May 26 2010
I’ve been reading quite of bit of military theorist Alexander Svechin over the last couple of weeks, and came across a nice observation of his on the nature of future war. It fits well with a phenomenon I’ve always found fascinating, which is the disintegration of encircled Soviet forces in the fall of 1941. When Soviet troops were encircled en masse by the Germans, as at Vyazma, say, or Kiev, some managed to keep their cohesion and break out through the stretched-thin German encircling forces. Most, however, marched off meekly into German prisoner-of-war camps–some 600,000 at Kiev alone. It’s difficult to know for certain, but the experience that drove Andrei Vlasov into collaborating with the Nazis may well have been the disintegration of his 2nd Shock Army when it was trapped behind German lines outside Leningrad and eventually disintegrated.
The contrast is quite striking with the German experience at Moscow in the winter of 1941-1942, where cut-off German formations maintained their cohesion and held on until they broke out or were relieved. It’s also a contrast with the Soviet experience of spring and summer 1942, when the Germans were advancing as quickly through Ukraine and southern Russia as they had through Belorussia and western Russia in fall 1941, but not were getting nearly the same haul of prisoners. Soviet troops were much more likely to retreat in good order out of German encirclement.
The reasons for the difference don’t seem especially mysterious to me–the Red Army in fall 1941 was badly-commanded, inexperienced, and not particularly thrilled with Stalin. By spring-summer 1942, the Red Army’s high command was getting better and the genocidal nature of the German war effort was increasingly clear. Svechin’s observation is quite striking, and a damning indictment of what Stalin’s regime had done to the Red Army:
“The typical battle of the future is fighting in encirclement, when the enemy will be on all sides and above . . and any sort of precise information on the location of one’s own troops and the enemy will be lost. The greatest achievements of military technology have put the center of gravity back on the human material—on the soldier’s consciousness and dedication to the banner under which he fights.” from Front nauka i tekhniki # 7, 1934, republished in Postizhenie voennogo iskusstvo (Moscow, 1999), p. 423.