The Unknown War

Jonathan sent me this post from Jim Miller’s blog. Miller discusses a very good NYTimes article entitled “A Job for Rewrite: Stalin’s War.” Miller, and the NYTimes note the incredible fact that the military disaster known as Operation Mars is barely known in the West. The NYTimes gives particular credit to Col. David M. Glantz for bringing the murky history of the Soviet Side of World War II to light. I have read several of Col. Glantz’s books. (e.g. this one and this one and this one.) He is the master in English of the Soviet war effort. Mars was a colossal disaster — the Red Army lost more men in a few weeks than the USA lost in the entire war. The fact that the Mars defeat could be totally erased from history shows what type of regime Communist Russia really was: monolithic, Orwellian, a pyramid of corpses and lies.

Glantz’s main lesson is that the Red Army was not a blunt instrument — it got better and better as the war went on. It didn’t just bleed all over the Germans, it learned its lessons from them, then turned around and treated the Wehrmacht to fiercer blitzkriegs than it had ever dished out itself. My adolescent belief that “Patton could have pushed them back to Moscow” has been amply demonstrated in the ensuing years to be utter fancy. Glantz’s books prove the immense skill and quality attained by the Red Army by the end of the war. Again, I will ride my hobby horse and praise Franklin Roosevelt, our third greatest president. FDR was, as usual, right in how he handled the end of World War II: grab as much as you can, cut the best deal you can, bullshit the Russians, and lie low. Compared to the Red Army of 1945, what the Americans and British Commonwealth had on the ground was totally inadequate. FDR seemed to be better aware of that than some of his own generals. The idea of even the up-gunned Sherman and a handful of the new Pershings, with their 90mm guns, could have gone up against armadas of T-34-85s and Stalin IIs with their 122mm gun does not bear thinking about. And by the time the Allies and the Red Army had come into contact, the Soviets were just introducing the Stalin III, which to this day looks futuristic. Our people would have been eaten alive. The Red Army would have been on the English Channel. We got out of World War II very well indeed, with the best half of Europe in our hands, and virtually all of the fighting and dying having been done by the Russians. Anyway, that is all make believe stuff. The Japanese were still not beaten, they were fighting like tigers, no one knew if the atom bomb would work, and no rational person on the American side was seriously contemplating taking on the Russians.

Molotov thought FDR was a clever bastard who played his cards very well. He ought to know.

15 thoughts on “The Unknown War”

  1. I’d agree on the military balance, and that those who have condemned “betrayal” at Yalta showed a lack of realism about the military and facts on the ground. Though I also think FDR retained for some time rather unrealistic hopes of being able to sustain a measure of cooperation with the USSR.

    The same lack of realism has always struck me about the complaints about the Communist victory in China, i.e. “who lost China?” (Answer: Chiang Kai-shek did, because the KMT couldn’t organise the proverbial booze-up in a brewery.)

    One interesting coincidence, re. the atomic bomb. The tests that proved the uranium bomb (i.e. the “Little Boy” used agianst Hiroshima) would work were completed 12 April 1944, the day of Roosevelt’s death. From then on, even before the Trinity Test of the second, plutonium fuelled, design, the Manhattan Project had an atomic bomb that was certain to work.

  2. On the other hand, I’m fairly sure that the allied airforces would have attrited the Russian frontal aviation to disappearance fairly quickly. The Allies had a LOT of aircraft.

    So long as the western front could “hold the line”, which it probably could, given air support.

    There would have been room to open secondary fronts in the South through Iran/Black sea, cutting off Murmansk convoys & raiding north would been uncomfortable, effective use of heavy bomber for tactical support (Falaise Gap style – doesn;t MATTER if you can line up artillery wheel hub to wheel hub) and for supply interdiction.

    Hey, if the poor, hungry, with barely any air support, 1944 German army remenants (experienced as they were) could cause the Russian juggernauts so much grief I’m fairly sure the Western armies could have at least stopped them.

    But it would have hugely costly, in lives and treasure, and have left the pacific war to American subs and naval elements for much longer.


  3. Fred, my take on this is that the Germans were much better fighters than our guys, with much better tanks. The Russians had a lot of aircraft, too. We seem to be in agreement, though, that the Allies even if they could have held the Russians would not have been able to do a Barbarossa II.

    John, I agree completely. The whole “who lost China” business looks stupid now. Chiang’s guys had so many US made weapons that Mao’s people captured warehouses full of them, still in crates. In the 1950 winter offensive by the PLA against the US/UN the Chicoms had lots of US-made weapons. Just as Chiang lost China, FDR did not “lose” Eastern Europe at Yalta. Stalin’s Red Hordes took it from the Nazis, who lost it. No amount of diplomatic paper could change that fact. The USA really wanted Stalin’s help against Japan as of early 1945. We wanted to stay on his good side. It is tough to know what FDR “hoped”. He kept his own counsel. I don’t believe that Stalin “fooled” him into anything.

  4. By Sean D. Naylor
    Times staff writer

    The biggest Iraqi threat to U.S. armored vehicles was not Saddam Hussein’s fleet of Soviet-made T-72 tanks, which failed to damage a single U.S. Abrams tank or Bradley fighting vehicle during Operation Iraqi Freedom, but rather the ubiquitous rocket-propelled grenade.

