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The Dangers of Going Deep: Where Do You Stop?

By Robert M. Citino
2/28/2012 • Fire for Effect

Last time out, I made a plea to the readership: take the Red Army seriously. These guys were good. They weren’t just a mindless horde, and they didn’t just overrun their German adversary mindlessly. They were quite competently led, they planned their operations carefully, and they had a thoughtful war-fighting doctrine they called “deep battle.” They beat the Wehrmacht for a lot of reasons, and their superior size was only one of them.

But before any of you decide to climb on that Red Army love train, let me also issue a series of caveats. Compared to other armies of the period, the Soviets were an inflexible instrument. They rarely reacted well when the situation changed, and they seemed not to care at all about their own casualties. Even deep battle, which we might identify as their greatest strength, needs careful parsing. Deep battle—the insertion of second and third echelons along the same axis of attack as the initial assault troops—sounds like a good idea. It’s aggressive, it’s relentless, it nails an enemy to the wall and doesn’t let him maneuver, react, or recover. I’m not a general, but if I were, it’s exactly how I’d like to see myself.

Click for larger image
Click for larger image
Let’s be a little more critical, however. What if you were a commander in an army where “going deep” had become a guiding principle, a catchphrase, perhaps even an obsession? Let us imagine that you are a “Front” (army group) commander in the Red Army in mid-war. Let’s say that you have just landed a heavy offensive blow. Your shock groups have managed to grind their way through a well-defended German position. Your tank armies are currently motoring in the clear. The Fascist enemy is off balance. You know as well as anyone that the high command (read Stalin, the Vozhd, or “boss”) has high hopes for your offensive, and you don’t want to be the one to radio bad news back to the boss. That’s never a good idea.

A simple question : where would you stop? Just when do you send your message? Perhaps something along the lines of, “Troops exhausted. Mobile formations badly in need of rest and refit. Supply columns lagging. Forward troops halting.” Oh sure, it all makes perfect sense to us after the fact. Military historians are always to identify precisely when an offensive should stop.

But you’re not a military historian. You’re a Soviet Front commander. Sure, you’ve read the history and the military theory. As a Soviet commander, you are well schooled in it. The great theorist Clausewitz called it the “culmination point” (Kulminationspunkt), the moment at which all offensives wind down, lose their momentum, and need to be halted, lest they are vulnerable to an enemy counterstroke.

Then again, you’re not a history professor. You’re not Clausewitz. You are a high-ranking commander serving in an army with a ruthless institutional culture, an army that has a professed faith in something called deep battle. So you think very carefully about calling a halt to an offensive while you are still driving forward. After all, your decision might be “misunderstood” at higher echelons. Lack of will. Lack of faith. Lack of loyalty. And none of those are good in the 1940’s Soviet Union–especially lack of loyalty.

This was the precise situation facing some very good Soviet commanders in early 1943. They had all just landed what we might call a Big Hurt on the Wehrmacht. In November 1942, Operaton Uranus had slammed through the weak Romanian armies north and south of Stalingrad, linking up at Kalach on the Don and encircling the unfortunate German 6th Army. Most western histories trail off at this point, employing the simplistic notion of a “turning point” in the war and focusing on the plight of the encircled Germans until their surrender in early 1943.

Action aplenty continued on the front, however. The Soviets followed Uranus with one great offensive operation after another: Operation Little Saturn, crushing the Italian 8th Army; the “Ostrogozshk-Rossosh operation,” targeting the Hungarian 2nd Army; Operation Gallop against German forces on the Donets river and into the Donets basin (the Donbas) itself; and finally, Operation Star on the extreme right in the southern theater, smashing into German 2nd Army with great force. All across the front, Soviet mechanized forces were driving forward against minimal opposition. Opposition was sporadic. The sense of holding the initiative, that intoxicating feeling of success, was palpable.

Were the Germans finished? As a Soviet Front commander, you were actually asking yourself that question.

And then another one. Am I being overconfident? Is it time to stop?

More next time.

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4 Responses to The Dangers of Going Deep: Where Do You Stop?

  1. tony tramonte says:

    Very interesting. Given that the party commissars (like Khrushchev) were right on the scene, it would be interesting to see how the hypothetical front commander deal’s with his fellow leader.

  2. Robert Kapanjie says:

    Operation Uranus indeed did smash through the Roumanian armies. This has led history to demean their martial spirit and elan. This I believe is wholly undeserved, the Roumanian was an excellent fighting man. The problem was that they were grossly under provisioned, there was insufficient heavy armor and artillery to equip them. The best and latest military hardware went to the Wehrmacht not to the Roumanian divisions. It would be interesting to know if the Soviet high command knew how weak they were before launching the offensive that trapped the Sixth army and which proved to be a major turning point in the war.I suspect they did.

  3. ADTS says:

    1) This reminds me of Luttwak, “Strategy.” (I think – it’s been a long while since I’ve read it.) The narrative device(s) are very similar. Luttwak first details the virtues of a deep front attack from the attacker’s perspective, and then notes that from the defender’s perspective, at least at first glance, the situation is actually quite favorable: enemy axes of advance with exposed flanks, tenuous logistics, etc. I’m reminded a bit of Eisenhower assuming command of the Battle of the Bulge, refusing to be flummoxed: “The enemy will not be permitted to cross the Meuse.”

    2) It’s interesting to consider the pathologies of militaries in authoritarian regimes in which the consequences of conveying unwanted information are extraordinarily high. Pollak’s “Arabs at War” (once more, please don’t hold me to that one – it’s been quite some time since I read it) and, more recently, “Saddam’s Generals” ( Woods et al, Institute for Defense Analyses, which also comes on top of work done, I think, for JFCOM) come to mind. I suppose one could analyze the question at many levels and in many ways – e.g., from the refusal to wake Hitler on 6 June 1944. What I find striking about “Saddam’s Generals” and Woods’s work writ large is how much it bolsters what generally seems to be a discredited case among most for invasion. Reading Woods et al, one is hard-pressed to consider Saddam Hussein a “rational actor” (whatever that much bandied-about phrase means). Hence: could he have been deterred? I’m also reminded of Robert Jervis’s argumentation that the WMD judgment of the Intelligence Community, while ultimately incorrect, was not unreasonable. Thus, to perhaps raise a third point: are we seeing a new generation of – revisionist? – scholarship regarding the Iraq War?

    I am quite interested in the connection between Soviet military doctrine and, say, AirLand Battle, along the lines of, arguably, Dima Adamsky’s “The Culture of Military Innovation.” John Mearsheimer also used the Manchurian campaign as a case study for “Conventional Deterrence.” It seems to me something of a “forgotten war” due both to when (right at the very end of WW II) and where (Manchuria – where’s that?!) it occurred.



  4. Rob Citino says:

    Thanks for the note, ADTS. I’ll have to take another look at the Luttwak book. It’s been too long since I read it! –RC

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