Monday, June 27, 2011

Barbarossa Began Seventy Years Ago a Few Days Ago, When I Was Babysitting: Some Thoughts on Tanks, Planes, and Horses

(And just in case you haven't heard them lately.)

The usual scoring for Barbarossa sets The Internationale (or whatever) against Die Wachte am Rhein. I mean, if Tchaikovsky is going to do it, why not us hacks? 

The thing is that Adam Tooze has occasioned me to wonder whether the implicit "titanic struggle of nations" theme is appropriate. His recent monograph on the German war economy has very convincingly reinterpreted Barbarossa as something closer to an attempted mugging with menaces, and the only suitable scoring of the German national anthem that is really appropriate and on Youtube is this one.

We have to let the Marseillaise stand in for something more Russian, though. Not only is that annoying for Germans, and I'm also less than enamoured of the gender politics of this famous clip.

That being said,  it's the meta-point that stands. Nazi Germany invaded Russia out of economic desperation, having convinced itself that it had only to kick in the door and collapse the house. As though Russians would submit to enslavement and genocide because the Party had given them horrible government. It's a contemptible combination of brutality and wishful thinking that can stand in for Nazi rule in its entirety.

That being said, the Germans attacked an enemy that was probably outnumbered, and exposed in ways that are not obvious on plain maps. As Rob Kirchubel, points out here, the main weight of the German effort was made along the same corridor along the water-parting of the Dniepr and Dvina that Napoleon had used, and, by consistently flanking their enemies, eventually rolled the Russians up all the way to Moscow.

I don't think that the fall of Ukraine and German armies reaching the doorstep of Saint Petersburg and Moscow tells us much about the objective correlation of strategic forces here, so much as it does about the geographic realities that make those cities what they are. That being said, war is the province of contingencies, and it does seem to me that there was some prospect of a German victory. Not before Moscow, but next year. It just doesn't seem to me that the Russian war effort could have held together if the Caspian-Volga route had been broken, and thus that the fight for Stalingrad/Volgograd counts as decisive and deserves the place that no-one denies it as the decisive moment of the world war, along with Washington's dance with the Long Lances off Guadalcanal and Montgomery overcoming his first-battle jitters to impose Woolwich's way of war on the beau sabreurs of the Axis Army of Africa. The courage of the Ostheer came fairly close to overcoming the weaknesses that handicapped it. A lesson, I'll reiterate, for those who shrink from the spending, thus taxing, that they can see is necessary.

All that being said, we can drill down a little further here.

Here's Die Deutsche Wochenschau announcing the beginning of the war in the east. There's any number of meditations you can take away from this, but I'm going to stand on the interspersed scenes of a 75mm infantry gun (I think), being pushed forward into action. This is pretty clearly an intermediate stage between fusiliers pushing gabions before them, and the infantry tank. It's also another way of stating the distance between the dreams of the Nazi fantasist "kicking the door down" and reality. And yet the "kicking" metaphor remains strong in the historiography in the form of the idea of a German "excellence in manoeuvre warfare." Supposedly, where the Germans fell short was in "logistics"

Wait a minute here. How can the Germans be so good at moving stuff overland (sabres and rifles), and so bad at moving stuff over land (bread and ammunition)? What's going on here? Were they overtaken by cavalry spirit? Or are we asking the wrong question?

Barbarossa was a big deal in human affairs, apparently best described with very large numbers. John Keegan tells us at the head of his chapter on Barbarossa that the 5 million men of the German army were organised into 180 infantry, 12 motorised, and 20 armoured divisions. That's a lot of divisions! A few pages later, he launches 180 German divisions with 7200 guns and 3350 tanks into Russia. That's fewer divisions! Some divisions are doing something else --for example, not being very divisionish. And that's very large numbers of guns and tanks compared to other numbers that are smaller. (If you'll pardon me amusing myself by trying out Onion-ish language.) Wikipedia likes 3.9 million men, 3600 tanks, 4,400 aircraft, and 46,000 "artillery pieces." It also adds 600,000 motor vehicles and 750,000 horses. Some of the numbers are bigger, and some are smaller!

So,as per usual, we have a story that we want to tell, and numbers that have lots of zeroes in them that are supposed to work like parsley on the plate at a second-rate restaurant. But a garnish can go terribly, terribly wrong. (Okay, I'm working this in because I deal with badly written recipes every day at work, and this horror story about a recipe calling for "fried celery leaves" as a garnish that leaves out a key detail is horrifying.)