  5. Lex, we have the same taste in books. I’ve also read When Titans Clashed. My all time favorite (since I was a kid) is Time Life’s series on WW2. Excellent pictures, and surprisingly good writing for a “picture” book. The series can be found in most libraries – my favorites are “Russia Besieged”, “Red Army Resurget”, and “Soviet Juggernaut.”

    I pore for hours on end over the Eastern Front, and it still boggles my mind every time I think about the staggering scale of the fighting that took place.

    One thing I liked was when I went to the WW2 museum in Moscow, and they had a turret from a KV-1 tank with a divet on the side. Maybe from a German Pak-37 that the Russians called “doorknockers”.

  6. Lex,

    I’m not sure it’s so cut and dried. But I’ll go have a read.

    I agree the germans had MUCH better armour, and they employed it (to the bitter end) in much cleverer ways, but they had pitifully little of it. Reading accounts (made up but typical) of “3 Panthers and a couple of odds and sods” going toe to toe with entire Russian armoured regiments -and making them back down- is awe inspiring. But it has the whiff of “heroic last stand.” (makes for fun war-gaming though)
    Their artillery was just sad by the end, their troops horribly supplied. German aviation support mostly disappeared.

    The allies, as indifferently inspiring as they mostly were in equipment and tactics, did have a lot going for them:

    -A DEEP and invulnerable industrial bench.

    In contrast the Red Army & Russia would be subject to full time tactical air interdiction 100’s of miles deep into territory that was already badly damaged, and sudden appearance of the strategic airforce assets able to crush concentrations and rail-heads would have thrown them back badly, you can’t blitz without mountains of supplies. By 1945 the allies were getting very good at nailing anything that moved or stood still in the open.

    -Complete and total domination of the western oceans, once the Kriegsmarine threw in the towel. At that point whole resupply problem of europe eases, new ports can be used, and fleet assets can be used offensively.
    Headline du jour: “US Marines assault Leningrad/Koenigsburg from sea, open new front, cut off Russia’s northern army group from supply. Denmark opens undamaged ports to allied logistics”

    – A different plan: many projects the allies were working on in the war, like heavier tank designs, would have been pushed up in priority when need became apparent. The allies basically made the decision in to maximize Sherman production, and accept the casualties. That would have changed right quick.

    – Rommels comment: The Americans know the least and learn the fastest of any army I’ve ever had to face.

    I have every trust that after the initial shock the allies would retooled, re-equipped and have ground forward, and our communist “friends” pulverized.

    The cost though, would have made the Destruction of the Reich look like a horrible appetizer.

    “Negotiated peace” is a term which jumps to mind.

  7. America’s airpower and artillery would have broke the Red Army like a stick.


    Zhukov’s Kursk Defense



    General Bradley’s Operation Cobra 1000 heavy bomber preliminary bombardment.

  8. Occurs to me, IIRC US supplied a lot of support equiment to the USSR in WW2 i.e. deuce-and-a-half trucks, radios, etc. How well and for how long could the Soviet Army function without them?

    Also, towards latter stages, Wehrmacht had considerable shortages of artillery pieces and shells. US/UK armies had them on much greater scale. Maybe enough to disrupt Soviet offensives?

    OTOH, Trent Teleko suggests USAAF air power would have broken the Soviet back.
    Not so sure. In 1944 the Western allies had virtual air superiority, if not supremacy.
    I suspect that the the Soviets would have been a tougher nut, given that in 1944 the USSR deployed about 15,000 front line aircraft, compared to c.2,500 for the Luftwaffe in the west.

    Anyhow, from the strategic point of view, the US was in 1944/5 planning on transferring a good deal of effective force to the Pacific.
    If such redeploment was implemented, it is significant that US war plans of the later 1940’s, involving the use of about 130 atomic bombs, would have caused massive damage to the USSR.
    But nevertheless, USAF General Harman submitted that, if the USSR opted for war, even this could not prevent the Red Army invading western Europe, or compel a Soviet surrender.

  9. Facinating. I tend to agree with your analysis inrespect of the ’40’s in Europe. and even in in China. In the 50’s and 60’s things are less clear to me. Should we have used nukes at the Yalu river? should we have backed the Hungarian revolution of 1956?

  10. great post, great thread. Think I agree a little more with Fred than with Lex as to the relative capabilities of the US and Soviet forces in ’45, though. I don’t want to get too military-geeky here … oh, wait, actually I do! The JS-II was a fine tank, but its 122mm gun had about the same armor penetration as the German 88mm (or the US 90mm, on the Pershing and on the M36 Jackson), and the big 122 rounds meant (a) low rate of fire, since nobody had autoloaders, and (b) lower ammo stowage capacity. The T34/85s were at best an even-up match for the “Easy Eight” Shermans (which performed very well vs. them in Korea). Soviet strategic bombing capacity was about nil, vs. the US with the B-29s coming into service. The Soviets of ’44-’45 were very, very good, but they weren’t ten feet tall and bulletproof. And I don’t think that the Germans were “much better fighters than our guys”; that was an argument put forth by SLA Marshall in books like *Men Against Fire*, but Marshall has been under increasing critical scrutiny for years now … I think the only thing anybody can say for certain, though, is that a US-USSR war in Europe in ’45-’46 would have made the effects of the 30 Years’ War on Germany look like an ice cream social …

  11. John,

    Western Allied airpower would have eaten the Soviet airpower for breakfast. Once Soviet air power was gone, so would be Soviet ground force mechanized mobility.

