Historical crappy ideas. Today: "Fall Blau"

Fall Blau (case blue) was the title of the Axis summer offensive of 1942 on the Eastern Front.

Historical advance of the axis forces as part of Fall Blau - (c) by gdr

Early 1942.
Germany had needlessly declared war on the United States late in 1941 and had learned that the Soviet Union was still powerful despite the incredible Red Army losses of the second half of 1941. It was predictable that U.S. forces would make their involvement felt in the next year (1943), and the British were still building their forces and learning valuable lessons in North Africa. There were no reserves left for securing the undefended Western Mediterranean in the next winter - the Red Army had to be defeated decisively in 1942 if Hitler's military long-term strategy (defending the conquered regions against the superior economic power of the Allies) should stand a chance.

The Soviets expected the German OKW (supreme command of armed forces) to be intelligent and to seek a decisive battle in the centre of the front, near Moscow.

The Stavka (or Soviet High Command), was unable to discern the direction of the main German strategic offensive in 1942 that they were expecting. Stalin was convinced the primary German strategic goal in 1942 would be Moscow, in part due to Fall Kremel ("Case Kremlin"), a German deception plan aimed at Moscow. 57% of all Red Army troops were deployed in that region. However, the direction of the German offensive was still defended by the Bryansk, South-Western and Southern fronts that between them accounted for 25% of all All-Arms armies, nearly 30% of all Soviet artillery, over 38% of all tanks and 42% of all Red Air force aircraft.
(wikipedia, primary source Glantz/House)

Obviously, Stavka (Soviet supreme command of armed forces) was in error when it assumed intelligent major decisions at the OKW.

- - - - -

The actual Fall Blau was an operation that made sense at first glance for a long war. It was meant to reduce the capability of the Soviets to maintain their war effort. The advance to Stalingrad was meant to take out this traffic bottleneck (both in terms of railway lines and Volga shipping) in order to secure the flank for the main push to the south. This latter main push had superficially two advantages; to capture the world-famous oil producing region of Baku and -possibly- to enlist the Caucasus people (such as the Chechens) which were well-known for not being loyal to Moscow or to anything Russian in general. It seems almost nobody in the OKW thought about enlisting locals at all, though. Most were likely already conscripted or deported anyway. The oil was -as usual- the primary motivator. Oh, and the Gulf region with its Iranian oil fields was 'just behind' the Caucasus as well.

I wrote "at first glance" and "superficially" for a reason: The whole idea was crap.

Independent of what influential people might have thought at the time; the plan sucked.

The oil argument sucked:
Stalin was easily able to disable the oil production facilities and refineries. The oil wells and refinery at the small Maikop oil field north of the Caucasus were thoroughly demolished when German troops conquered the area.
The wells might have been repairable in the summer of 1943, but certainly not in the long winter of 42/43. Oil refineries are extremely complicated installations with an incredible quantity of pipes, boilers and so on. A repair after a thorough demolition was uneconomical. The construction of a new refinery would take years, especially at the end of a thousands of kilometres long railway supply line. Germany could have made use of some oil from around Baku by late '43, but only so at the expense of railway capacity for the army. Oil containers would need to be shipped to Baku in mostly empty state and then be shipped back by railway (and few over the Black Sea).

The Stalingrad as flank security idea was also crap:
What was the flank security for the army at Stalingrad itself? The low morale Romanian troops (Romanians had little reason for being motivated to fight on the Eastern Front in '42 after their experiences of '40). This vulnerable part of the front was hardly providing security for the Caucasus advance as long as it was itself in peril.

There were even more serious problems in the plan:

The deception by Army Group Centre:
STAVKA was led to concentrate forces near Moscow. What were they supposed to do with these forces after the main push to south became obvious during the summer? In the best case they would end up having hundreds of well-trained divisions ready for a summer offensive 1943. In worst case they would attempt a major offensive or two on their own. The bottleneck of the German supply lines near Rostov was an obvious target for a counter-offensive.

