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Dramatically, in May 1942 the Wehrmacht began the campaigning season with some of the greatest operational victories in the entire history of German arms: Kerch, Kharkov, and Gazala. All of them took place within weeks of one another. Then, in the summer, the Wehrmacht brought down the curtain on this very successful season with the reduction of Tobruk and Sevastopol. After providing all the participants with enough terrifying moments to last several lifetimes, the year’s fighting ended improbably but with equal drama just six months later, with the Germans suffering two of the most decisive reversals of all time: El Alamein and Stalingrad.

Again, these two signal events took place within weeks of one another. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika was still streaming across North Africa in some disarray—ignoring Hitler’s last-second order to stand fast—at the very moment that the Soviets were launching Operation Uranus, which encircled the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad.

In those brief six months, an entire way of war that dated back centuries had come to an end. The German tradition of maneuver-based Bewegungskrieg, the notion that “war is an art, a free and creative activity,” the belief in the independence of the subordinate commander: each of these bedrock beliefs had taken a pounding in the past six months, and in fact had revealed themselves as no longer valid. The war of movement as practiced by the German army had failed in the wide-open spaces of the Soviet Union; the southern front especially presented challenges that it was not designed to handle.

The notion of war as an art was difficult to maintain in the face of what had happened in North Africa and on the Volga. Here, enemy armies looked on calmly as the Wehrmacht went through its ornate repertoire of maneuver, then smashed it with overwhelming materiel superiority: hordes of tanks, skies filled with aircraft, seventy artillery gun tubes per kilometer. German defeat in both theaters looked far less like an art than an exercise in a butcher’s shop: helpless raw materials being torn to shreds in a meat grinder.

The German pattern of making war, grounded in handiwork and tradition and old-world craftsmanship, had met a new pattern, one that had emerged from a matrix of industrial mass production and boundless confidence in technology. At El Alamein and Stalingrad, the German way of war found itself trapped in the grip of the machine.

Another aspect of Bewegungskrieg, independent command, also died in 1942. The new communications technology, an essential ingredient in the Wehrmacht’s earlier victories, now showed its dark side. Radio gave the high command a precise, real-time picture of even the most rapid and far-flung operations. It also allowed staff and political leaders alike to intervene in the most detailed and, from the perspective of field commanders, the most obnoxious way possible. The new face of German command, 1942-style, was evident in the absurd Haltbefehl to Rommel in the desert and the incessant debates between Hitler and Field Marshal Wilhelm List about how to seize the relatively minor Black Sea port of Tuapse.

At the height of the battle of Zorndorf in 1758, Frederick the Great ordered his cavalry commander, Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz, to launch an immediate counterstroke on the left of the hard-pressed Prussian infantry. When it seemed late in coming, the king sent a messenger to Seydlitz with orders to march immediately, and with threats if he did not do so.

Seydlitz, however, was a commander who only moved when he judged the moment ripe. His response was part of the mental lexicon of every German commander in the field in 1942: “Tell the king that after the battle my head is at his disposal,” he told the king’s messenger, “but meantime, I hope he will permit me to exercise it in his service.”

Those days were evidently long gone by 1942. Hitler symbolically took a number of heads in this campaign while the fight was still raging: Bock, List, Halder, and many others were retired. The new dispensation was most evident in the attenuated struggle within the Stalingrad Kessel. Paulus may have been cut off from supply, but he certainly wasn’t cut off from communication. From Hitler’s first intervention (his orders of November 22 that “Sixth Army will hedgehog itself and await further orders”) to the last (the January 24 refusal of permission to surrender), the führer had been the de facto commander of the Stalingrad pocket.

This is not to exculpate Paulus’s pedestrian leadership before the disaster and his curious mixture of fatalism and submission to the führer once he had been encircled. Indeed, Paulus may have welcomed Hitler’s interventions as a way of evading his own responsibility for the disaster. But Hitler did not kill the concept of flexible command. Radio did.

Like any deep-rooted historical phenomenon, Bewegungskrieg died hard. It resisted both the foibles of Hitler’s personality and the more complex systemic factors working against it. Those haunting arrows on the situation maps will remain fixed permanently to our historical consciousness as a reminder of what a near-run thing it was: the 13th Panzer Division, operating under a brand new commander, just a mile outside Ordzhonikidze and still driving forward; German pioneers in Operation Hubertus, bristling with flamethrowers and satchel charges, blasting one Soviet defensive position after another and driving grimly for the Volga riverbank just a few hundred yards away; Rommel’s right wing at Alam Halfa, a mere half-hour’s ride by armored car from Alexandria. Rarely have the advance guards of a subsequently defeated army ever come so tantalizingly close to their strategic objectives.

In the end, the most shocking aspect of 1942 is how absurdly close the Wehrmacht came to taking not one but all of its objectives for 1942: splitting the British Empire in two at Suez and paving the way for a drive into the Middle East, while seizing the Soviet Union’s principal oil fields, its most productive farmland, and a major share of its industries.


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