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Speed of the German advance

LAURENCE REES: How come it takes the Germans one campaign season to get to Moscow and then it takes the Soviets years to get them back into Germany?

ROBERT CITINO: That’s certainly a good point. It is six months to Moscow and then roughly three and a half years back to Berlin. I think you can make an argument, so-called military effectiveness, on numerous levels. There are essentially three levels of war, as we like to say. There’s a tactical level - take that hill - there’s the operational level of the manoeuvres of large units of divisions and corps and even entire armies and perhaps army groups, and there’s the strategic level of war, the President in the Oval Office and the Prime Minister at 10 Downing or Stalin in the Kremlin making decisions about manpower allocation. I think on the tactical but especially on the operational levels early in the war the Germans had a definite advantage. Remember, they had launched an invasion of the Soviet Union and we see the Germans got to Moscow in six months. They launched an invasion of the Soviet Union and took the Soviet Union entirely by surprise.

Not just operational level surprise but actual tactical surprise on individual border units being disarmed before a shot had been fired. There is a sense of being caught at a standing start, being knocked down and then having to right yourself - and with a flood coming at you - and I think that’s very much what the Red Army probably felt in 1941. It had survived improbably and perhaps, miraculously, that onslaught and in 1942 it had reacted to the first German manoeuvres in May and then in the opening of Operation Blue with a whole scale retreat. Like, we’re not going to do that again, let’s get out of here. But then I think it had found a moment and it had anchored itself in a couple of positions. I’m thinking of Stalingrad and the Caucasus where suddenly it realised, like Montgomery’s men of the 8th Army Unit undoubtedly realised at El Alamein and like the Americans had realised some time as they were retreating from the Kasserine Pass, that we’re still here, we’re still alive, they’re flesh and blood like we are, they are not supermen despite Nazi propaganda proclaiming them to be supermen. So suddenly those armies has anchored themselves.

For the Soviet Army, of course, it was in the street fight in Stalingrad and then the mountain fight in the Caucasus. And from that point, once the Germans had lost the kind of operational superiority, only at that point I think could we say that the superior resources of the allies could begin to tell. You know, Richard Overy, who’s a scholar of some note on all this, has written a marvelous book given the very simple title of “Why The Allies Won.” Because I think for too long we’ve looked at what the Germans did: they turned left when they should have turned right, they should have halted when they should have gone on, and they went on when they should have halted, with Hitler becoming increasingly mad. I think Overy is onto something when he looks at the fact that there have been a lot of coalitions that have had superior resources and they’ve still managed to lose wars. If war was a matter of resources the US would have been triumphant in Vietnam. But, of course, it wasn’t. And so I think at first those armies had to gain a sense of themselves. I don’t want to personify them too much and say they were like individual personalities, but I do think there’s something to it.

They had to get a sense of themselves, a sense of the possibilities that they were able to explore. And I think to do that first of all they had to survive, and that’s why those anchoring moments are perfect. For the Anglo-American alliance it was that drive into Tunisia, a side-show perhaps but one that picked up a couple of hundred thousand casualties. And, of course, for the Soviet Union it was the great counteroffensives North and South of Stalingrad.