The Western Powers:
Seriously, there was not some kind of Sahara, Himalayas or mega Bermuda Triangle south of the Caucasus region. The Americans and British would have been able to open a new front in Persia/Iran and would likely have been able to push the overextended German Army back to the Caucasus in '43. That would have stretched the allied shipping lanes, but also the German railway connections.

The whole advance towards the Caucasus was unnecessary:
To cut off the Caucasus region from Russia at Stalingrad was already enough. There was no need for capturing the economic riches of the Caucasus region (or what would be left after Red Army engineer demolition teams worked on them) simply because cutting them off from Russia would have sufficed.

On 29 July, German units blew up the last railroad links from central Russia to the Caucasus region.
("When Titans Clashed", Glantz/House, p.121)

An alternative

A possibly more promising OKW plan ("promising" entirely from an apolitical, purely operational art point of view) would have been to mount equal deception ops in the south (pointing at the Caucasus), in the centre (pointing at Moscow) and in the north (pointing at cutting Leningrad off for good). This would have left Stavka clueless.

Some reserves could have been relocated from France and other occupied regions to Russia, especially after the British Empire troops got a bloody nose at Dieppe. Historically, such reserve movements only took place during the crisis of early '43. Hitler thought rather the other way around  in '42 and sent fine divisions from the Eastern Front to Greece and France.

The early offensives could have aimed at eliminating local problems at the front:
- Capture of Sevastopol (South; Crimea)
- Capture of Kerch (South; Crimea)
- Capture of Rostov (South)
- Interruption of the Murmansk railway somewhere east of Finland (instead of attacking Murmansk directly) in order to interrupt the North Atlantic connection between the SU and the UK.
- multiple limited offensives in order to eliminate problematic salients
- multiple local withdrawals in order to change the front line to a more easily defensible front line

The second phase would have been to about a move towards a Don river line and towards Stalingrad to cut off both the Volga shipping and the railway lines between Russia and the Caucasus region. permanently.
Alternatively an armour corps could have been tasked with dominating the steppe south of the upper Volga in order to block land traffic in the region permanently. This might even have substituted for the capture of Stalingrad.
Non-German forces could have held the Crimea and the region around Rostov against whatever the Red Army could have mobilised for offensives in the Caucasus region. Few Western allies supply  shipments through Persia/Iran could have reached the central front in autumn '42.

These two phases were mostly meant to improve the situation instead of aiming at a quick defeat of the enemy. They could have tuned the enemy's strength in the Moscow region to an optimal degree and would have allowed for maximum concentration of German high quality forces in Army Group Centre (leaving mostly 2nd rate divisions to defend north and south).

The third phase could have been about a decisive battle for the Moscow region. By now, some of STAVKA's reserves should have been diverted away from the central front. This could have been a final and decisive battle - the Schwerpunkt for the whole European axis. It would have required maximum priority for resources, limited only by railway capacity.

A German success in such a final battle was rather unlikely, of course. The German army had lost too many motor vehicles, too many strong horses, too many young infantrymen, too many junior leaders. It had still problems with concentrations of T-34 and/or KV tanks due to too few long 75mm and 76 mm cannons in service and it had the inferior railway network capacity on its side.

This alternative plan is typical for me; first gain a solid stance, then strike. My martial arts training has probably left its mark.

- - - - -

I came to this conclusion with the advantage of hindsight and plenty of time. The people at the OKW did not have these advantages, but they were supposed to (and it was their job to) settle on a better plan than the fatally flawed and superficial Fall Blau. They had the advantage of being a group of highly experienced professionals (and admittedly a few jerks). 

They didn't get the urgency right, were distracted by a too indirect means (oil) away from the key (the political, economic and military concentration in the Moscow region) and accepted a major risk too much. The jerk at the top of the OKW is to blame as well, of course.



