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Hitler and Operation Blue

LAURENCE REES: Did Hitler’s infamous decision to split his forces in Operation Blue in the summer of 1942, with one army group going south to the oilfields and one going east to Stalingrad, make sense at the time?

ROBERT CITINO: No, I wouldn’t say it made sense at the time. His own Staff argued against it, especially General Halder who was the Chief of the General Staff, because there was a lot of so called laws or rules of war you’re violating, like you’re not maintaining a single objective any longer or you are not maintaining concentration of force. You are not moving concentrically, but if you’re moving towards Stalingrad and the Caucasus simultaneously you’re moving eccentrically, away from the centre - large bodies moving away from one and other. But I think we can at least explain the background of the decisions so that it might make sense to students of World War Two. The Soviet Army met Operation Blue by a full scale retreat to the east. Now that retreat appears to have been ordered by Stalin, and his chief military trouble-shooter Zhukov, as a traditional Soviet method of trading space for time, I guess we might say in the classic formulation. On the ground at lower levels, however, that retreat was carried out ineptly. Huge stretches of fortified territory were abandoned without a fight and mountains of equipment were lost. Indeed I think we might posit a kind of loss of command and control amongst the Soviet Armies in the course of that retreat, and a retreat turning into a rout. So there might have been an operational sense of that retreat order on a tactical level becoming something much more routy. So routy in fact, and so disorganized, that Hitler could look at a map in late July 1942 and utter the famous words ‘the Russian is finished’. At least the twelfth time that the Germans had claimed victory in the Soviet Union. We have to count them very carefully.

Now things had also gone wrong in Operation Blue. It had been predicated on the Soviet Army standing and fighting or maybe attacking forward as they had in 1941, but how can you Kesselschlacht or surround an army who’s vanishing? There’s an old saying about giving, what if they gave a war and no one came, what if you fought a battle of encirclement and the enemy had vanished? So the Germans hadn’t really captured anything: 50 or 60,000 prisoners in other times and places would be a signal victory but not by standards of the Eastern Front. Intelligence came into the German headquarters that a large concentration of Soviet formations had ripped around the city of Rostov at the mouth of the Don. So there’s another convergence of armoured pincers around Rostov and there certainly were nerves in the German High Command about what was happening.

There seemed to be a remarkable lack of prisoners. Of the 3 million or so that had been taken in 1941, there were only hundreds of thousands here. So there were arguments about what was happening. Hitler apparently really did believe that the Russian was finished and so the Soviet Armies would never be able to restore their cohesion. And really at this point he orders a dual offensive. Now in a sense there’s always been two targets, but they had been sequential, he would hit Stalingrad first and use Stalingrad as a kind of roof to protect yourself as you then dove into the Caucasus. Now two army groups would be moving towards Stalingrad and the Caucasus simultaneously. And so one can’t defend it, but one can at least give the historic background behind it.

When Halder argued against this eccentric manoeuvre Hitler blew up at him, saying, 'all I ever hear from you are complaints and reasons why we can’t do things, you’re sitting on that same stool or on the same planning table you sat at in World War One, you’ve never done any fighting, you’ve never won the wound badge,' the badge that Hitler had won in World War One, the German equivalent of the American Purple Heart. Hitler screamed at the Chief of the General Staff and as one witness describes it, it was a very painful scene and soon thereafter Halder is going to be resigning as the Chief of the General Staff and General Kurt Zeitzler, someone who was more amenable to Hitler, but also a man of some ability, is going to take his place. But even Zeitzler is not going to be able to make a dual offensive work. If Germany lacks the army to defeat the Soviet Union on one front it lacked the army to defeat the Soviet Union on two.

LAURENCE REES: So to what extent was the German defeat down to tactical ineptitude, and to what extent were the Germans simply unlucky with the way it went?

ROBERT CITINO: I don’t think that we can really blame luck for the German failure to take Stalingrad, but I would perhaps support the hubris theory more than the luck theory. But let me also qualify that in a couple of ways. The entire convoluted operational sequence of 1942, Operation Blue - a highly complex operation, was designed to destroy Soviet Armies in the Don bend, and  thus not have to fight for Stalingrad, not have to fight for any city. If the Soviet Armies had been destroyed, oh there might be some minor resistance but the Wehrmacht could sweep that up in a matter of weeks. Now when they got to Stalingrad and they actually found an army ensconced, they fought an encirclement battle within the Don bend and trapped a couple of Soviet Armies there and made a lunge from the Don bend, the north eastern corner of it at least, clear to the Volga, in a day and a half, and then they cut off one army to the south of Stalingrad and so it essentially isolated a single Soviet Army inside the city, the 62ndArmy under General Chuikov who became quite famous as result of this campaign. They realise now that there was trouble. They would have to dig an enemy army out of a built up area, but if it was the last enemy army perhaps it could be done.

And clearly they had done this before. Manstein, in May and June of 1942, had fought a nitty gritty campaign for the city of Sebastopol, the most heavily fortified little spot on earth and had brought that to a successful conclusion with heavy casualties. The one battle of that preliminary spring that had cost the Germans high casualties. Manstein had won a Field Marshal’s Baton for his victory there. I think there were many in the German army at various levels all the way down to NCOs who felt that this will be a nasty business, a Rattenskrieg or ‘war of the rats’  as both sides are going to go to ground and use the sewer system to get around and kind of bury themselves inside the city. But if it was the last battle that they were called upon to fight then perhaps they could make it work.

Now what is also operative here, and why I would not say luck has anything to do with it, is that there was a complete failure of German intelligence to detect the Soviet build up north of Stalingrad, east of the Volga, and also the transfer of Soviet forces from a defensive arc around Moscow into the southern sector. The Germans hadn’t really hit the main Soviet Armies in Operation Blue, even when they had reached Stalingrad, and of course that’s going to come to light. Now after the war you can find individual intelligence reports and intelligence officers who say they did spot it and they reported it but it simply had not been acted upon. Of course, the beauty of military intelligence, reports of all sorts are coming in constantly; and after the war military intelligence services can claim they reported everything, some of it will be listened to and some of it won’t be, and of course that has a lot to do with the predilictions of the higher echelons who were receiving the reports.