So,  if the British army were going to carry out something like Operation Barbarossa, doctrine wouldn't call for "20 armoured divisions and 12 motorised divisions." It would call for one third armoured divisions, plus one tank circus per corps.Obviously this doesn't mean that the British economy could have equipped such a force, but its programme for the army called for 35 divisions, and just twelve armoured divisions and 12 Army Tank Brigades would have called for 7000 tanks, not counting carriers. That target was more-or-less met. (The less should be understood as a consequence of other industrial commitments going into D-Day.)

And it's not just tanks. At 72 guns/division plus a circus allocation of 84 guns, that's 3200 artillery pieces. This is a small number, so I tried counting everything that fires something larger than a bullet, that's 20,000 tubes. Now, that includes 2" mortars, 20mm AA, and antitank guns. I have a hard time seeing these as artillery bombardment weapons, but I think that I'm within the overarching East Front tradition of counting everything larger than a rifle.

That being said, the tanks are a big thing because they're a small thing. That is, the main burden on war economies was munition making. Shells/bombs may not seem like much compared with tanks: but, i) armies needed a lot of them; ii) they absorbed a great deal of iron and chemical feedstock output; and iii) they take a fair amount of machining to make correctly. So it's limits on total ammunition supply that will really bite, while relatively minor reallocations of resources will give you lots of tanks. Germany arguably attacked Russia with less ammunition in its dumps than it needed. But it could have chosen to have more tanks.

This isn't the only area where this is true, either. Germany was, for example, significantly out-produced on the automotive side by Canada during the war. Now, I'm as patriotic as the next hoser, but, seriously. Canada. So was Russia, of course, and the UK, although the Allied powers could afford to deemphasise truck production and draw on American supplies.

So the takeaway here is that Germany chose to go short on tanks, but had to go short on munitions; because munitions take a great deal of steel, while you can pinch out enough steel to make a great many more tanks from the margins of the war economy.

There's another limiting factor here. So let us meditate on this. The Red Army suffered a historic defeat because it was outmanoeuvred by German mechanised forces. Overall, both the German and Russian armies were still horse-drawn. Russia had a lot more tanks than Germany. How did the Russians manage to be so bad at manoeuvre? Were they rotten at the core, only not so much, on account of they won after all?

Or is that limiting factor the obvious one --a lack of heavy duty mechanics? Let me just throw that out there. Now we have an explanation for how the Germans could be so bad at logistics, so good at manoeuvre warfare, how the British army can look so different. More tradesmen, fewer teamsters.

To come back to my fried celery leaves, there's a limit to how much you can accomplish by trying real hard. Sometimes, you have to start by learning what you need to know. Fight a modern war? Get a modern economy, first. Or is it the reverse? And that's where I've got to leave it, because I've got to go to work and do something that I think I know how to do.


  1. "late John Keegan"? Did something happen to him?

  2. As for the rest, excellent as per usual, Mr. Lawnmower Boy. Really appreciate reading your stuff, as usual. Thanks for writing.

  3. Chris, you're so right! Where did I get the idea that John Keegan had died?

  4. Canada is a modern industrial economy, and was one as long as one hundred years ago, so treat them with respect.
    I mean, they beat us when we attacked in 1815.

  5. Actually, we had a lot of British help. And it is probably a serious error to interpret the war in the Northwest as one of "Canadians" versus "Americans" when both identities were still emergent.

    And, that said, next time you're down in the bowels of some incredibly awesome research library, look up the bound volumes of The Engineer and Engineering from the late 30s.

    You'll get an excellent view of the world's engineering industies in review in the first numbers of each year. In particular, Engineering used to print "league tables" showing where each nation's annual output of various engineering goods ranked.

    No country, not even the United States, is in first place in anything like all of the tables. Germany is at the top, or close to the top, in most. Canada appears in (I think), second place in only one: automotive production. And note that that is specifically cars. (Comparing national truck and motorcycle production is interesting in its own right.)

    What these tables tell us, and have been telling us for a long time, is that Germany's specific lag in automotive (and truck, not motorcycle) production goes to German social conditions. I've already telegraphed my understanding of other's explanations of this --horses, lack of consumer demand, blah blah blah-- but I wanted to throw out the whole unionisation/heavy duty mechanic thing as an additional angle.