Results of my little poll


Testing my readers:
What do you want me to blog about?

overall voters: 109 

Strategy 62 (56%)
Weird military theories 60 (55%)
Military History! 57 (52%)

Tanks! 45 (41%)
Ongoing Wars! 45 (41%)
$$$ and the military 38 (34%)
Ships! 37 (33%)
Aircraft! 36 (33%)
Bikini girls with big (g)uns! 34 (31%)

Civil rights stuff 16 (14%)
Funny videos! 8 (7%)

Almost nobody seems to like my funny video embeds. I'm shattered.

The rejection of the civil rights stuff was surprisingly strong, too.
What's the point of defending freedom against foreign powers if you don't maintain freedom at home?

Bikini girls was not a serious option (even though I decorated two or three blog posts with reduced clothes girls).



On the "modern system" tactical defence and the look forward into a low force density reality

I think I hinted before that the lack of WW2-esque front lines should have lead to much greater updates to land warfare doctrine than it did. I've recently read again the key chapter (ch. 3) of Stephen Biddle's "Military Power" and would like to present an example argument for my case.

Biddle describes what he calls the "Modern System" of land warfare; how to survive firepower in the tactical defence, how to survive firepower in the tactical offence and how to break through and exploit.

His "Modern System" is in my opinion both an excellent description for much 20th century warfare and a total misnomer at the same time. I think it's a misnomer because it's not "modern", but far below the potential and behind the times by half a century. We were just lucky to not have experienced a war that exposed the obsolescence of the now traditional doctrines.

My example is this one:
Biddle assumes that defenders cannot defend a static position without being overwhelmed by firepower (which is correct). He goes on to assume that the defender thus needs to withdraw from his position after brief firefights in order to fight another fight a bit farther back. Or another team needs to do the same. In either case, defence needs depth in order to slow down the breakthrough, delay the beginning of the enemy's exploitation phase and thus enable friendly reserves to launch a promising counterattack.
It's a beautiful description of the state of the art defensive system of 1917-late 30's.

There's a crucial problem, of course: This very same system wasn't much more than a WW1 Western Front and later a doctrinal system. It was impossible in late 1941 because of overextended forces; there are often simply not enough forces available to defend in depth. Biddle paid much attention to the breakout attempts of the Western Allies in Normandy '44; again a high force density scenario.
His "modern system" is valid, save for the exception that it's invalid in low force density scenarios - that is, in most modern warfare.

A defending (direct fire) team in a high force density scenario does indeed need to shoot and scoot - and to scoot backwards or at most sideways, for these are the only survivable routes. Backwards 120° is the most likely sector for withdrawal because concealed routes for repositioning are most likely to be found in this sector. The advancing enemy might be able to see other routes an reach them with his unbearable firepower.

This is very different in a low force density scenario. Again, a defending team does indeed need to be effective in a quick firefight (ambush) and then break combat asap in order to survive for a later fight.

This doesn't force it to retreat, to go backwards - to trade ground for blood. It could just as well reposition itself in order to get behind the attacker (an astonishingly effective tactic; tank platoons and snipers who did this in WW2 wreaked utterly disproportionate havoc). There aren't enemies everywhere "in front" of them, after all - there aren't "enough" enemies to restrict their choice of routes as much as in a high force density scenario.

Low force density furthermore lowers the chance that defenders are actually in place in order to meet an attacker. There's probably just a brigade on a 60 km 'front line' - with 20 km per battalion. That's about twice the width allocated to WW2 divisions and easily four times the width that an entire brigade should be assigned to defend in a delaying mission in a high intensity scenario. In short: The presence of defenders might be the exception to the rule. Many attackers could advance on roads using loud, bright red motor scooters and still reach their objective.
Even many higher force densities leave plenty room for infiltration and exfiltration on most terrains. No frontages can be assigned to formations in many conflicts; instead, areas and missions are being assigned. There is simply no front line, thus no portion of a front line can be assigned to a formation (or the other way around).

The lack of a high force density front line, a partial collapse of Biddle's modern system tactical defence character and the lacking necessity of a breakthrough phase change very much. Biddle's "Modern system" is obsolete whenever modern forces cannot meet the force densities observed by Biddle in his look back on 20th century land warfare.

