"Wandernder Kessel"

(Finally, after about ten weeks, a new military theory text on the blog:)

A "wandernder Kessel" (moving pocket) was created several times by German forces after the turn of World War Two.: A force of size division up to army was encircled, but did not break or stay in place. Instead, it slowly fought its way back to friendly troops.

These involved forces were usually of minimal remaining combat power once they reached safety, but they were still capable of being refitted with replacements and new equipment in a few months.

The Hube-Kessel was such an example, afaik the biggest one.

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Let's think about it; they were encircled, but obviously the encirclers were not strong enough to eliminate or at least fixate the pocket.
This points at a -in relative terms- low strength of the encirclers.

Voilà, we're at my favourite topic; how to do end/win in continental warfare with a low force to area ratio (quickly).

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The encirclers were not capable of laying a defensible (robust, stiff) defensive line/zone around the pocket. In principle, this situation (an army encircled by another army, but still able to move) is comparable to the hypothetical situation of a brigade being de facto encircled by armoured recce units which cut off supply by land but cannot stall movements entirely.

The historical moving pockets were neither axis nor allied decisive successes; they were rather a kind of draw, in which the encircled troops suffered more badly than usual while the encirclers failed to achieve a full success.

There is something in the historical scenario that should be of great interest, though: Those moving pockets all moved towards friendly forces; none of them dared to attack even deeper. That would have been outright idiotic, after all.

I guess I mentioned in some other blog post before that modern conventional land warfare would tend to have no front lines as seen in 1914-1951. The German army was 85% foot-mobile with horse-drawn carts and 15% motorised or armoured. We never rebuilt the cheap quantity component of the non-motorised infantry divisions; nobody did in Europe.
The Cold War and post-Cold War army is fully motorised. There being no quantity component, who should establish and defend a front line?

So there will likely be no front line, but military theory and doctrine does not seem to have caught up with this fully. I found little if any evidence for an active substitution for front line functions, at least. Front lines had many functions; most importantly they kept the opposing force from advancing broadly and forced them to concentrate for a breakthrough.

Modern conventional and highly mobile land warfare could see dozens of brigades facing each other, and it would be terribly unstable because the cruise speed of such formations suffices for crossing an entire continent in a week.

It would be certainly interesting to have something in the repertoire that stabilises the situation and keeps OPFOR from doing so. There are some options involving a similar (instead of dissimilar) response (brigade manoeuvring against brigade), but to be honest; I don't trust them. I don't trust air forces either, for they would surely relocate their squadrons if OPFOR is just a few hours away with no easily defensible geographical obstacle (river, mountains) in between.

What if we turned OPFOR formations into moving pockets? What if our skirmishers / armoured recce units would even infiltrate deep (remember, there's no front line holding them back) and turn even OPFOR brigades ahead of ours into moving pockets?
They would probably not only give up any short-term offensive plans - they might actually run for safety, and attempt to create a front-line-esque safety cordon along a geographically suitable line.

They might as well go hunting and split up in the process (into spaced battalion groups) - but that would make them vulnerable to 'blue' brigade attacks.

The most crucial part would be to convince the encircled leaders that they are indeed encircled. On the other hand, they might make terrible decisions if they ignore the situation.

And there we are at my almost two years-old text "The square trick", where I laid out quite the same, just with a few thoughts less advanced. My rate of progress may sound kinda slow (which it probably is), but then again I don't publish everything...


P.S.: This may be of interest in the context of moving pockets: Crisis in battle



  1. What were the numbers of NATO brigades deployable to Europe?

    Given that a brigade could doctrinaly defend a front of 15 to 20 km, does this support your assumption, that NATO could not have formed a defensible front line and still maintain a viable reserve?

  2. 26 divisions in Central Europe, plus the French. That's about 80 brigades worth at about 1,000-1,500 km front line (if there was such a thing as a front line established).

    The doctrinal assumption that you mention seems to stem from the confession that it had to be done since no more brigades were available.

    15 km per brigade was considered merely enough for a delaying action by mid-50's military experts, based on WW2 motorised/armoured formation performances. Actual defence (stops, not only slows down) would have required a division for 15-20 km.

