The Neglected Philosopher
By 1914 German foreign policy was in such a confused state that the politicians could no longer find an excuse. Schlieffen wanted to cut this Gordian knot with the sword. His military concept was meant to replace a political solution. That way, however, he had put a lot of pressure on himself in terms of the need for a move in the operational field. The Schlieffen Plan must, therefore, not be seen as an operations plan, but rather as a campaign plan. But therein lays the conceit of Schlieffen, the operational artisan. He extended Hannibal’s envelopment maneuver on the battlefield of Cannae to the entire theater of war, and with a single swinging movement, he wanted to decide a war that was to become a world war. There was a very real danger of overtraining while carrying out this Herculean operation. After all, everything was to be done “in one fell swoop,” in one single “battle of annihilation.” The battle of Cannae should have served as a warning to him, because it also did not produce a strategic decision. In fact, the winners of Cannae were to become the losers of the Second Punic War.
Why then could such brilliant military minds as constituting the German General Staff expose themselves to such a risky, megalomaniac idea as the Schlieffen Plan? The answer lies in the military-political vicious circle that Schlieffen had conjured. The Schlieffen Plan stipulated that in
the West everything had to be achieved at the same time and as soon as possible, that is, under extreme pressure. This pressure may be attributed to political constraints. These political constraints may, however, be attributed to the Schlieffen Plan. It was at this point that the vicious circle closed in around Schlieffen, who had now become entangled in his own thinking.
In 1914 an opportunity presented itself for a Cannae in the west. The German Army was considered the strongest land power in the world. The German General Staff was thoroughly drilled for envelopment maneuvers, and the French Army granted the Germans the often-quoted favor of an offensive by falling into the Lorraine trap. But Schlieffen’s successors were so dazzled by a grand, absolute solution of a perfect Cannae that they completely overlooked the small solution of a Cannae in Lorraine. The First World War could have gotten off to a great start with a double “Tannenberg.” In the east, a Cannae was achieved at Tannenberg because the Germans concentrated on the encirclement of a single Russian army. In the West, the entire French Army was to be enveloped all at once. At this point we can only quote Clausewitz: “the man who sacrifices the possible in search of the impossible is a fool.”32
The SICKLE CUT Plan
The fatal development that had triggered a crisis in the First World War stood in remarkable contrast to the development that was to lead to a disaster in the Second World War. This time it was exactly the other way around. In 1914 the generals had tied the hands of the politicians with a rigid operations plan. In 1940 Hitler, the politician, tied the hands of his generals in the implementation of the operations plan.
Hitler’s order to halt before Dunkirk enabled the evacuation of the BEF. This way, he reduced the strategic success sought by Manstein to an operational one. He nevertheless allowed himself to be celebrated after the campaign in the West as the “greatest commander of all time.” During the campaign in the East, Hitler’s intervention in the course of operations was becoming an obsession, and in the end he wasted his time on the minutest tactical details. This was a violation of the Clausewitz doctrine, according to which war has no logic of its own, but it does have a grammar of its own. Hitler, the dilettante, was not familiar enough with this grammar. This was to have disastrous consequences when he shackled the art of operational command and control of his generals.
The political conceit of the German military technocrats in the First World War was followed by the military-technological conceit of Hitler the politician in World War II. Thus it was that in both world wars, the military and the political leaders of the German Reich got in the way of each other. In view of this situation, it seems like an irony of history that it was this very Germany that produced a man like Clausewitz.
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