We should look forward, understand what we need to do without a front line (and its very important functions), what we need to do with the forces that we have today and in the near future. Much has changed.
Again, just as before 1914, we only get partial and often misleading hints from small wars in underdeveloped countries. We need to read these signs, but we also need to reason ahead of the already observed in order to prevent that we're as awfully unprepared in the next great war as we've been in 1914.



German (language) security policy and military blogs

This time I used a very loose definition and also list some inactive blogs. Swiss and Austrian blogs were also included this time. The definition of "blog" in use was furthermore rather loose:

The usual bloggers are former generals, politicians, journalists or political scientists.



COINdinistas losing confidence

The new fighting season in Afghanistan is beginning and the COINdinistas are losing confidence both in the troops increase and the strategy / doctrine.

Here is a blog text that comes close to representing the mood. It also shows the basic errors between its lines.

First, the author looks at the worst case scenario, then he writes about how there's no obvious way how to influence that outcome decisively (allowing the antagonists no influence on the outcome) and then he's kind of depressed.

The basic - and extremely widespread- errors are


The focus on 'worst' case scenarios leads to wrong reasoning. A fixation on the 'worst' case doesn't allow you to hope for a good outcome and thus keeps you from attempting something risky. After all, you're a pessimist and only care about the risk, not the promise, of a risky approach.
This forces you into a dilemma, for there is usually no risk-free approach offering total success.


Many people have never learnt to be satisfied with their country having some influence on outcomes. They want it to define the outcome by itself, favourably. This greedy behaviour leads to an inability to let the things just flow, to allow others to intervene somewhat in their best interests, which are often rather advantageous for many nations.
This greed for decisive influence leads to terribly expensive policies. because it's so damn difficult to force your will on others

The COINdinistas are in my opinion mostly people with a 'we need to win and it's my job to push for victory' fixation. They lost sight of what's important in the greater picture due to this fixation, but eventually the crushing depression of many years with no real success is exacting its toll. We've been almost a decade in Afghanistan, but the situation is worse now than nine years ago.



Topics under preparation

This is what I'm planning to write about in the next weeks. Feel free to contribute info or texts if you think you can:

Nagamaki (the weapon)

Hs 123 (the aircraft type)

RHS Giorgios Averoff (the ship)

Modern Austrian defence policy/strategy

Fall Blau ('Case blue')

Finnish infantry tactics and original features

German security policy blogs and milblogs (a list)

Back in 2007, I planned to get some others on board, to join the blog as regularly contributing authors - but they were all weary of writing. In the end, I contributed a few times to blogs of other people instead.
It has become obvious over time that my idea of a good milblog is rather unique and thus I gave up the idea of regularly contributing authors, but I'm fine with tips and some help in research, especially when there are language barriers keeping me away from the best sources on a topic.




Quick message on the German defence review/reform

The short version:

There was a minister with an undersecretary who prepared a defence review. The chancellor's office didn't like the 'concept'. The minister left office because of a scandal, a new minister came, the undersecretary was fired asap, the new minister explained that he needs to look into everything closely and will not make major decisions/announcements till summer at least. Now we have rumours that there wasn't enough money for the old reform idea and the Bundeswehr might need to shrink to about 156k personnel.

And now the really short version:
It was a good idea to not pay much attention and to not write much about German defence reform in the last months. Nothing came of it anyway.


Exotic ancient weapons: (I) Majra

One ancient weapon fascinated me more than all others lately; the simple, yet tricky majra.

A majra (Turkish and Arabic word for it) is an arrow-guide for use with a bow, dominantly with a Turkish composite recurve bow, the most advanced of all ancient bows (only modern bows with non-natural materials and rollers surpassed its quality). There floats also the designation "nawak", I think that means the majra-equipped bow.

