Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, November 19, 2012 6:15 am

Freedom came from Uranus; or, Eastern D-Day

Berkeley economist and World War II student J. Bradford DeLong:

And so, 70 years ago [today], the million-soldier reserve of the Red Army was transferred to General Nikolai Vatutin’s Southwestern Front, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Don Front, and Marshal Andrei Yeremenko’s Stalingrad Front. They went on to spring the trap of Operation Uranus, the code name for the planned encirclement and annihilation of the German Sixth Army and Fourth Panzer Army. They would fight, die, win, and thus destroy the Nazi hope of dominating Eurasia for even one more year – let alone of establishing Hitler’s 1,000-year Reich.

Together, these 1.2 million Red Army soldiers, the workers who armed them, and the peasants who fed them turned the Battle of Stalingrad into the fight that, of any battle in human history, has made the greatest positive difference for humanity.

The Allies probably would have eventually won World War II even had the Nazis conquered Stalingrad, redistributed their spearhead forces as mobile reserves, repelled the Red Army’s subsequent winter 1942 offensive, and seized the Caucasus oil fields, thus depriving the Red Army of 90% of its motor fuel. But any Allied victory would have required the large-scale use of nuclear weapons, and a death toll in Europe that would most likely have been twice the actual World War II death toll of perhaps 40 million.

May there never be another such battle. May we never need another one.

The battle had been engaged a month previously, when 200,000 Red Army soldiers crossed the Volga River at Stalingrad under heavy artillery and aircraft attack (a scene rendered quite faithfully in the movie “Enemy at the Gate”) and met the Wehrmacht head-on. Of those initial 200,000, more than 80 percent died. (In fact, of the roughly 40 million who died in the European theater during World War II, 20 million were Soviet. For comparison, perhaps 450,000 U.S. service members were killed in action in all theaters in the entire war.) The fighting wasn’t just house-to-house, it was room-to-room, with houses and rooms frequently changing hands multiple times. One Soviet regimental commander, finding his unit surrounded by the Germans, fought until his unit ran out of ammunition, then called in artillery fire on his own position.

From the standpoint of today, knowing as we do what transpired in the Soviet Union under 70 years of Communist rule and knowing as we do (thanks in part to my sister-in-law) what transpired on the Eastern Front during World War II, it is easy to say there were no good guys. But much of the good we and millions of other people on every continent of the world enjoy today was made possible by some of the bad guys at Stalingrad. Such are the ironies of history.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 8:53 pm

A season in hell

Seventy years ago this month …

The cruelty of the winter, its savagery towards German and Russian alike, was gruesomely illustrated for a rearguard of 3rd Rifle Regiment on the fourth Sunday in Advent of 1941. It happened at Ozarovo. Through his binoculars the second lieutenant spotted a group of horses and troops standing on a gentle slope in the deep snow. Cautiously the German troops approached. There was a strange silence. The Soviet group seemed terrifyingly motionless in the flickering light of the snowy waste. And suddenly the lieutenant grasped the incredible-horses and men, pressed closely together and standing waist-deep in the snow, were dead. They were standing there, just as they had been ordered to halt for a rest, frozen to death and stiff, a shocking monument to the war.

Over on one side was a soldier, leaning against the flank of his horse. Next to him a wounded man in the saddle, one leg in a splint, his eyes wide open under iced-up eyebrows, his right hand still gripping the dishevelled mane of his mount. The second lieutenant and the sergeant slumped forward in their saddles, their clenched fists still gripping their reins. Wedged in between two horses were three soldiers: evidently they had tried to keep warm against the animals’ bodies. The horses themselves were like the horses on the plinths of equestrian statues-heads held high, eyes closed, their skin covered with ice, their tails whipped by the wind, but frozen into immobility. The frozen breath of eternity.

