Monday, March 2, 2015

Luftwaffe in Barbarossa Part VI

Seen in retrospect, the German campaign in Russia in 1941 was the greatest display of maneuver warfare in history, and it will likely remain so in the future. In point of preparedness, doctrine, numbers available for the offensive, and leadership, the German armed forces had peaked during the summer. These qualities enabled them to storm forward, advancing over 600 miles in less than six months while fighting against an opponent who was numerically at least equal, and to conquer territory about twice as large as Germany itself. The key to this unparalleled achievement was operativ warfare, now waged with the aid of armored and mechanized units and honed into the blitzkrieg. Its essence consisted of never taking on the enemy in a frontal attack if it could be helped; instead, massive forces were concentrated on very narrow fronts in order to achieve a breakthrough, after which they would move forward to drive deep wedges into the enemy, pulverize (zerstuekeln), outflank, encircle, and annihilate him in a Kesselschlacht with inverted fronts whenever possible. Coordinated mobility, even more than firepower, formed the key to this method of warfare, and indeed the entire German system of organization and C3 were specifically designed to assist large separated forces in coordinating their movements against a single enemy. As a glance at the map shows, the campaign consisted of first breaking up the enemy front into separate sectors and then building a series of huge cauldrons, each of which contained several hundred thousand Red Army troops. In point of sheer operational brilliance, it has no parallel.

This above does not mean that the German conduct of the war, even if narrowed down to the 1941 campaign alone and even if regarded from a purely operativ standpoint, was perfect. Having underestimated both the power of their opponents and the difficulties posed by distance, terrain, and climate, the Germans did not have sufficient troops for the campaign and logistically their preparations for it were rather sketchy.  Once the invasion got under way, the funnel shape of the theater of war meant that the number of objectives was forever increasing. This should have acted as a spur to the German High Command (Hitler in particular) to decide priorities and to create Schwerpunkte. Instead, they often chose to scatter their forces and "send them off along a growing number of diverging axes in order to, from left to right (or north to south), link up with the Finns, capture Leningrad," keep in touch with Army Group Center, capture Moscow, keep in touch with Army Group South, overrun the Ukraine, and invade the Crimea . Whether the Germans could have won the war by imitating Napoleon and marching straight for Moscow is doubtful, given that the fall of the city would not necessarily have caused the Soviet Union to break up. Also, it is not clear whether such a thrust could have been logistically supported using the road system in Belorussia. As it was, this strategy was never put to the test.

The contribution that the Luftwaffe made to the campaign was enormous. It was able to secure air superiority and protect friendly forces against attack, although its ability to carry out the latter mission diminished as time passed. Next, its forces used every means at its disposal to help the army move forward. Luftwaffe units reconnoitered the enemy ahead of the army and often helped the latter's commanders decide on the best direction in which to mount their operativ thrusts. They flew supplies to army units that could not be reached in any other way. They protected the long, exposed flanks that naturally resulted from the blitzkrieg style of war, forming Schwerpunkte wherever and whenever the enemy showed signs of preparing a counterattack. They helped prevent the withdrawal of trapped Soviet forces and launched punishing attacks on those that had been cut off inside the pockets created by the army's operativ thrusts. Whenever a river was to be crossed or an important city to be captured, the Luftwaffe was certain to be found flying close-support missions even to the point where it literally dropped its bombs at the German infantryman's feet.

Though the achievements of the Luftwaffe were thus considerable, it became increasingly clear that the available forces were not really sufficient to master the enormous spaces involved. This was particularly true in view of the equally enormous difficulties involved in having to operate from bases that were primitive, far from home, and often connected to each other, the rear, and the ground forces only by the most tenuous of communications. The farther east the Germans went, the more difficult it became to keep the Luftwaffe units supplied and their aircraft operational. The more intensive the fighting, the greater the army's tendency to call in the air force wherever an advance was to be made or whenever a local crisis took place. This combination of circumstances had the effect of gradually bringing operativ warfare to an end. The Luftwaffe was forced more and more to act as flying artillery, a role for which the majority of its aircraft were not well suited and in which they took correspondingly heavy losses.

In Russia, as in Poland and France, the Luftwaffe was originally forbidden from attacking strategic targets, it being assumed that such attacks would be a waste of effort and that the campaign hopefully would be over before the effects of such attacks could be felt. However, just as the army tended to divide its efforts between many objectives, so the Luftwaffe had to go beyond this strict line of reasoning. Beginning in the second half of July, some of its forces were diverted from interdiction in order to attack industrial targets in Moscow, Rharkov, Rostov, Orel, Tula, Voronezh, Bryansk, and a number of other places. In the absence of a heavy four-engined bomber fleet (which, given their overall economic situation, the Germans probably could not have created even if the necessary prototypes had been available), strategic warfare had to be carried out by two-engined medium and light bombers. However, even these were only capable of hitting individual targets more or less by accident.

It is therefore not surprising that such warfare remained without any noticeable effect, of nuisance value at best and a waste of resources at worst. The only thing that can be said in its favor is that it probably did not seriously impact on whatever chances the Germans stood to gain a victory, given that during the would-be decisive advance on Moscow the effort that went to operations other than mittelbare (indirect) and unmittelbare Unterstuetzung (direct support) was not very great.

All in all, the strengths and weaknesses of the Luftwaffe in this period reflected those of the German armed forces as a whole. Unequalled determination and sheer Schwung (elan) was based on the unlimited Einsatzbereitschaft (initiative) of air crews and ground personnel. The Germans were unmatched in their grasp of operativ warfare, but only at the expense of weaknesses in logistics (sustainability in particular) and a somewhat uncertain overall strategy that caused them to go after too many different objectives at once. There is still much to learn from the Luftwaffe's methods of waging war. There is also much to avoid.

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