The Turkish composite recurve bow was made of wood, horn, natural glue and sinew and both fascinating in its exploitation of material properties and mechanics. Forget the crude English longbow, it was crap by comparison. Longbows are most of the time not ready for combat because the permanent stretching by the sinew would quickly degrade the wood. A composite recurve bow could be held ready for combat for days if need be.
Turkish composite recurve bow
The production and maintenance of a composite recurve bow was never really accomplished by European armies (even though in antiquity the people of Cretes used recurve bows and the Turks were able to maintain the Turkish composite recurve bow in the Balkans). The standard excuse was that it wasn't good in more wet climates, while the real reason was more likely the advanced construction and especially the production of a suitable natural glue.

An arrow guide like the majra turned such a Turkish composite recurve bow into an even more refined weapon. This add-on part (not permanently attached) allows to shoot darts instead of arrows. A dart is smaller, lighter - yet gets about the same stored energy from the bow. The result is a faster projectile that has a much straightened trajectory. The projectile was hardly visible in flight - dodging it was in practice impossible even at long range and hidden shooters could avoid detection at times.

An enemy without majra and without crossbows couldn't pick up darts and shoot them back, too.
The dart's small size was furthermore an advantage in itself: It was possible to carry about twice as many darts as arrows in a container of identical weight and bulk.

Turkish warrior with bow and majra

There was also a significant flexibility advantage in a bow with a majra: Crossbows were rather impractical for mounted troops, and had a disadvantageously slow rate of fire for dismounted troops on a battlefield. A majra user had the best of both worlds; crossbow ballistics, ability to use all battlefield pick-up ammunition and both dismounted and mounted utility.

A disadvantage of the majra was that accidents could happen if the arrow left the guide rail. Bows of all kinds were more training-intensive than crossbows and the latter were more demanding than firearms (a heavy crossbow was much more expensive than a an arquebus because of its mechanics). That's likely the main reason why the first crude and terribly inaccurate firearms were adopted over bows and crossbows (the scary noise being another great reason).

A true light crossbow has an arrow guide permanently attached and uses a bow for storing energy (unlike heavy crossbows, which use the principle of torsion). It's more bulky and heavier than a bow with majra, less multi-role and its only great advantage was the use of a trigger mechanism (in addition to safety of use). This allowed to wait or aim slowly without tiring the arms. This advantage was most pronounced in sieges when siege troops and besieged troops were waiting for an opportunity to hit someone careless. The more powerful and expensive heavy crossbows were preferred for this over light crossbows, though.

Coming soon: Exotic ancient weapons: (II) Nagamaki


edit 2014-05:
edit 2018: Apparently, the Byzantines called their equivalent to (copy of ) the majra "solenarion".
About picking up munitions; arrows need to be matched to bows for accuracy, of course. So battlefield pick-up arrows are poor quality arrows even if undamaged. The shorter arrows or darts for the majra did likely not require all that optimisation, and probably no skilled fletcher; they were too stubby to bend much during the shot anyway. This and the inability to dodge or actively block single shots (which was a real thing with bow arrows) may have been the most important reasons for the majra's existence.


Internet censorship in Germany: Agreement on rollback

The German federal government (cabinet) decided back in 2009 that internet censorship should be introduced to block certain internet contents (supposedly only child porn) in Germany.

Critics pointed out that this was
(a) entirely unnecessary because the German executive could simply wake up and ask the providers to delete the content for good - with great chance of success,
(b) it was ineffective because even children were able to circumvent the proposed censorship and
(c) it was a dangerous step towards censorship that would lay the groundwork for autocratic government by building both acceptance for their methods and build their tools.
It was also pointed out that such blacklists from other countries are extremely crappy; outdated and blocking lots of legal content.

A citizen petition of 134,000 people was ignored and the ruling coalition created the law in the parliament, but the government (not the responsible minister) was uncomfortable with it. The next elections yielded a different ruling coalition and they agreed to not execute this law, not to introduce the censorship.

This agreement was rather questionable as well, treating an effective law as something lesser than a mere coalition agreement detail. The parliament's president - in theory ranked higher even than the chancellor - criticised this recently.

