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What Was Germany's Story Before 1945 That Made Her So Formidable II?
It started at a very low level...
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Germany, led by Prussia-Brandenburg, has always had a reputation for regimentation, for rigidity, for strict obedience to orders. There’s an apocryphal story about a delegation of German socialists who were late for the beginning of a convention because there was no one at the train station to take their tickets. Part of this reputation is deserved, but much is not. Much is a misinterpretation of Auftragstaktik.
A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.
While the General Staff brought Germany much success early in the war by the sheer force of organization, they could not overcome the barbed wire and machine guns, nor the British blockade. Organization can compensate for inferior numbers, but it can’t overcome them. Germany’s enemies outnumbered her in 1914, and she had the misfortune to be “allied” with two very decrepit states: Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, which were as much a drain on her resources as another enemy would have been.
This is where the expression “shackled to a corpse” came from.
It is said that industrial warfare only delays the inevitable but makes more casualties in the meantime. Germany, in the wars of the 20th century, certainly seemed to confirm that. Both world wars lasted longer than they might have if the factories hadn’t been able to make it easier. What’s “industrial warfare?”
When machines make the weapons and ammunition, when the uniforms are no longer handmade, when the wherewithal of battle arrives at the front carried by machines, that’s industrial warfare.
The first industrial war, truly, was the American Civil War…but most “authorities” outside the US don’t agree with that, saying WWI has that “honor.” Well, that’s their problem…but…the Germans, like the rest of the world, embraced industrial war and carried it to its logical conclusion on the Western Front, where the machine-made barbed wire and the machine gun and shell-firing artillery turned what had been open battle into a siege, with walls only a few feet high but miles thick.
This is where the German Auftragstaktik came into its own.
A strict English translation of Auftragstaktik is “directive control.” Another translation is “mission-type tactics.” It’s better thought of as a cultural philosophy, the highest form of military professionalism that starts at the soldier level. The Prussians began developing the philosophy of Auftragstaktik in Fredrick the Great’s time, but the needs of command control before the 20th Century made them somewhat before their time. Still, the first requirement of Auftragstaktik is professionalism: the kind that gave the Prussians a bad name and the admiration of the military world at the same time. It made men seem like robots when, in fact, they were not…not at all. The philosophy of Auftragstaktik disciplined Prussians/Germans to obey orders, not follow them.
The distinction is the difference between a robot and a human.
A military organization without Auftragstaktik:
The General says “take the town by attacking up the road with the entire regiment.”
The Colonel says, “we march up the road and take the town with the entire regiment.”
The enemy artillery battery and the two enemy regiments blocking the road destroy the regiment.
The General says, “they followed orders. Good men.”
A military organization with Auftragstaktik:
The General says, “take the town.”
The Colonel says, “scout the road.”
The Scouts report, “there is an enemy artillery battery and two regiments blocking the road.”
The Major says, “we’ll take three companies and engage the enemy in the front while the other seven companies march around the mountain and take the town from the rear.”
The enemy, engaged in the front, cannot save the town when the seven companies take the town from the rear, nor can they save their supplies or their line of retreat. The enemy is destroyed by inferior numbers and the town is taken.
The General says, “they performed the mission. Good men.”
Simplistic, but the distinction is stark. The organization with Auftragstaktik had the flexibility trained into them to perform the mission, not just follow orders. On their own initiative, they figured out how not just to perform the mission, but to destroy the enemy while doing it.
You can train donkeys to follow orders. You cannot train donkeys to exceed orders.
Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder)
It’s top-down ordering, but it’s bottom-up performance. The modern business term is “empowerment,” but Auftragstaktik is much more than that. Those who perform the missions who are steeped in Auftragstaktik aren't mere employees who can come and go at will. The Germans trained in Auftragstaktik have been with their organizations often for years, know everyone because they grew up together since they were children, and are parts of a well-oiled machine trained the same way, generation after generation. Regardless of what regiment they are in, they are all trained the same way. The weapons changed; wheeled vehicles replaced horses, often, but those Prussian/German soldiers marched to the same step at the same time and knew that it was the mission, not just the orders, that were important.
Mission, not just orders.
In the above example, the Major used what Napoleon would have called a “maneuver de la derriere,” movement on the rear, which the Prussians/Germans made a “Kesselschlacht,” or cauldron battle, a battle of encirclement that, with their often inferior numbers, they relied on before Napoleon was born. It was the ultimate tool for the Germans to use in battle and what they, usually with their inferior numbers, always wanted to achieve, to cut off a larger opponent from their communications. It was what the Prussians/Germans achieved in 1870, what the “Schlieffen Plan” was supposed to achieve, and what the Germans meant to do against France in 1914 and did at Tannenberg against Russia. But Germany never had the resources to fulfill the “Schlieffen Plan” and even Schlieffen knew it…and said it before his death. When it was kind-of implemented in the late summer of 1914, only Auftragstaktik kept the Germans from being destroyed themselves.
Auftragstaktik, as a philosophy, prolonged WWI as much as the Marriage Made in Hell and industrial war.
