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Death of the Wehrmacht

By Robert M. Citino
8/26/2009 • MHQ

A Soviet T-34/76 tank crosses a snow-covered wasteland near the corpse of a German soldier in 1942, portending an end to the German way of war. [Photo by Slava Katamidze Collection/Getty Images]
A Soviet T-34/76 tank crosses a snow-covered wasteland near the corpse of a German soldier in 1942, portending an end to the German way of war. [Photo by Slava Katamidze Collection/Getty Images]

That 1942 was the turning point of World War II is one of those “facts” that everyone knows. Like much of the received wisdom on the war, however, the concept of its “turning point” requires a certain amount of nuance. This conflict, more than any other before it, was a vast and sprawling set of interlocking campaigns on land, sea, and air. It involved hundreds of millions of human beings, from the freezing cold of the Arctic to the sweltering heat of the Burmese jungle, and the notion that there was a single discrete moment that “turned” it is problematic, to say the least.

Still, it is clear that something important happened in 1942. It was, after all, the year of El Alamein in the African theater, and of Midway and Guadalcanal in the Pacific. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, before 1942 the Allies never won a victory, and after 1942 they never suffered a defeat. But for that year to live up to its billing as the “hinge of fate,” in Churchill’s memorable phrase, a fatal blow had to be dealt to the German armed forces, the Wehrmacht. Could the Allies, even with their sheer superiority in materiel and men, pull it off?

In 1942, the German Army, turning one last time to its traditional Prussian tactics of maneuver, met its end.

The Reich had been locked in a conflict with Great Britain since September 1939, one that it tried half-heartedly to end in the summer and fall of 1940. Since mid-1941, it had done nothing but add enemies. On June 22, with Britain still unconquered, the German führer, Adolf Hitler, had launched an invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. In its early weeks, the Wehrmacht had smashed one Soviet army after another: at Bialystok, at Minsk, at Smolensk, and especially at Kiev. As summer turned to fall, Barbarossa evolved into Operation Typhoon, a drive on Moscow. The Germans were within sight of the Soviet capital by December 6, when the Red Army launched a great counteroffensive that drove them back in confusion, inflicting punishing losses on an army that had been largely untouched by the first two years of the war. The very next day, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and five days later Hitler declared war on the United States.

Earlier in the year, Germany had been at war with Britain alone. Six short months later, it was at war with an immense and wealthy enemy coalition, which Churchill, with a nod to his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, dubbed the “Grand Alliance.” The alliance controlled the vast majority of the world’s resources. It included the preeminent naval and colonial power (Britain), the largest land power (the Soviet Union), and the globe’s financial and industrial giant (the United States): more than enough potential power to smash Germany. But Germany’s situation, being ringed and vastly outnumbered by an alliance of powerful enemies, was nothing particularly new in Prusso-German military history.

In fact, the Reich’s next, and what was to be its last, major campaign—drives to capture Stalingrad and the oil fields of the Caucasus—seemed to offer another textbook opportunity for the Germans to demonstrate that sound maneuver tactics and strategy grounded in more than a century of experience—and including the modern mechanized variant, blitzkrieg—could best even the massive forces arrayed against them.

Until the war’s end, on the eastern front and elsewhere, Germany sought to land a resounding blow against one of its enemies, one hard enough to shatter the enemy coalition, or at least to demonstrate the high price that the Allies would have to pay for victory. The strategy certainly did its share of damage in those last four years, and the Allies and most historians play down how frighteningly close it came to succeeding.

While the German strategy for winning the war failed—and did so spectacularly in 1942—no one at the time or since has been able to come up with a better solution to Germany’s strategic conundrum. Was it a war-winning gambit? Not in this case, obviously. Was it the best strategy under the circumstances? Perhaps, perhaps not. Was it an operational posture in complete continuity with German military history and tradition as it had unfolded over the centuries? Absolutely.

In 1942 the Wehrmacht provided a characteristic answer to the question, “What do you do when the Blitzkrieg fails?” It launched another—indeed, a whole series of them. The centerpiece of 1942 would be another grand offensive in the east. Operation Blue (Unternehmen Blau) objectives would include a lunge over the mighty Don River to the Volga, the seizure of the great industrial city of Stalingrad, and, finally, a wheel south into the Soviet Caucasus, home to some of the world’s richest oil fields. With the final Operation Blue objectives more than a thousand miles from the start line, no one can accuse Hitler and the high command of thinking small.

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11 Responses to Death of the Wehrmacht

  1. […] History Roundup 08-31-2009 As we sit on the doorstep of the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II in Europe (Sept. 1, 1939 Germany invades Poland), I’m looking around at what has been going on in the Weider History network and around the Internet. Here are some of the goods, starting with a piece appropriately titled Death of the Wehrmacht. […]

  2. paul penrod says:

    How the Allies eventually learned how to deal with the Wehrmacht is comparable to how Bonnie and Clyde were eventually dealt with. When the posse leader was told that he never gave them a chance, the leader replied, “They were too good to be given a chance.”

  3. Phil says:

    The recently published third volume by Richard Evans, “The Third Reich at War”, contains fascinating information which contextualizes this very good review article. Instead of offering a blow-by-blow account of the Russian campaign, Evans focuses upon the social and cultural themes which of course gave invasion of Slavic lands its barbaric nature. The barbarism practiced at literally all levels of the Germans involved in the campaign became one of the most important reasons why the Third Reich ultimately failed in such a spectacular and definitive manner.