The minister who was responsible for the stupid law had long ago moved to another ministry and had apparently lost enough political capital by now.

Finally, it turned out that simple work without any specific law enables policemen to delete 93% of the identified child porn sites within two weeks and 99% within four weeks. The mere censorship would not have achieved any such thing; all perverts would have been easily able to get past the utterly useless "warning sign" censorship wall. Meanwhile, seven billion people could still have reached the porn.

Well, there has been another cabinet-level decision; the shitty and 100% useless law will be rolled back soon. The members of parliament should ask themselves why the heck the gubernative is deciding such things and delegating merely the execution of legislation to the legislative, but this time it's at least about a good move.

FAZ article:
"Koalitionsausschuss Internetsperren endgültig vom Tisch"

The government has understood that it moved too quickly into a direction that too many Germans consider to be questionable if not dangerous. Our Chancellor Merkel has proved in the last few years that she's capable of changing course - probably not the least because politics is for her most likely almost entirely about power and only marginally about ideology or conservatism.
This flexibility is at times a good thing, for some of those corrections have been rather good ideas.


edit: Related: http://www.boingboing.net/2011/03/31/britains-back-room-n.html bad news from the UK.


Stiglitz: "The Mauritius miracle"


with a fig leaf of security policy context.

Sloppy journalism (as usual)

Some reporters misunderstood a pictogram (obviously showing a flare hanging on a parachute) on an illumination mortar bomb (there's "ILLUM PARA" written on it - how dumb are those reporters?!) for a star of david and a crescent.
End result: A conspiracy theory about Israeli weapons in Libya.

On another note, German news reported about the crash of a U.S. warplane (A-10) with "11000" rounds of ammunition on-board (many news outlets copy-pasted the faulty dpa message).

Let's look at the Spiegel news; it cites the dpa nonsense of 11000 rounds AND a much closer to reality report from a local newspaper about 1500 rounds. The Spiegel author KNEW that the figure was obviously fishy, but he DID NOT spend one minute on a quick wikipedia check in order to learn that an A-10 has a capacity for 1,174 rounds (or 1,350 if you look in the German wikipedia) and is written "A-10", not "A10".

Actually, 1,174 is what they usually load, 1,350 rounds is capacity, 1,500 is inaccurate and 11,000 is journalism fail.

It's really an inconvenient price we pay for free press. It's so enticing to think of a world in which reporters who do not fact-check properly be fined.



About theories and their application in general

I did recently mention the concept of accidental guerrillas; the idea that killing one wrong person spawns multiple new enemies.
A commenter stated that he doesn't believe in this theory because the Taliban would have spawned way too many enemies pre-2001 if it was correct.

Well, this touches on a very general problem; people have misunderstandings about how to apply theories (or non-scientific attempts to explain what's happening).

Many scientific theories look at an issue from one angle, on one spot and make a correct statement with very limited applicability. The correctness depends on the correct conditions. A neutron can split an atom, but it has to be the right kind of atom, and the neutron's energy needs to be right as well. Newton's mechanics apply, but only at non-relativistic speeds. Certain theories about an optimal currency area are valuable, but only if labour is really mobile. A drug may cure a disease, but only so if the bacteria isn't resistant yet.

In this case, the "accidental guerilla" explanation seems to be valid for the 2001-2011 time frame of the Western occupation of Afghanistan, but incorrect for the previous Taliban rule.
Why? Well, the Taliban ruled under different conditions. The Hama option was feasible and valuable for them and an effective counter to the accidental guerilla problem, but to us it would be a perversion and has a negative value. Different circumstances - different dominant approaches - different outcomes.

This is of course also applicable to my attempts to contribute to military theory (one of the things that differentiate this blog from almost all other MilBlogs). All but the most general theories apply only under certain circumstances in (hopefully well-defined) cases. Sometimes it's even up to other theories to define the limits of a given theory. That's how science and much else advances in the Western World; by incremental improvements coupled with a readiness of at least some people to accept the complicated or complex nature of their field of interest.