    If the Eastern Front is where the German Army was bleed white. Then the West is where the Luftwaffe was killed and the mobility of the German Army was stolen.

    The Western victory in the air would have been a matter of command and control, equipment and organization. The Anglo-US air forces were regularly throwing multiple 1000(+) plane bomber streams with several hundred fighter escorts into Germany in 1944. East Front aficionados usually make light of this because the Soviet Union was out of B-17 range, saying that the Western Allies had to “get low” to engage Soviet ground forces, grandly ignoring/denying the implications of the Cobra bombardment for Soviet East Front massed formations.

    In terms of equipment, doctrine and training the Russians had never faced that kind of integrated and coordinated aerial firepower the Allied had. Most of Soviet fighters were _very_ short legged. P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightning’s could literally hang over Soviet forward air fields for hours while the Soviets could stay in the air for at best 30-45 minutes. American replacement fighter pilots were getting 300 or more hours of flight training before they arrived at the front in 1944-45 and veteran pilots were being rotated back to the States as instructors. Soviet replacement pilots were getting less than 100 hours in the air and veteran pilots were being flown until they were killed. Sure, this generated a few aces with hundred of aerial victories for the Soviets, but the average Western Allied pilot would have a skills superiority over the average Soviet pilot approaching that of the US Navy over the Japanese at the Marianas Turkey Shoot.

    Then there are the three lesser triumphs of the Allied Tactical Air Forces that East front devotees are hugely ignorant of. First, the ATAF’s drove the Luftwaffe out of B-25/B-26 range of England long before the Normandy landings. The huge fleet of American medium bombers and fighter escorts was what gave the Western Allies air supremacy over France by destroying every German fighter base within hundreds of miles of Normandy. The Soviet mediums were few and largely made up of lend lease American A-20 and B-25 bombers.

    Second, after driving out the Luftwaffe from French airfields for the safety of Germany behind a screen of French based radar sites, the ATAF’s destroyed the French rail system and so interdicted French roads that the German Army could not move in daylight. Were it not for the fact that allied air planners missed the supply capabilities of the French river barge traffic, the German Army would have collapsed in Normandy from lack of supply.

    After France fell, and Allied air force targeteers had a chance to digest the lessons of the French transportation interdiction campaign, the Allied Tactical Air Forces transportation campaign wrecked the entire German rail system and river barge traffic before the Ruhr Valley fell. They did it by hitting every minor rail switching yard, every rail station and every river port within days after the decision was made.

    The Soviet logistical train was made up of lend lease trucks and they were the Soviets live line from the eastern Polish border to the German front lines. Roads from Germany to Ukraine would have been a kill zone for American P-47s and British Typhoons within weeks.

    In terms of the strategic air war, the American B-29 fleet in Iran could have done to the Soviet Caucus oil fields what the American Mediterranean Air Force did to the Ploesti (sp?) oil fields in Rumania. After that, it really does not matter how many tanks the Soviets had or how good. If there is no fuel to put in them, they were expensive and vulnerable pill boxes.

  12. I recall reading the first volume of ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, and Solzenitsin discussing with a fellow officer whether the Allied armies or the Soviet army was “bled white” by the war. When you look at the modern numbers now available on Soviet losses, you might begin to wonder how long 1945 USSR could continue a fight. But likewise, the US had around 88-90 divisions deployed in Europe, and that was about the maximum the transoceanic supply line and our ‘limited mobilization’ could support.
    The answer would be in who would dictate the nature of the war. I always remember the adage about amatuers discuss strategy and tactics, professionals discuss logistics. If we were to fight such a war in retrospect, solving the logistics problem (which went a long way to losing the war for Germany), would indicate the winner/loser in the conventional warfare arena.
    As Mr. Telenko mentions above, long range aviation could destroy the old USSR oil production, which would freeze the operations of any modern mechanized army.
    Lastly, war is hell. I am glad such a war was never fought. The Russians suffered hideously from the war, from their own inept leadership and Stalin’s political generals; willingness to rack up huge caualty numbers to achieve tactical goals, and the incredible barbarity of the occupying Germans. The Eastern Front was a huge meat grinder which rivalled any other war ever fought in its human cost. Even now, Russian, German, etc. have not fuly reckoned the human cost. Amen.

  13. I’m not impressed with the T-34 with either the 76 or 85mm. The Sherman with its’ latter 76mm was a better gun. Russia’s own tests showed this. The T-34 wasn’t nearly as good of a tank as some would believe. Like the Sherman, they just had lots of them.

    Weak armor, lame ammo, crowded turret. Pfffft. Sherman’s ate them in Korea.

Comments are closed.