  3. I guess this is the peace time strenght?

    "The doctrinal assumption that you mention seems to stem from the confession that it had to be done since no more brigades were available."

    Tactical nukes? Increased mobility, effectivenes, C3I and survivability of weapon systems?

  4. Post-WW2 divisions had faster vehicles than wartime divisions, but they were (and are) not faster but rather more sluggish. Battlefield agility suffered especially since many exercises were replaced by computer simulations (in excess of old-style wargames).

    Tactical nukes; the point of having conventional forces was to be able to hold the Reds back without risking a nuclear escalation. Besides; nukes aren't that effective in a low force density scenario. 50's operational research expected multiple Hiroshima-sized nukes per regiment and still up to 50% survivors.

    26 divisions - yes, that was peacetime strength. Then again, reservists, their stored equipment and other reinforcements would not be anywhere close to the effectiveness of an active brigade for weeks after mobilisation.

    C3I; staff procedures have slowed down on all levels post-WW2. The French army's fatal slowness at Sedan '40 was faster than the staff speed targets of even some major 80's NATO armies.

    The only real improvement was the gradual increase in standard artillery ordnance (155 mm howitzer) range; arty is the primary backbone of a thin defensive line.

  5. I would think the North African experience in World War II would be analogous to what you are talking about. No font line was really held in that theater. Rather, a few strong points were held and from them very fluid battles of maneuver were fought.

  6. I'd be really interested in hearing you expand on why staff procedures have slowed down so much since WW2

  7. A thin hedgehog position line backed up by artillery and powerful mobile reserves is effectively a front line. You don't need continuous trenches for a front line - you only need to have continuous observation and reach with your firepower.
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    About staffs; see Jim Storr, "The Human Face of War" for additional info on the subject. Peacetime excesses coupled with a tendency to create too many officers in peacetime in preparation for a thinned-out wartime army, vastly expanded responsibilities (Corps HQs today care about intel that formerly only army groups had to care about) and of course much more info to process.

    Computers didn't create a paperless office because printing became so simple, and great radio comm didn't speed up land forces because they could report and process so much more info...

    Greater weight efficiency in infantry equipment doesn't make the infantryman's load lighter but adds to his capabilities while more and better radios don't speed up a formation; they add to its message traffic.

    Some human fallibilities are quite predictable and typical.

  8. We didn't see large scale high density combat action atween peer/peer+ enemies since 1945. Well, parts of 1973 came close, but the Arabs didn't use their air power for offensive jobs. Nobody knows if the West's forces would work as imagined. Despite - or let's say because - of all the computer simulation I've seen &c I'm not optimistic. Anything to the right of 10 days is the unknown land. My qualified feeling is that no Western force today can develop the overall combat power of a large Wehrmacht combined arms formation. Just thinking that those political generals we prefer these should make actual decisions under stress of major combat actions - LOL!!

    Re fatally slow staff work: Agree! agree! agree! Our now dominent American way of doing business was always slow, never designed for maneuver warfare, never evolved past the 1930's. But the real crucial point is they never did and don't do trust their own people. That's why - and because in reality it's a social club - everything goes up to 3* and 4* level. The campaign in the -stans sped up certain aspects for the beloved SOCOMs, but for regular units still not even close to the level that technology would enable.

    The dynamic non-linear battlefield would e.g. require much closer ground-air cooperation and much directer access to CS assets than is the case today. Not wanting to sound "l33t" here, but the forces have to become a "pooled cloud force" (or whatever you want to call that), with a much higher level of authority at much lower levels, coupled with much better quality of actionable information at these lower levels. As long as the force structure isn't massively flattened we won't see what technology would actually enable the forces to do. Thanks The Old Man Above the other guys are even further back than we are!

    The lack of a frontline is not a problem in our conflicts, as they are either expeditionary, or COIN anyway. And the answer is simple: The need for a real frontline is not planned for. And non of our expeditions have been challenged, so ...

    But just one thing to think about: Would the U.S.Army have been able to stop an all-out assault of Saddam's armored forces during the fall/winter ODS build-up in '90? Looking at those huge static supply camps? And since then things have not improved.

