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Gen. Walter Warlimont, deputy chief of operations for the high command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW), warned that the army’s mobility was going to be “considerably affected,” adding that “a measure of demotorization” was inevitable—dire words indeed for an army that lived and died by operational-level maneuver. Although historians often speak of the Germans scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel in 1944–45, they had already started that process in 1942. The class of 1923 had already been drafted in April 1941, eighteen months ahead of time, and raw 18- and 19-year-old recruits would play a key role in filling out the rosters of the new divisions being formed for Blue.

Perhaps the best indicator of Germany’s new military economy of scarcity is this: of the forty-one new divisions slated for Case Blue, fully twenty-one of them would be non-German: ten Hungarian, six Italian, and five Romanian. It was a sure sign that the Germans were having difficulty with the enormity of the front, which by now stretched some seventeen hundred miles from Murmansk in the north to Taganrog in the south.

There were other problems. The German emphasis on maneuver usually meant they devoted less time and effort to vital areas like logistics and intelligence. Like so many great German military operations, this one would be based on an abysmally inaccurate portrait of enemy strength. The Germans estimated available Soviet aircraft at 6,600 planes; the reality was 21,681; they estimated they were facing 6,000 tanks; the actual number was 24,446; the German estimate of Soviet artillery (7,800 guns) was also off by a factor of four (the actual number was 33,111). All in all, the intelligence failure of 1942 was one of the worst in German history, rivaled only by the failure of these same agencies during the run-up to Operation Barbarossa.

Yet this campaign did not appear to be at all hopeless to Hitler, to Josef Stalin, or to their respective staffs. Indeed, the preliminaries to Blue showed that the Wehrmacht still brought to the table some formidable operational skills: May 1942 saw Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s decisive victory at Kerch in the Crimea, an equally impressive win at Kharkov in the Ukraine, and finally Gen. Erwin Rommel’s decisive victory over the British at Gazala in the Western Desert. Kerch, Kharkov, and Gazala were all classic examples of the “war of movement,” operational-level battles of annihilation marked by high mobility, a freewheeling and aggressive officer corps, and successful attempts to surround and destroy the enemy.

Rommel would punctuate his victory by storming Tobruk in June, invading Egypt, and driving for Suez; that same month, Manstein placed an exclamation point on his Crimean campaign by taking the great fortress of Sevastopol. In the course of these five big wins, the Wehrmacht smashed every enemy army it met and took six hundred thousand prisoners; its own losses were almost nonexistent aside from Sevastopol, which had been a bloody affair. For all its manpower and equipment shortages, it is hard to disagree with historian Alan Clark when he described 1942 as “the Wehrmacht at high tide.”

Nor did the opening of Operation Blue disappoint. The Red Army had also been seriously blooded in the past year’s fighting, and its initial response to Blue was nothing less than a full speed, helter-skelter retreat. It seems to have been ordered by Stalin and Gen. Georgi K. Zhukov as a classic maneuver to trade space for time, traditional in Russian wars. On the lower levels, however, it was carried out ineptly, with huge stretches of territory abandoned without a fight, a great deal of equipment lost, and a conspicuous absence of command and control.

For the last time in this war, it was full steam ahead for the Wehrmacht. The Germans and their Hungarian allies rapidly closed up to the Don River, with Fourth Panzer Army (Colonel General Hermann Hoth) seizing the great city of Voronezh in the north on day ten of the offensive, and then wheeling south toward the Don bend, skirting the river on its left. To Hoth’s right, Sixth Army (Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus) crossed the starting line against sporadic Soviet opposition, lunged fifty miles ahead within the first forty-eight hours, and linked up with Fourth Panzer at Stary Oskol. No wonder Hitler actually looked at his situation map at the time and exulted that “the Russian is finished.”

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