I admit it. I’m an unreconstructed “old military historian.” Others may discuss the social composition of military institutions. The impact of race and gender and class. The cultural importance of it all. What thrills me is the operation itself. The sight of situation maps from World War II still stirs my blood. Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps spearheading Case Yellow in 1940, slamming through the Ardennes to strike at the French. Mackensen’s III Panzer Corps lunging deep into the Caucasus to start Operation Edelweiss in 1942. The Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army halting II (SS) Panzer Corps at Prokhorovka, the climax of the great armored melee at Kursk in 1943. “Lightnin’ Joe” Collins’s VII Corps leading off Operation Cobra, blasting through Panzer Lehr (courtesy of U.S. “carpet bombing”), in 1944. I love this stuff, and I can throw down on it when I need to.
I’ve learned over the years, however, that you have to be careful about those maps. Recently, I’ve been delving deeply into the Wehrmacht’s operations in the Soviet Union in winter 1942-43. With the 6th Army encircled in Stalingrad (November), the Germans launched an abortive relief offensive from the south (Operation Wintergewitter, “Winter Storm”) in December. Repeated Soviet attacks along the Chir river had forced the German high command to call off the relief, however, and to redeploy their principal assault formation–6th Panzer Division–to the threatened sector.
Normally, a German Panzer division was worth its weight in gold on the eastern front. Combining high mobility and a massive amount of shock power, it was a force to reckoned with. The commander of 6th Panzer Division, General Erhard Raus, was one of the recognized masters of the mechanized art, highly sought after by the US Army after 1945 for his analysis of the fighting in the East. His own men had faith in him: “Raus will pull us through,” they used to say whenever things got rough. His division led the relief drive towards Stalingrad, suffering grievous losses in the process, and then moved west, where it had to hold a long defensive front between the Bystraya and Kalytva rivers against repeated Soviet attacks. In the course of nearly two months of nonstop winter campaigning, its combat power diminished steadily. One report from New Years Day 1943 has its principal formation–11th Panzer Regiment–down to 10 tanks (of an authorized complement of 160). The number would fluctuate, rising and falling slightly as the action dictated or as neighboring formations handed over their machines. The conditions caused as many casualties as the enemy, but with temperatures dipping below -20 F, the Soviets weren’t doing much better. Western tales of their “primitivism” to the contrary, they suffered and died from the cold just like the Germans did, and their own striking power, too, seemed to shrink with each passing day of this horrible campaign.
That’s what I mean when I say, “be skeptical of the maps.” What may look like “6th Panzer Division” vs “3rd Guards Army,” a veritable clash of the armored titans, may actually have been something very different: a desperate little skirmish between a handful of men and machines on either side.
“Operational-level” combat? More like a fight to the death.
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