    Re artillery: In a high density conflict artillery would be overwhelmed by firing requests, would run out of ammo almost immediatly, and not survive for more than a few hours. No Western/European force has enough heavy artillery complexes.

  9. – What if our skirmishers / armoured recce units would even infiltrate deep (remember, there's no front line holding them back) and turn even OPFOR brigades ahead of ours into moving pockets? –

    I’m a non-mil guy so this may be a dumb question, but wouldn’t petrol requirements be a serious limiting factor in such a scenario?

  10. It depends. Wheeled armoured recce vehicles can easily be built for 1,000 km road range and tracked ones (even MBTs) for 500 km.


    That would allow for about 200 / 100 km deep operations without resupply.

    There would of course be some opportunities to capture fuel, and it's also conceivable that occasionally resupply would be possible.

  11. Could a similar effect conceivably be achieved by placing forward observers on a grid (not a strict grid, I suppose, lest the other side figure out the logic)? The challenges I can see (again, as a non-mil guy) would be getting the observers in place, having enough to begin with, communications (detection and jamming), and delivery (though cruise missiles are always an option even if artillery and close air are off the table, right?).

  12. Long range surveillance teams of 5-6 men are indeed a major component in y concept. There's only so much you can write in a blog post before you lose the reader, though.

    A skirmish corridor of a few hundred km depth cannot be surveilled satisfactorily with company to battalion-sized elements. You would need too many.

    The answer is to ditch the combat capability from the requirement and go for a much smaller, stealthier element for the surveillance mission; the LRS team. And I don't mean the gold-plates LRS which are meant to be inserted and extracted with high-end helicopters or to infil/exfil by foot at a snail's pace. I mean normal troops trained for LRS, inserting with the armoured recce/heavy skirmisher companies and exfiltrating either the same way or with whatever vehicle they can get (worst case; a bike).

    It's enough if these have eyes on bottlenecks and roads plus the ability to inspect semi-mobile objects spotted by a SAR/GMTI capability or satellite sensors in general.

    6 man teams are few enough to keep an eye on almost everything of interest, but they cannot create the encirclement effect.

  13. One thing that might be of interest to you with your concept of armoured recce/skirmishers are the plans for the defense of northernmost Sweden during the post-WWII era.

    It was based on a few conventional infantry brigades with armour support (trained at three regiments), joined by specially trained rangers operating in platoon and company strength (trained at two regiments). These operated independently from the roads and other prepared ground, with the primary task of cutting enemy communications, raiding, and sabotage. Some more specialised units operated in squad strength, but then had more of a focus on surveillance.

  14. That sounds similar to German-Austrian "Jagdkampf", but dismounted actions are very slow and thus limited in their potential. It takes something more similar to armoured recce to pull off the whole trick.

  15. Thing is, these were mechanised rangers. Snowmobiles, bandvagn 202/206 et c. Given the distances and the force, population, and infrastructure densities in northern Sweden, some sort of mechanisation was needed.

  16. North Sweden is on my map a combination of Tundra and coniferous woodland. Railroads, roads and other objects of interest are rare.

    To strike against the rear communications in such a terrain sounds a lot like the Japanese campaign in Malaya 41/42 - the Japanese even pushed the British Empire troops back with turning movements there.

    However, North Sweden is strategic backwater. It got iron ore that depends on maritime shipping, but other than that it's clearly a terrain that invaders could and would have ignored.

  17. Quite the opposite!

    Northern Sweden lets the reds attack the Lyngen position from behind, rolling up the Norwegian front and allowing the Backfires to base much farther to the west threatening both Strike Fleet Atlantic and REFORGER.

    Especially as there is a huge gap between the valley leading up to the Lyngen position and the heavily fortified Kalix line (around Boden) to the south. This was was supposed to be defended by a single company of infantry or rangers, though in reality NATO troops (either Norwegian troops or the USMC brigade earmarked for Norway) would probably have flooded in to take up a blocking position around Kiruna.

    Well, it's all gone now, anyway.