  4. paul penrod says:

    While the Wehrmacht was making its easternmost advance in the Caucuses, on the western periphery of the Greater Reich there was mundane construction work. The result of this, however accelerated the demise of Germany by anywhere from 6 months to a year or more. Fixed fortifications were an anathema in the German doctrine of mobile warfare. From their own experience when fighting against them, the knew that they were vulnerable and could be bested, yet they pinned their hopes on the Atlantic Wall to stop Overlord. Circumstances in the Med caused them to buy into this even more. After all, hadn’t the Germans almost thrown the Allies into the sea at Anzio? Germany’s underestimation of what was going to thrown against them in the channel crossing was as glaring of an intelligence error as their miscalculation of Soviet military strength in 1941. Rommel had a clue, having dealt with the punishing allied air power in the Med, but even he couldn’t comprehend that there was no way that the Panzers could throw the Allies back into the Sea-He was half correct in the positional defense measures he employed. Conversely, Runstedt half of being correct involved making the fight inland and out of naval gunfire range, but wrong in engaging with mobile forces. There were not enough panzer forces to cover both fronts, so Peter the east was robbed to pay Paul in the west. The Atlantic Wall forced the Germans into this situation. With no Atlantic Wall the sensible approach would be to mass the panzers in the east , where there was more natural tank country and room for a mobile elastic defense and counterattack oppurtunities. although the VVVS (Red Air Force) had improved , it had nowhere approached the USAAF or RAF in the damage it could do on ground targets. Panzer unit strength and mass could be maintained and not leached away by the constant shuttling-But now what avout the West?

  5. paul penrod says:

    Yes, what about the west,now with no Atlantic Wall and no major panzer formations….. German leadership could fall upon two previous experiences: their defensive measures of World War I, much of it on the same ground, and the fact that they should expect to be on the opposite end of what they experienced in 1940 in France. A series of defensive arcs, built around natural features and built up areas as strongpoints and festungs, manned with the volksgrenadiers, kreigsmarine coastal gunners and Luftwaffe flak and field units that otherwise would have been smashed or demolished on the coast would man these arcs, supported in key areas by higher echelon combat forces. The would be oriented to stop anyone using the road systems and bring Allied mobility to a crawl. These would be established in depth forming conectric arcs from the bocage to the Seine. In these regions to objective was to force a meat-grinder, infantry style war based on mines, mortars Mg 42s, anti tank guns and field artillery. Aside from STg and SP anti tank gun contingents there would not be a turreted German tank on this front The various lines would be able to absorb or make very time -consuming any Cobra or Goodwood type of operation and providing fewer targets for Allied Air Forces. This front secraemed out for Kesselring or a Heinrici as commander-The political implications next

  6. paul penrod says:

    Germany’s only chance to survive involved splitting the alliance. To do that they would have to draw out the war as long as possible and force the Allies to pay too high of a price for unconditional surrender. The personalities and situations of the three major Allies had to be taken into account. Stalin, always suspicious that the west would make a separate peace and only fight “to the last Russian” Reading the intelligence reports and seeing that the German elite panzer units were arrayed against the Red Army in the east, while tha Allies were getting nowhere in France would only fuel his paranoia. The British and Commonwealth leadership would be aghast at refighting the same meatgrinder battles on virtually the same sites as they occurred in the Great War. It might cause them to ask FDR to rethink “unconditional surrender” Even DeGaulle may recoil at the prospect of large tracts of France turned into a moonscape for a second time. The pivotal element here is the US and FDR. 1944 was an election year. Would he take the chance and try to win the war by any means possible or play it safe until the election was over? Would Eisenhower and Bradley get impatient and plan ill-advised operations out of expediency? If 1944 turns to 1945 and the Allies haven’t reached Paris yet, and if the Russians have been checked in the east, could it boil down to whether or not Paul Tibbetts will have Hiroshima as his target, or Magdeburg??

  7. paul penrod says:

    Thus, the surviving bunkers, flak towers and emplacements of the Atlantic Wall today serve as monuments to a rapid Allied Victory in Europe.

  8. Michael says:

    I was born in Sept 1942, nine months after Pearl Harbor and my father and grandfather followed the war news in Time magazine and on the radio with all its censored news reports. Guadalcanal in the Pacific and the German drive to Stalingrad and the vast Baku oil fields were often speculated upon by US and British reporters. See a book, “The Onslaught: The German Drive to Stalingrad” which can be found on some sites and in larger libraries. My Dad enjoyed it in the mid 80s.

  9. Doug Ashcroft says:

    Are we talking about ‘blockade’, a stifling of the mobility of German flexibility? I have two points I would like a comment on:

    1. If in 1914-18 instead of charging headlong against machine guns and barbed wire, the allies had sat in their trenches building up more and more supplies and allowing the German Army to impale themselves and be cut to pieces, would such a strategy have worked? It certainly seemed to work for Cunctator against Hannibal: no engagement, just cut off supplies.

    2. Do you think the same principles are transferrable to Chess? In short, blockade the centre, bring up the artillery, cut down the mobility of the opponent’s pieces and either strike when the time is right or force the opponent to run out of time. This was the strategy employed by THE RUSSIAN World Champion Petrosian.

  10. […] Was Stalingrad the turning point in WW2? The war had certainly turned against Germany by 1942. An amazing analysis. […]

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