When Lance-corporal Tietz tried to photograph the shocking monument the view-finder froze over with his tears, and the shutter refused to work. The shutter release was frozen up. The god of war was holding his hand over the infernal picture: it was not to become a memento for others. …

On 20th December 1941 a very worried Guderian flew to East Prussia to see Hitler at his headquarters. He wanted to persuade him to take the German front line back to more favourable positions, if necessary over a considerable distance.

The five-hour interview was of historic importance. It showed the Fuehrer irritable, tormented by anxiety, but resolved to fight fanatically; it revealed a powerless and obsequious High Command, resembling courtiers in uniforms; and it showed Guderian, alone but courageous, passionately arguing his case and fearlessly giving Hitler his frank opinion on the situation at the front.

The first time the word retreat was mentioned Hitler exploded. The word seemed to sting him like the bite of an adder. It conjured up for him the spectre of the Napoleonic disaster of 1812. Anything but retreat!

Passionately Hitler tried to convince Guderian: “Once I’ve authorized a retreat there won’t be any holding them. The troops will just run. And with the frost and the deep snow and the icy roads that means that the heavy weapons will be the first to be abandoned, and the light ones next, and then the rifles will be thrown away, and in the end there’ll be nothing left. No. The defensive positions must be held. Transport junctions and supply centres must be defended like fortresses. The troops must dig their nails into the ground; they must dig in, and not yield an inch.”

Guderian rejoined: “My Fuehrer, the ground in Russia at present is frozen solid to a depth of four feet. No one can dig in there.”

“Then you must get the mortars to fire at the ground to make shell-craters,” Hitler retorted. “That’s what we did in Flanders in the first war.”

Guderian again had to put Hitler right on his facts. “In Flanders the ground was soft. But in Russia the shells now produce holes no more than four inches deep and the size of a wash-basin-the soil is as hard as iron. Besides, the divisions have neither enough mortars nor, what’s more important, any shells to spare for that kind of experiment. I myself have only four heavy howitzers left to each division, and none of them has more than 50 rounds. And that is for a front sector of 20 miles.”

Before Hitler could interrupt him Guderian continued: “Positional warfare in this unsuitable terrain will lead to battles of material as in the First World War. We shall lose the flower of our Officers Corps and NCOs Corps; we shall suffer gigantic losses without gaining any advantage. And these losses will be irreplaceable.”

There was deathly silence in the Fuehrer’s bunker at the Wolfsschanze. Hitler too was silent. Then he stepped up close to Guderian and in an imploring voice said, “Do you believe Frederick the Great’s grenadiers died gladly? And yet the King was justified in demanding of them the sacrifice of their lives. I too consider myself justified in demanding of each German soldier that he should sacrifice his life.”

Guderian realized at once that with this bombastic comparison Hitler was merely trying to evade the issue. What Guderian was talking about was not sacrifice as such, but useless sacrifice. He therefore said calmly, “Our soldiers have proved that they are prepared to sacrifice their lives. But this sacrifice ought only to be demanded when the end justifies it. And I see no such justification, my Fuehrer!”

From the horrified expressions on the faces of the officers present it was clear that they expected Hitler to explode. But he did not. He said almost softly, “I know all about your personal effort, and how you lead your troops from in front. But for this reason you are in danger of seeing things too much at close quarters. You are hamstrung by too much compassion for your men. Things look clearer from a greater distance. In order to hold the front no sacrifice can be too great. For if we do not hold it the Armies of Army Group Centre are lost.”

The argument continued for several hours. When Guderian left the situation room in the Fuehrer’s bunker late at night he overheard Hitler saying to Keitel, “There goes a man whom I have not been able to convince.”

Monday, November 16, 2009 2:41 am

“Everybody is very quiet for the rest of the afternoon.”

My brother Frank’s wife, Christine, is the granddaughter of a man who fought in the German Army against the Soviet Union during World War II. He kept a journal, which one of Christine’s brothers is having translated and is trying to find a publisher for. I learned about this at Frank and Christine’s wedding, and being a huge WWII history buff, I asked to read some of the journal.

It’s what I expected: appalling.

