End of German operational art

It was Operation Barbarossa that definitively marked the end of operational art as a factor in German war making. Five interlocking factors were responsible. No less than the cavalry of 1914, the panzers of 1941 were unsuited for their operational mission. This had little to do with the often-criticized doubling of the panzer divisions’ number while halving their tank strength. It reflected an armaments industry with limited production, capacity, and policy decision that spread available resources across the military spectrum. The second factor was a strategic plan that denied any operational element by its lack of focus. In what amounted to an offensive cordon deployment, Germany’s three army groups advanced in divergent directions, each led by its own mobile divisions. Military, political, and economic objectives were shifting and conflated – not least because of a belief that the panzers could make good the mind-changes. The war aims of exploitation and extermination meant from the beginning that the Germans were fighting in 360 degrees. Finally, the Germans’ logistic weaknesses and the USSR’s underdeveloped infrastructure made it impossible to sustain mobility. And underwriting it all was a level of hubris alien to Moltke and Schlieffen, a technocratic arrogance that ignored potential obstacles instead of considering them – or perhaps, seen from another perspective, the solipsism of artist blinded by their inner visions.

Barbarossa’s scale exceeded the German grasp of operational art. The successive victories won by the panzers, the huge losses inflicted on men and equipment, the great encirclements of Minsk, Kiev, and Smolensk were essentially exercises in grand tactics, in the context of unravelling strategic objectives that were poorly defined in the first place. Operation Blue of 1942 suffered from the same problems, and thereafter the German army in Russia was impelled into a defensive mode whose paradigm denied any prospects of operational art. Manstein’s riposte after Stalingrad, the successes of his backhand, and second-strike counterattacks in 1943 were virtuoso performances – but again on the level of grand tactics, ultimately no more productive in terms of strategy as ‘operations’, particularly in German technical literature.

Operational art is the o-ring between strategy and tactics. By the summer of 1943, the Reich was approaching a dead end in both. Some of the Eastern Front’s most experienced armoured commanders were advocating a zone defence: deep and complex, to be sure, but with the panzers being used for immediate intervention to choke off local breakthroughs and mount local counter-attacks. The concept owed more to 1918 than to 1940. Instead of ‘punch a hole and see what develops’, it was ‘plug a hole and hope for the best’. Operational art must serve a strategic objective. Otherwise, it becomes grand tactics.

Source: J. Olsen, M. van Creveld. “Evolution of Operational Art”.