Fighting a Losing War

The Wehrmact Retreats:  Fighting a Lost War, 1943.  Robert Citino.  Lawrence, KS:  University of Kansas Press, 2012.  ISBN 978-0-7006-1826-2.  Illustrations.  Notes & References.  Bibliography.  Maps.  Index.  Pp. 410.  $34.95.

Let's face it, 1943 is not the most exciting or written about year of World War II in Europe.  Sandwiched between the desperate campaigns of 1942 in Russia that culminated in Stalingrad, and the great desert battles of Rommel's Afrika Korps that led to El Alamein; followed by the momentous invasion of Normandy and the destruction the Germans in Russia during Operation Bagration, 1943 is the poor middle child.  Robert Citino changes all that with his new book.

Using the format and style of his truly groundbreaking work on the Wehrmacht in 1942, this volume is also not written as an operational history, but an operational, cultural, social, and historical analysis of the German army, its officer corps, and their decision making process as they faced the aftermath of the truly disastrous campaigns of 1942.

Two themes really stand out in this book:

1)  The Germans were operationally brilliant, arguably the best operational and tactical army of World War II.  BUT, the Germans had no successful war terminating strategy, that is, no achievable political goal that their military capability could meet.  Given Clausewitz' maxim about the relationship between war and politics, this pretty much left the Germans with NO hope of winning the war after 1942.  Of course, there was also no hope of concluding a successful negotiated peace either, especially after the "Unconditional Surrender" policy of 1943 and the savagery of the war in Russia.  Therefore, brilliant German soldiers such as Manstein, Rommel, and Kesselring could never really accomplish much besides dealing death and destruction.  As Citino points out in no uncertain terms, the German officer corps hitched their wagon to Hitler and now they were stuck with the bitter, bitter end.

2)  Moreover, for all their operational brilliance, the qualitative edge of the Wehrmacht was also beginning to erode.  Although the Wehrmacht whipped the fledgling American Army at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia and even restored the southern Russian front in early 1943, by the end of the year, the Germans were clearly on the defensive and would never mount a strategic offensive again, the whole Ardennes Offensive notwithstanding.  In addition, the clear material advantage of both the American and Russian industrial way of war was beginning to render the elegance of German operational art obsolete.  Waves of Russian infantry and tanks and tons of American firepower pretty much over-matched German ability at maneuver.

What really makes this book stand out is that Citino does an excellent job of bridging 1942 and 1944 and really gives the action of 1943 its due.  The Mediterranean Campaign did become a strategic sideshow on June 6, 1944 and it is sometimes forgotten how difficult that campaign was and the political machinations the Allies went through to try and get Italy to surrender.  Not to mention the ferocious German assault on their former ally as they seized control of the country and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of their former comrades-in-arms.   In addition, Citino continues the reassessment of the Battle of Kursk and its true strategic relevance as not really the greatest tank battle of all time and the turning point of the Eastern Front (Stalingrad really seems the logical turning point to me.)

Moreover, Citino really makes an excellent analysis of how the Mediterranean and Eastern Fronts INTERACTED in 1943, at least from the German point of view.  His chronology comparing events in Sicily, Italy and Russian shows the enormous pressure the Germans were under as they tried to shuffle their dwindling military resources around a truly continental battlespace to try and hold their adversaries at bay.

And of course, I had to think about an interesting speculation of what might have happened had the Germans truly thrown the Allies back into the sea at Salerno, which Citino seems to think could have happened if the Germans had been able to assemble a little more combat power behind the beaches to counterattack.  Although the full weight of Allied naval guns would likely have stopped any attack, even an Anzio like situation could have been very embarrassing to the Allies and had serious down-stream effects on the Allied plans for the amphibious landing in Normandy, something the British were never very enthusiastic about conducting.

This is another truly wonderful operational critique of German military operations, and Dr. Citino's truly encyclopedic knowledge of German military history and culture really go a long way in explaining why the German officer corps continued to serve Hitler and continued to fight what was a clearly losing proposition.

Combine this with the volume on 1942 and you have an excellent grasp of why and how the Wehrmacht conducted combat operations during two of the most critical years of World War II.