The combat on Germany’s Eastern Front was some of the most savage in a war unprecedented in its savagery. And while history has (correctly) placed the lion’s share of guilt and blame on Nazi Germany for what happened in Europe during that war, it’s worth remembering that, their propaganda to the contrary, the Soviets committed great evil as well. Two examples, both from near the end of the second month of the German invasion:

15. August [1941]

The entire division went out of the battle. The brave regiments march past us on the street. You brave and incomparable lads, where are all the comrades that went shoulder on shoulder with you towards the front when you used the street the last time? One approaches me on my stretcher to shake my hand. Why not? We have both bled in the drumfire of Kiev. Exhausted, he sits down next to me, drinks from my bottle, eats my ration, and has ten draws from my last cigarette. He then told me something from the last hours before they were retired from the front:

“Before we retreated we laid minefields. The Russians somehow found out. They then collected the sick and disabled from the mental and care homes. The infantry herded them then over the minefields before they followed. It was a great picture: naked as they had been when getting them our of their beds, they ran in lines toward our positions. Hundreds were torn apart by the mines.” Only these beasts could think of something so evil. And something like that is our opponent.

The numbers of losses slowly find their way to us. The I.R. 530 [infantry regiment] was almost completely annihilated and will be filled with the remainder of I.R. 529 and 529.

And, a few days later:

18. August [1941]:

I am without pain for the first day [since suffering a bad leg wound on 11 August] and leave my stretcher for the first attempts of walking. I witness the first interrogation of Partisans on the meadow. A troop of scouts arrested a group of people which they now interrogate. They are three young girls in the age between 18 and 20 and one lad around 17. They say they were workers of a textile factory which were let go due to the lack of work. Their passports are too new and the amounts of money they carry are too large for workers. They cave in after two hours of interrogation and confess to be Partisans.

Their mission is [from] the infamous [Soviet] Major Friedmann. They have the following orders: They should join a second group of Partisans near Wassilkow in the night to the 08/19. The second group will bring highly sensitive explosives. The girls shall find out the location of the headquarters here in Barachty and in Wassilkow. They are supposed to be blown up August 20. Wow, we are really surprised. We were going to be attacked. We also learn something about the hierarchy of their group. They work in mixed groups of boys and girls, mostly students. These groups are not larger than 5. Their tasks include the destruction of gasoline and ammunition depots, bridges, and roads. They lay out signs for the air force. They kill single outposts and motorcycle messengers (that means butcher, because even the girls are trained on the knife).

In order to ensure effectiveness, they have long established a wide ranged communication network. When the German troops moved in, competent Red soldiers, mostly commissars, stayed behind disguised as normal farmers in order to coordinate the work of the Partisan units. They work now hand in hand with these terror groups. The mess that has formed behind the front will give us headaches for a long time. Finally, the translator ask the girls how they got to the Partisans. What I hear deeply moved me. The murderer Friedmann summoned them one day and gave them the choice to either go with these orders through the German lines or witness their parents and siblings lined up at a wall and shot. Also, if they do not return, their relatives are going to be killed.

Nevertheless, the commander decides that the four have to be executed immediately. I can see how difficult it is for him to give this order. But it has to be!

The four are led away. Three young and fresh girls will die for these blood hyenas in Kiev. A group of soldiers with rifles lines up and the girls are blindfolded. That is nothing for us old guys who are used to fight with devil and death. But there are three girls of great beauty for whom we feel compassion. However, they are ordered to shoot iron projectiles into these young bodies. I cannot witness this. I retreat in the most remote corner. Finally after what seems an eternity, I hear the rifle salvo.

The war against civil[ians] is not for us ‘front hogs’. Everybody is very quiet for the rest of the afternoon.

I hope Christine’s brother is able to find a publisher. This kind of primary source material is invaluable, the moreso for coming as it does from a part of the war where the body count was so high.

And every politician, pundit and jackass blogger who is so eager to take this country to war, or to expand a questionable war in which it already is involved, ought to be required to read this stuff.

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