War in the East: fellowship of the panzer

, | Game diaries

When you start watching The Two Towers, you get a little reminder of important stuff that happened earlier, like the wizard who fell off the bridge fighting the flaming minotaur. It’s an integral part of the Lord of the Rings, because the mistakes made earlier in the story lead to the choices available to the protagonists at the start of the second book.

When you start reading any book about Stalingrad, you get a little reminder of important stuff that happened earlier, like Operation Barbarossa. It’s an integral part of the Stalingrad story, because the mistakes of the previous year’s campaign led to the choices available to the Germans at the beginning of the second summer in Russia.

Explanations are good, because things seem weird and arbitrary if you don’t know why they happened, whether it is two midgets taking a two-thousand-league trek into the heartland of a genocidal warlord, or a genocidal warlord fighting a campaign two thousand leagues into the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, sometimes things just seem weird and arbitrary.

After the jump, David Glantz vs. J.R.R. Tolkien

Looked at one way, the story of Barbarossa-Stalingrad-Kursk can be seen as the Eastern Front Trilogy (possible spoiler regarding War in the East game diaries), with the cataclysmic finale from 1944 on being a kind of Scouring-the-Shire-footnote. You’re already mad that I called The Scouring of the Shire a footnote. But as a story, the struggle between history’s two most foul political systems has a distinct rhythm, and each year’s campaign plays out like a full-fledged epic, with tense buildup, dramatic twists, and a climactic ending. The 1941 campaign, though, establishes the theme, setting, and motivations. It all flows from there, and then on and on.

That said, I’m not going to spend a lot of time recapping Barbarossa here. If you want a refresher, fall asleep in the Emyn Muil or see the links at the bottom of the last post.

But understanding the failure of Barbarossa (and the subsequent winter retreat*) in 1941 goes a long way towards comprehending the stakes in 1942. The Germans couldn’t launch a massive offensive along the entire front anymore. They had to make a choice. They had been weakened and scattered in the disastrous counterattack by Saruman’s orcs Siberian reinforcements, and they could either make a direct attack on Moscow, which would precipitate a Dagorlad-like final battle with the Soviet Red Army, or take the southern road and strike toward the Soviet Union’s lifeline, which was the Caucasus oil fields and the Lend-Lease link through Iran and up the Volga River. The problem is that the planning and the objectives were never fully reconciled.

I’m going to be quoting a lot of David Glantz here, because he has written the most comprehensive history of the battle I’ve read, or really even seen. To the Gates of Stalingrad covers the campaign from the April preliminaries (the premature Soviet counterattack toward Kharkov, defeated in detail by the Germans) through the launch of Fall Blau (Plan Blue, the German code name for the 1942 offensive) to the point where the Germans reached the city of Stalingrad in August. Armageddon in Stalingrad covers the cataclysmic battle for the city from September through November. I’m assuming that a proposed third book in the trilogy will cover the Soviet counteroffensive starting 19 November 1942, and go through the final surrender on 2 February 1943. He spends a little time establishing the rationale for the events he will subsequently chronicle over more than a thousand pages.

Leningrad, Viaz’ma, Izium, and the Crimea were only warm-up acts or sideshows to the main objective for 1942: the seizure of the Caucasus region and, above all, its two oil fields — the small one at Maikop and the much larger one centered around Baku, in what is now Azerbaijan. These two fields produced about 80 percent of all Soviet petroleum products, and their loss would be a serious blow to the Red Army’s defense effort. More important, lack of petroleum was the single greatest limitation on the German economy and war machine. As early as October 1941, the Wehrmacht began to fall short of its petroleum needs and was able to complete Operation Barbarossa only by extorting more from the Romanians. By 1942 the German and Italian surface fleets were almost immobilized by lack of fuel, and the submarine forces struggled with a 50 percent reduction in supplies. Thus, Hitler and his military planners came to regard the Caucasus oil fields as the solution to most of their problems.

Control of the Caucasus promised other advantages for Germany. In addition to petroleum, the region contained extensive resources of coal, peat, manganese, and other materials. Moreover, the Caucasus was the natural gateway to the Middle East; its seizure would eliminate another major conduit for Lend-Lease aid to Moscow, the route through Iran. Some Germans even dreamed of pushing southward from the Caucasus to link up with Rommel’s Afrika Korps in a gigantic pincer that would seize control of the vast oil reserves of the Middle East.

Driving from Russia to Egypt and linking up with the Desert Fox is something that only happens in Clash of Steel or Hearts of Iron — in reality it would have been completely impossible. Even before the Germans got to Stalingrad, they were already having supply problems. Remember those? It feels like I spent half my time in the previous series worrying about railroad repair crews.

Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege is a very readable one-volume history of the campaign, and was published fairly recently (within the last 15 years). Even so, he doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the pros and cons of Operation Blue, except to briefly describe a conference between Hitler and his generals at Army Group South headquarters in June 1942.

During the conference, Hitler hardly mentioned Stalingrad. As far as his generals were concerned it was little more than a name on the map. His obsession was with the oilfields of the Caucasus. “If we don’t take Maikop and Grozny,” he told his generals, “then I must put an end to the war.” At that stage, the only interest in Stalingrad was to eliminate the armaments factories there and secure a position on the Volga. The capture of the city was not considered necessary.

Which is weird, because a campaign which was supposed to be all about Caucasus oil turned out to be about a city that allegedly wasn’t even on the objectives list when the initial plans were drawn up for the campaign of summer 1942. It’s a pretty odd disconnect, and Beevor doesn’t do a very good job of clarifying this in the rest of the book, which ends up being just about the battle for the city.

Alan Clark’s Barbarossa, on the other hand, even though it covers the entire war, spends an entire chapter on the planning and preliminaries for the 1942 campaign. If you want to read one and only one book on the whole war in the east, read that one. It’s odd that he takes so much time in a book of that scope to explain the development of the plans for summer 1942, but it’s actually essential, and Clark’s book is quite insightful on a number of subjects, this being no exception. Clark explains that while Operation Blue was conceived as an offensive in southern Russia, it had as its original objective the goal of reaching the Volga at Stalingrad as a preliminary to pivoting either north or south. Hitler had a feeling the Soviets were truly on the ropes (a feeling the Germans mistakenly had multiple times, to their great detriment) and one of the original plans for Operation Blue involved only a blocking force in the Caucasus. Because Hitler had set up a separate headquarters for all eastern front planning, separate from the Wehrmacht high command which was responsible for all other theaters, plans and objectives were sometimes chaotically disseminated. Clark quotes Hitler’s chief of staff, General Franz Halder (who was dismissed by Hitler in September 1942 while Operation Blue was in full swing) as saying that the forces assigned to the Caucasus were too weak to drive all the way to Baku because they were constructed initially as a reserve, blocking force, since the high command staff didn’t feel capturing the oilfields was a serious possibility. But Hitler confided in General von Kleist, commander of First Panzer Army, that he was to be “the instrument by which the Reich would be assured of its oil supplies in perpetuity,” essentially in contradiction of the operational orders which had been developed. He summarizes

The result of this “discrepancy” was that the commander of the largest single armored force in the army group was to go into action with a private objective of his own. “Stalingrad,” Kleist said after the war, “was, at the start, no more than a name on the map to my Panzer army.”

If that sounds familiar, that’s where Beevor gets his “name on a map” reference. It’s a famous quote, as well as a neat theory that clarifies a lot of subsequent confusion. And nicely explains the schizophrenic victory conditions.

I devoted two entire posts last time to the issue of victory conditions. In the Barbarossa scenario, I thought they were a little discordant with historical reality. I’ve reproduced the scoring system for this scenario below. I just included the city values, although both sides also get points for inflicting losses on the enemy. The Germans just get points for controlling a city at the end of the game. There is no incentive to capture early, like there was in Operation Barbarossa. The Soviets, though, do get points for each turn they hold certain cities: that’s the column listed “ET” for “each turn.” So if they hold Sevastopol for one turn, they get 50 points. Ouch. But parsing this table is essential if you are going to figure out how to set your objectives. Remember: the Germans never really reconciled theirs. And they lost decisively.

The non-campaign victory conditions (which apply here — I am just playing a single scenario, Operation Blue) are that you need to get at least 1.2 times as many victory points as your opponent to score a minor victory. To get a major victory you need at least twice as many points. Because I’m a little compulsive, I made an Excel spreadsheet which was an exact replica of the Excel spreadsheets used by staff officers at German High Command headquarters in the 1940s, and tried to figure out exactly what I would have to do to win this round of War in the East. I made some estimates regarding when certain cities would fall, and put in some casualty figures which might end up being wildly inaccurate. The real wildcard was Stalingrad. Because the Soviets get ten points for each turn they hold it, I first made all my guesses about when I would capture the other cities on the list. (In the case of Grozny and Baku, I estimated that to be “never.”) The dependent variable was the final victory ratio, and I left the independent variable as the turn I captured Stalingrad.

The results were pretty interesting. In the top case, I realized that if I wrote off Baku and Grozny, and just concentrated on Stalingrad and the easily reachable Caucasus cities (Krasnodar and Maikop, which the Germans historically captured), I would have to capture Stalingrad by turn 17 of this 20-turn scenario just to get to the 1.2x VP threshold. Any more delay than that consigns me to a draw at best. (Note that this is heavily dependent on my casualty estimates, which are just semi-educated guesses.)

However, if I abandon Stalingrad and just drive for the oil fields, and take Grozny but don’t even get to Baku, I can achieve the same level of victory as long as I spend the time I would have used to take Stalingrad to complete some encirclements (and thus inflict casualties) in the bend of the Don River. A mere 100 extra victory points in Soviet casualties (and 50 fewer points of German losses) gets me to the same 1.2x VP level. Fascinating.

Interestingly, even if I were to capture both Grozny and Baku (which, at least in the case of Baku, is ludicrous) on the Stalingrad Option timetable, nothing would change. I’d end up with a victory ratio of 1.9, not enough for a major victory. That tells me that once I capture the first two oil towns, if things don’t look really good for getting to Baku, I should go on the defensive in the south and throw everything at Stalingrad.

Thus, like in the real campaign, everything turns on what happens at the city named after Josef Stalin. I wonder if the Germans’ Excel spreadsheets told them the same thing.

*The only regret I have about doing these diaries this way is that I have to skip over the events of the 1941-42 winter, and thus can’t quote from Michael Jones’ outstanding book The Retreat. Go and read it. Simultaneously accessible and terrifying.