When the Western Front turned into a stalemated charnel house by 1915, the German General Staff did the calculations and told their masters that there would be no way to break the deadlock without exhausting all their manpower. So they dug in…but they didn’t exactly wait…because they had Auftragstaktik. That’s where the trench raids started, and the British and the French and the Italians and the Russians followed…but the Germans…
They could scale Auftragstaktik up...and wait…where the others couldn’t.
The Germans believed they could wait their enemies out, minimizing their own casualties while bleeding their opponents white. Among others, Erwin Rommel started conducting battalion-sized raids, avoiding strong points and driving deep into logistical and support areas, on Italian positions in 1916, while his fellow Germans were pounding the French and British with more-or-less conventional slaughterhouse tactics at Verdun and the Somme. The Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies expanded the program to regiment, then division-sized raids, then full-size offensives involving several divisions in Italy and Russia.
Then the Germans brought their new Stoss methods to the Western Front in 1918.
While the smaller-scale raids had been a feature there since 1915, these were different. The exhausted British, worn out from the Somme and Passchendaele offensives, fell back in the face of the division-sized onslaughts. But the British didn’t completely collapse. Then, the Germans fell on bounties of food that they hadn’t seen in years, while their supply trains were mired in the mud behind them. They found a limitation of Auftragstaktik: their logistics. The Allies had learned the same thing, and used those same tactics against the Germans. While Auftragstaktik is useful for the attack, it is less utilitarian in the passive defense. What they had been doing with trench raids was an active defense; a waiting game.
But the Germans learned much, and what they learned they applied when they rebuilt their armies before 1939.
The blitzkrieg of Poland, the Low Countries, Scandinavia and France were all examples of Auftragstaktik writ large, but found another limitation: geography. They reached the English Channel and found soldier cleverness and dedication to the mission could not overcome the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, and twenty miles of water. When they invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, they found Auftragstaktik could not overcome Soviet numbers or the sheer size of the theater.
By 1942, the Allies also learned much of what Auftragstaktik was all about and used it against them.
Again, numbers, logistics, and geography worked against Auftragstaktik, and so did their boss. Hitler had learned about Auftragstaktik in the trenches in WWI, but didn’t much care for the “old boy’s club” of the senior officers in the Army who told him what he could not do. He won his early victories using bluff: the Rhineland, the Saarland, Austria, Czechoslovakia. Because he had the confidence of these early victories, Hitler began to overrule his generals in operational matters in 1941, undermining Auftragstaktik by removing soldier’s initiative, the heart of Auftragstaktik.
That was the doom of the German war machine…delayed by industrial war.
In the 1960s, Trevor Dupuy made efforts to quantify military performance using his HERO system. It was fascinating to try to follow, but even the most diligent student—and Dupuy himself—could not mathematically recreate German military excellence without some very creative mathematics. As a historian—he was a good one—he knew about Auftragstaktik but could not make his formulas work without putting his thumb on the scale for the Germans…mathematically, of course. In Dupuy’s failure, I submit, is the key to Germany’s capability: Germans won because Auftragstaktik is for winning smaller conflicts, not larger ones because, ultimately…
Providence is always on the side of the big battalions.
Auftragstaktik made German armies formidable, but what made them powerful was their near fanatical insistence on the counterattack after any reverse, no matter how large or small, regardless of the odds and regardless of the position. Everyone who fought the Germans from Fredrick’s day onward quickly learned that if the Germans learned anything from the Austrians, it was persistence. In that, Auftragstaktik became more than a doctrine, more than a philosophy, but a way of life. If ever the saw “better to ask forgiveness than permission” had any validity, it was with the German forces.
Steele’s Battalion: The Great War Diaries
While Steele’s battalion isn’t the biggest, the US Army’s divisions in WWI contained 28,000 men at full strength—the size of British or French corps. Below is a gas-operated, clip-fed, 8 mm Hotchkiss machine gun, similar to what Steele’s unit and much of the AEF in France used. But Steele’s outfit isn’t like other MGBs…
Steele’s Battalion is another literary experiment, kind of. The core and timeline of the narrative is his diaries—Ned is an inveterate diarist, writes about everything whenever he can. Expect to see Steele’s Battalion in April 2024.
Cruiser: A Noun, A Verb, An Adjective
Battle of Britain Reconsidered
On 14 October:
1867: The last shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, resigns. The Tokugawas had been the shoguns—warlord/strongman/headman—of Japan since 1604, and Japan was frankly sick of them. Still, the samurai clans that had dominated the archipelago for nearly a thousand years held control of everything worth having. Yoshinobu’s resignation paved the way for Japan’s hybrid political government.
1944: Erwin Rommel dies in Herrlingen, Blaustein, Germany. Injured in an air attack some months before, Rommel was associated with the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler, though his involvement was at best peripheral and minor at that. Rommel is said to have taken his own life to save his family from Nazi retribution, regardless of his level of involvement.
And the second Saturday in October is NATIONAL CHESS DAY. Chess is the one game where bluffing simply doesn’t work, in practical terms. There’s no hiding on a chessboard; surprises are few, but blunders can turn into brilliance.