Thursday, July 5, 2012

From Now On, No Defeats, II: The Crisis in 1942, I: The River

Seventy years ago today, the Germans are on the move. Sixth Army and 4th Armoured Army are attacking east out of the great bend of the Don. What's going on?

It's not hard to figure out. All you need is a copy of the German census and the officially published casualty statistics. The brutal paper war over German casualties in the last war will tell you that the Germans might be understating their losses, but they're certainly not overstating them. Perhaps 800,000 in the last twelve months swallows up the new cohort entirely, so German manpower is going down. That means  a smaller offensive than last year. Fewer rifles and fewer tanks at the front and boys behind them. 

(The general wears riding boots, of course.)

If it's not the last throw of the dice, it's getting close to it. So where are they going that's worth the terrible cost? What opportunities have Axis strategists detected?

First, the Big Picture: Southern Russia.
Strategy is always easy when your map scale is big enough!
There's southern Russia for you. Far to the south is the Caspian, a great isthmus flanked by two waters with an impressive mountain range cutting it off from the south. Plus, it's got oil! That's your target. 

Only that's not where Field Marshal von Bock is leading Army Group B. He's headed in another direction entirely.

He's headed along the M21 towards Tsaritsyn/Stalingrad/Volgograd. Has he sworn to reach the river, or does he actually have a reason for what he's doing?

Because this is the Volga bend:

And it's Stalin's city. So, you know, because Hitler hated Stalin. It's the "Mean Dictators" model of history.

Now, a question for you: do you, looking at this, think, as I thought when I first saw it, that the map is somehow switched north-for-south, that that's the Volga mouth at the Caspian on the top of the map? Because it's not. Here's a blow-up, focussing on the course of the Volga:

The Volga is a very thick river until just before it reaches Volgograd, at which point it becomes a very thin river, only with a big patch of green to its north. From this, I expect that you are theorising an explanation for what happens to the water just north of the city.

And since no-one writes geography like they did in the old days, I now turn, of course, to the Ninth Edition of the Britannica.

VOLGA . . .the longest and most important river of European Russia. It rises in the Valdai plateau of Tver and, after a winding course of 2325 m. (1070 in a straight line), falls into the Caspian at Astrakhan: It is by far the longest river of Europe. . . . Its drainage area, which includes the whole of middle and eastern as well as part of south-eastern Russia, amounts to 563,300 sq. m.,. . . . The "basin" of the Volga is not limited to its actual catchment area. By a system of canals which connect the upper Volga with the Neva, the commercial mouth of the Volga has been transferred, so to speak, from the Caspian to the Baltic . . .. Other less important canals connect it with the Western Dvina (Riga) and the White Sea (Archangel); while a railway only 45 m. in length joins the Volga with the Don and the Sea of Azov, and three great trunk lines bring its lower parts into connexion with the Baltic and western Europe.
The Volga rises in extensive marshes on the Valdai plateau, where the W. Dvina also has its origin. Lake Seliger was formerly considered to be the principal source;but that distinction is now given to a small spring issuing beneath a chapel (57° 15' N.; 32° 30' E.) in the midst of a large marsh to the west of Seliger.
The honour has also been claimed, not without plausibility, for the Runa rivulet. Recent exact surveys have shown these originating marshes to be no more than 665 ft. above sea-level. The stream first traverses several small lakes, all having the same level, and, after its confluence with the Runa, enters Lake Volga . . . .
From its confluence with the Sheksna the Volga flows with a very gentle descent towards the south-east, past Yaroslavl and Kostroma, along a broad valley hollowed to a depth of 150-200 ft. in the Permian and Jurassic deposits. In fact, its course lies through a string of depressions formerly filled with wide lakes, all linked together. When the Volga at length assumes a due south-east direction it is a large river (8250 cub. ft. per second, rising occasionally in high flood to as much as 178,360 cub. ft.); of its numerous tributaries, the Unzha (365 m., 330 navigable), from the north, is the most important.
The next great tributary is the Oka, which comes from the southwest after having traversed, on its course of 950 m., all the Great Russian provinces of central Russia. It rises in the government of Orel, among hills which also send tributaries to the Dnieper and the Don, and receives on the left the Upa, the Zhizdra, the Ugra (300 m.), the Moskva, on which steamers ply up to Moscow, the Klyazma (J95 m.), on whose banks arose the middle-Russian principality of Suzdal, and on the right the navigable Tsna (255 m.) and Moksha. . . . ..
At its confluence with the Oka the Volga enters the broad lacustrine depression which must have communicated with the Caspian during the post-Pliocene period by means of at least a broad strait. Its level at low water is only 190 ft. above that of the ocean. Immediately below the confluence the breadth of the river ranges from 350 to 1750 yds. There are many islands which change their appearance and position after each inundation. On the right the Volga is joined by the Sura, which drains a large area and brings a volume of 2700 to 22,000 cub. ft. of water per second, the Vetluga (465 m. long, of which 365 are navigable), from the forest-tracts of Yaroslavl, and many smaller tributaries. Then the stream turns south-east and descends into another lacustrine depression, where it receives the Kama, below Kazan. Remains of molluscs still extant in the Caspian occur extensively throughout this depression and up the lower Kama.
The Kama,' which brings to the Volga a contribution ranging from 52,500 to 144,400 cub. ft. and occasionally reaching 515,000 cub. ft. per second, might again be considered as the more important of the two rivers. It rises in Vyatka, takes a wide sweep towards the north and east, and then flows south and south-west to join the Volga after a course of no less than 1150 m.

