The War Illustrated No 169 Vol 7 December 10th 1943

THE BATTLEFRONTS by Maj.-Gen. Sir Charles Gwynn, K.C.B., D.S.O, When the map shows (he enemy occu­pying a pronounced salient defen­sively, it is obvious to the least expert eye that a blow delivered at the base o f the salient would threaten to cut his communications and line of retreat. There is, therefore, a prima facie opportunity of isolating the force in the salient with the possibility of annihilating it completely, and I have seen it suggested that the Russians have lost several such opportunities. Actually the situation is far from being as simple and straightforward as the map suggests. It must be remembered that the enemy does not present an immobile and impotent target, but is capable of evasion and of delivering counter-blows, for both of which the mechanization of modern armies gives great facilities: Failure to exploit the possibilities of the situation to the utmost cannot therefore fairly be termed a lost opportunity. That reproach would only be justified if no attempt had been made to take advantage of the situation, or if an attempt had been made ineptly. There are many factors which may prevent the best planned attempts being brought to fruition, and they are well illustrated by the numerous occasions on which the Russians have failed during the last year to accom­plish all that was perhaps too sanguinely expected, or to repeat the complete success they achieved at Stalingrad. The enemy may, if he acts promptly and moves quickly, evade the blow by retreat covered by flank defences. Falling back on organized lines of communication and depots, lie has fewer supply difficulties than the attacking force. ENCIRCLING Moves Made With Great Power and Speed Retreat, of course, involves the abandon­ment of territory and probably the loss of much material, but if there is room to retreat and no dangerous defiles have to be passed even a beaten army has an excellent chance of escaping complete disaster. The failure of the Russians to intercept the retreating Ger­mans from the Caucasus, though a strong, attempt was made, provides an example. When, on the other hand, the enemy delays or refuses to give ground* the diffi­culties of rounding him up are of another order. They depend on the strength and fighting power of the force that is within the salient, and still more on the strength and mobility of reserves behind its base. The length and quality of the respective communications of the defending and attack­ing armies are also of vital importance. The success of the manoeuvre that isolated the 6th Army at Stalingrad was largely due to its being initiated from nearby well- established bases. This not only facilitated surprise, but enabled the encircling moves to be made with great power and speed. Furthermore, the Germans had no reserve forces immediately available to strike at the outer flanks of the Russians, and had only limited railway facilities for their movement. When a counter-attacking force was eventu­ally concentrated it was too weak and met with heavy defeat. In its retreat, however, it protected the flank of the army retiring from the Caucasus, and though it could not stop the Russians’ vigorous attempts at interception it was able to delay them. It cannot be said that the Russians lost an opportunity of exploiting to the full their great initial success, but rather that the Germans, by capable leadership and rapid decisions and movements, were able to extricate themselves from a dangerous pre­dicament in the Caucasus. Later in the winter campaign, when they stood to defend the Donbas and the Russian drive farther north was threatening Kharkov, the Germans were again in a dangerous salient. The Russians made a most daring attempt to take advantage of the situation and to cut defensive flank to cover their retreat to the Dnieper. That sufficed to allow them to ex­tricate themselves from a difficult situation. When the Germans rallied behind the Dnieper and the Melitopol lines the map suggested that the Russians had two oppor­tunities of effecting encirclement. By break­ing through the Melitopol position there was a chance o f cutting off the force holding ii from retreat across the unbridged lower Dnieper, and also of isolating the force in the Crimea. That opportunity had in fact to be created by a. successful penetration of the the German line of retreat, but the ,ever,,. lengthening lines of their communications. M'-litopo!1 position. That it was created and and lack of railway transport were a heavy V exPl°llcd was a great achievement. railways at his service. The encircling drive that the Russians attempted under the circumstances could not be made in great force and was bound to have supply diffi­culties.' Obviously, too, it would be exposed to counter-attack. Moreover, the Germans had had time to bring up reserve divisions ¦from the west, which gave them a compact striking force. In spite of these unfavourable factors it seemed for a time that the attempt might succeed through its sheer daring. Then, however, an abnormally early thaw not VICTOR OF KIEV, General Vatutin, commander of the Red Army on the First Ukrainian Front, is in the foreground of this group of officers at anobservation post not far from the city, which was liberated on Nov. 6,1943. Speed of Vatutin’s army has earned him the nickname “Lightning Vatutin.” merely brought the Russian mechanized drive to a standstill, but placed it in a dan­gerous situation. It was the turn of the Germans to seize the. opportunity which possession of good railway communications and freshvreserves gave them. 'The Russians were driven back suffering a severe reverse,* though they escaped complete disaster. Here again it is unjust to talk of the Russians losing an opportunity, which under unfore­seeable circumstances in fact never really existed, in spite of the evidence of maps. A ' vkry similar situation occurred when after the failure of the German Kursk offensive the Russians broke through at Byelgorod and recaptured Kharkov. The maps showed that the Germans in the Donbas were again in danger of encirclement. But they still had the advantage of better communica'tions The Russians again at­tempted to exploit the opening, and again the Germans counter-attacked :but this time, without the assistance of the weather and without afresh and compact striking force, they had only temporary success, and in the end only succeeded in establishing a PAGE 4 t 9 ,map was the possible encirclement of the German forces within the great bend of the Dnieper. But obviously here the difficulty of making the opening from which opportunity would arise was immense. A wide, strongly defended river had first to be crossed and room secured to admit the deployment of an adequate encircling force. Moreover, even if the initial difficulties could be overcome, the difficulty of upbringing supplies and reinforcements through the bottleneck formed by temporary bridges remained. These difficulties seemed insuperable, especially as they would be increased by the enemy’s air action. Nevertheless, the Russians, undaunted, made the attempt, and, by their supremely daring- Kremenchug thrust, again made an opening. Delivered on a narrow front and penetrating deeply and rapidly, the thrust obviously invited counter-attack by an enemy served by an adequate railway sys­tem in full working order. As the military correspondent of The' Times remarked, the Russians had stuck out their neck and it seemed hardly possible that they could bring up their hands to pro­tect it. In fact, for a time von M annstein’s counter-attacks placed them in a critical position,-and though they stood theirground at Krivoi Rog it was probably only the Kiev breakthrough that pre­vented von Mannstein renewing his counter­attacks in greater strength. \£/'hat I have tried to show is that in war apparent opportunities are often little more than openings which a good player wil! always try to exploit, sometimes at consider­able risk, and will always be ready to seize. As at football, however, an opening does not always lead to a try or a goal, and in the majority of cases 9 good opponent can save the situation. Spectators maybe disap­pointed when no definite result is achieved, and arc apt to be more critical of the players who fail to score than of those who may. have missed openings by being caught flat-footed. Spectators who have been players are probably less critical, unless the attack has been lacking in determination or adroit­ness. They are satisfied with the improve­ment effected if it opens the way-for renewed attacks. What has been attempted often deserves applause more than the actual results achieved, and it is the determination of the Russians to miss no opening, and willingness to accept risks, that I think we should specially appreciate at their full worth. (Consult map in page 421.) Photo, Pictorial Press
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