Sunday, December 15, 2019

David Stahel's "Retreat from Moscow"

David Stahel is the author of several books on Nazi Germany’s war against the Soviet Union. He completed an MA in war studies at King’s College London in 2000 and a PhD at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in 2009. In his research he has concentrated primarily on the German military in World War II. Stahel is a senior lecturer in European history at the University of New South Wales, and he teaches at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Retreat from Moscow: A New History of Germany's Winter Campaign, 1941-1942, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Retreat from Moscow is a map with just six lines of text below it! That may not sound like much to work with, especially if one assumes we might condense the whole book into it, but here goes…

What we learn on page 99 is that Soviet attacks against German lines in the winter of 1941-1942 were proving extremely costly. My analysis then tells the readers: “Clearly, German experience and tactical superiority, identifying where the Red Army was likely to attack and positioning itself for maximum advantage, ensured victory despite the corps’ tired and deprived troops.” Uncanny. This a central theme of the book and why a renewed focus on the winter of 1941-1942 was in order.

The orthodox narrative in this winter period is one of almost unrelenting German crisis, retreat and defeat. Almost by default, the advancing Red Army is declared triumphant without any real assessment of what was or was not achieved. In my reassessment, I consider two fundamental, but neglected factors.
Firstly, strategic intensions. Germany adopted a new approach to the war in the east on 8 December 1941 with Hitler issuing a new War Directive (No. 39), which stipulated going over to the defensive and holding the eastern front by defending major Soviet population centres which were deemed vital for communication, transport and supply. If we cut to the chase and ask, did the Germans manage to hold their front, while defending these vital Russian cities? The answer is yes. Of all the important population centres Kursk, Orel, Briansk, Kaluga, Viaz’ma, Rzhev and Smolensk only one (Kaluga) was lost. Conversely, Soviet plans issued by Stalin directed that Army Group Centre (the centre of Germany’s Eastern Front) be destroyed. This did not happen. In fact, not a single German army (there were six in Army Group Centre), nor a corps or even a division was eliminated from the German order of battle. So German strategic intensions were successful, while the Soviets attempted far too much and failed in their objectives.

The second conceptual point is what the respective cost of these winter operations were. The Red Army lacked staff work, experienced officers and heavy weaponry, which meant countless attacks with waves of men, hit German defences. In just three months, the Soviets suffered 1.6 million casualties, while the Germans lost 262,524 men – a 6:1 ratio. As my analysis above captures, German tactical and operational proficiency at the local level translated into huge and disproportion losses.

During the winter of 1941-1942 the German army was clearly forced into a retreat, but I would challenge the reader to consider that as the only, or even the best, measure of who suffered a defeat.
Learn more about Retreat from Moscow at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue