Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Wehrmacht, Lessons learned from its superiority

Norman Davies on page 257 of No Simple Victory, World War II In Europe, 1939-1945, writes, “In the early years of the war, in Poland and France, the German forces all but perfected the art of ‘combined arms’, and in Operation Barbarossa they came within a whisker of winning the war outright. Since they were ultimately defeated, and since they were fighting in the cause of a repellent regime, the scale and brilliance of their military achievements are often dismissed. Neither Western nor Russian opinion is willing to concede that man for man, or division for division, the Wehrmacht was superior to all its adversaries. In the end, Germany was defeated by overwhelming numbers, by logistics, by incontestable air power, by the inflexibility of its leading amateur strategist, and by sheer exhaustion. Even so, in purely military terms, its ability to keep fighting in the final phase against impossible odds was, frankly, remarkable.”

I feel a bit ambivalent about this opinion of Davies, but my experience was with the Marine Corps and the Marines primary task was the war in the Pacific. So while the Marines were successfully fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, the US Army was getting its butt kicked in Europe, until its superior technology, supplies, air power, etc could be brought to bear, but is this a fair assessment of Western and Russian armies? Probably. Not because Germans were superior, but they had superior training, experience, tactics, strategy (except when Hitler interfered) and leadership (except when Hitler interfered). Yes, I have read Michael Kuznetsov’s blog on the Red Army, but if one looks at the numbers killed, far more of the Red Army was killed by the Wehrmacht than the reverse.

One must also realize that the Wehrmacht got some valuable combat experience before they fought against the USSR or the Western allies and experienced combat units will almost always win against comparable inexperienced units. And then there was the different attitude toward war. In regard to the British, Norman on page 256 writes, “Their stance was geared less to winning than to avoiding defeat and, as befitted a citizen army, to protecting their men.” Their most prominent General, General Montgomery, “was the embodiment of such caution.”

Davies implies that the US army might have been the same, but it had no memory of recent defeat and had “no fear of limited reinforcements, and great faith in their lavish supplies of materiel.”

The Wehrmacht believed it was the best fighting force in the world and fought each battle as though it expected to win, and until the circumstances Davies described above turned against the, they did.

If one is expecting to fight a major war, then it is good to have an ample supply of combat-hardened veterans on hand. Of course one can accumulate such veterans only if one has been fighting one or more smaller wars in preparation, much as the Wehrmacht did in Poland and France prior to facing the Red Army.

But to have Generals like Montgomery and “citizen soldiers” more fearful of being killed than of losing a battle, doesn’t bode well for going up against an experienced force like the Wehrmacht. I think in the US we had leaders and soldiers Montgomery and his citizen soldiers during the Clinton years. Kuznetsov complained about American bombing raids that killed Serbian babies, and that was to a great extent due to Clinton being very like Montgomery in his cautiousness. Clinton did have a memory of a recent loss. He remembered Vietnam and didn’t want American body-bags sent home; so he instructed the bombing to occur at such a high altitude that American airmen couldn’t be killed. But this meant that the bombs couldn’t be dropped with accuracy.

Since then, we have not been, as a nation, like we were during the Clinton years. The Islamists have challenged us to put “boots on the ground.” They looked at us during the Clinton years and declared us too cautious, too fearful to stand up against them; so there was a series of challenges that culminated in the bombing of the Twin Towers at a time when Clinton was no longer president and we have seen the results. And now we do have combat-hardened veterans with no experience of a recent defeat.

I’m just thinking out loud here and not intending to sound Jingoistic when I say that at the present time we Anglo-Americans have the best trained, best equipped, most combat-hardened troops in the world. If somehow we elected the reincarnation of Hitler next term and he packed congress and then consulted his astrologer and decided we must attack Germany, Germany would not stand a chance. Our military fighting forces are superior in every respect. We are now more like the Wehrmacht than they are in terms of fighting competence. My intended point here is to describe some of the factors leading up to a Wehrmacht and to show how those factors aren’t likely to remain in any given nation. And if Obama is more like Clinton, and he seems to be, then we almost certainly won’t retain the military experience we presently have.

Perhaps Russia will fight a series of border wars with Georgia, Ukraine, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Abkhazia, etc., and pass us up.

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