Along the next 738 m. of its course the Volga - now 580 to 2600 yds. wide - flows south-south-west, with but one great bend at Samara.
At this point, where it pierces a range of limestone hills, the course of the river is very picturesque, fringed as it is by cliffs which rise [500] ft. above the level of the stream (which is only 54 ft. above the sea at Samara). Along the whole of the Samara bend the Volga is accompanied on its right bank by high cliffs, which it is constantly undermining, while broad lowland areas stretch along the left or eastern bank, and are intersected by several old beds of the Volga.
At Tsaritsyn the great river reaches its extreme south-western limit, and is there separated from the Don by an isthmus only 45 m. in width. The isthmus is too high to be crossed by means of a canal, but a railway to Kalach brings the Volga into some sort of connexion with the Don and the Sea of Azov. At Tsaritsyn the river takes a sharp turn in a south-easterly direction towards the Caspian; it enters the Caspian steppes, and a few miles above Tsaritsyn sends off a branch - the Akhtuba - which accompanies it for 330 m. before falling into the Caspian. Here the Volga receives no tributaries; its right bank is skirted by low hills, but on the left it anastomoses freely with the Akhtuba when its waters are high, and floods the country for 15 to 35 m. The width of the main stream ranges from 520 to 3500 yds. and the depth exceeds 80 ft. The delta proper begins 40 m. above Astrakhan, and the branches subdivide so as to reach the sea by as many as 200 separate mouths. Below Astrakhan navigation is difficult, and on the sand-bars at the mouth the maximum depth is only 12 ft. in calm weather.
The figures given show how immensely the river varies in volume, and the greatness of the changes which are constantly going on in the channel and on its banks. Not only does its level occasionally rise in flood as much as 50 ft. and overflow its banks for a distance of 5 to 15 m.; even the level of the Caspian is considerably affected by the sudden influx of water brought by the Volga. The amount of suspended matter brought down is correspondingly great. All along its course the Volga is eroding and destroying its banks with great rapidity; towns and loading ports have constantly to be shifted farther back.
Emphasis of course mine. The article was written before the phenomena of the post-glacial rebound of the north Eurasian crust was understood. We now know that the Volga forms rises in the hills of central Russia, runs through a basin, and then strikes the geological boundary of the zone of rebound at Samara, from whence begin the picturesque chalk cliffs, 500 feet high and steadily undermined by the river. Not surprisingly, there are few crossings of the river in this region. I've carried my snip of the map up to Saratov, the Ukek of the Golden Horde, across the river from Pokrovsk/Engels, former capital of the Volga German Republic. This is the last bridge over the river before Volgograd.

At Volgograd, the stretch between the end of the confined bank to the north and the mouth of the Akhtuba to the south represents a precious logistical opportunity to approach the banks of the river without crossing the vast, low-lying flooding ground between the two channels. Modern hydraulic technique renders this a little less than clear, but fortunately there are heroes on the Internet today, collecting stuff that I can steal:

This is from the front page of Geert Rottier's Here's a sketch map, buried deep inside this voluminous source site:

You can see that the railway bridge at Stalingrad is actually a floating bridge, due to the extreme depth of the river being too much for construction technology as it existed in 1942 to put down pilings. (I owe this insight to the Institution of Civil Engineers' Engineers at War, which I have cited before, and will cite again.) Technically, this is impossible. Railways can't use floating bridges because locomotive hammering drives the rails out of alignment at the chesses between the rafts. However, Russian rolling stock tended to be small and lightly built, and so I guess they got away with it. 

The modern solution seems to be an enormous embankment and then a cut right up the slope of the river bank.

In the old days, the railway followed the river on the Volga bench until it reached the mouth of the Tsaritsyn River, then followed the cut up to the level of the steppe. 

So, Bock wasn't crazy. It looks like his flank is hanging on air at Stalingrad, when in reality the Volga channel is impassible to north and south. Once he takes the city, he will cut the crucial water transportation route between north and south Russia. Russia will be cut in two, and without its oil, and an impassible east-west barrier will be established within which to build a greater Reich on the bones of the Untermenschen.

Well, actually, in real reality, it won't work out like that at all, albeit only because the Red Army held onto its right bank bridgehead. Here is the 1943 Red Army General Staff Study of the greatest bridging operation in history, Operation Uranus, hosted by and edited by Louis Rotundo. Not bad for "subhumans." It's a shame that only engineers ever celebrate such things. 

It seems sometimes as though only engineers understand just how hard it is to make armies free on the land. The strategists look at their maps and assume that land is land and water is water. Were that so, whole nations would not have grazed along the banks of the Volga between Volgograd and the sea on the greatest water meadow in human history, and we would actually understand the scope and scale of the crisis of 1942.


  1. I've been diligently reading about World War Two- and history in general- for almost 25 years (5/6th of my life) and I always learn something new from your posts. Thanks for writing.

  2. Were that so, whole nations would not have grazed along the banks of the Volga between Volgograd and the sea on the greatest water meadow in human history, and we would actually understand the scope and scale of the crisis of 1942.

    OK, so in the next you're going to tell us something fascinating about the significance of that water meadow for Soviet agriculture. Right?

  3. Good Lord, no. The Dalai Lama's role in Chinese politics. Obviously.

    (The connection, for those who want to incorporate it in their own schizophrenic ravings, is with the Kalmyks, the most recent grazers of the Volga meadows, who were related to the Oirats/Dzhungars, the supposed "left wing" of the Mongol hordes that inhabited the Dzungarian basin of the northern Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. It's as exotic a region of the world as there still is. Peter Perdue and James Milward have given us modern histories.

    Or maybe I should say archetypically romantic, given De Quincy's epic treatment of the flight of (some of) the Kalmyks' home to Zungharia. Even today, The Kalmyk Autonomous Republic west of Astrakhan is the "only Buddhist government" in Europe, per Wikipedia.)

    My point, if I had one, would be that we need to pay way more attention to where the grass grows as we write our histories. But I may have intimated that belief on occasion here before.