The Second World War was distinctly renowned for the multitude of battles, skirmishes, improvised clashes and chance encounters that brought its many enemy combatants into harm’s way. Many of them were planned, rehearsed and initiated well in advance by their high command staffrooms in order to progress the consistency of offensive momentum thus constantly compelling an opponent to react by keeping them on their toes in defense. This usually marks the strategic ascendency of one side over another for its capacity to encumber the enemy command’s freedom to maneuver its reserve forces onto more anticipated positions. Conversely, there were also instances where the enemy used its stealth and ingenuity in maneuvering its reserves to augment a principally defensive position in order to counterattack and assume an offensive posture in the expectation of retaining or seizing the strategic initiative.
However, not all battles follow the grand, strategic design that their high commanders have distinctly chosen to engender the overall success of the mission. The ‘fog of war’ dictum specifically portends a certain confusion to operational execution that is not always in accord with the suggested strategic blueprints of the overall battle plan. Some of these operational plans are considered strategic detours, plausibly meant for ulterior political, economic or territorial purposes with no overall correlation to the military progression of the war itself. But sometimes they are given a more preeminent status for which the high command doesn’t always see the unintended consequences or the mission’s redundancy in the overall, grand scheme of things. The results of these operations are nearly always costly to the attacker and sometimes even catastrophic. With that said, we now give you five of the most colossal and costly yet strategically unnecessary battles of the Second World War.
5.) The Second Battle of Kharkov (May 12-28, 1942): Fresh from its stunning counterattack on German forces in front of Moscow during the winter of 1941-42’, the Soviet Red Army high command, Stavka was being pressed by its frantic commander-in-chief Josef Stalin to renew the army’s offensive onto the strategically important, industrial heartland in the Eastern Ukraine. Stalin believed that a sustained offensive effort was just what the Red Army needed to keep the invaders on their heels in a westerly direction rather than moving deeper into the depths of the Soviet Union. But most of the high commanders at Stavka were adamant that the rejuvenated Red Army be given a reprieve from further offensive operations until it could be built back up to the levels it had maintained on the eve of Germany’s Operation Barbarossa. The Red Army may have inflicted a crushing psychological blow to the Wehrmacht’s pride by engendering their first strategic defeat of the war but their standing military formations were still dangerously depleted and would need a sustained refit and resupply period to make up for the humongous loss of men and material it had already incurred in the first eleven months of fighting.
But Stalin’s persuasiveness won out in the Stavka hierarchy, although the final plan that came to fruition was a watered-down version of the colossal, multi-faceted, military operation he originally envisaged for the whole Eastern Front. In the new plan the Red Army would concern itself solely with the retaking of the industrially significant city of Kharkov and if all went well, a further advance up to the Dnieper River which might plausibly collapse the whole German position on the southern sector of the Eastern Front. This entailed a two-pronged thrust from north and south of Kharkov, with the claws of a huge pincer movement descending behind the city, from which additional attacks could be mounted to the northeast against the German forces still situated on the Moscow axis or to the southwest, which would prompt a German withdrawal to the west bank of the Dnieper. The main attraction to Stalin was the presence of a deep Soviet salient carved into the German front to the south of Kharkov—the so-called Barvenkovo or Izyum salient—from which a northwesterly penetration could be made directly onto the enemy rear, to the west of Kharkov. The Izyum salient was one of the geographic remnants of the fighting in Southern Ukraine after the Soviet counterattack had shot its bolt at the onset of the spring rasputitsa, or wet season.
|Soviet POW's captured outside of Kharkov, May 1942|
But little did the Soviet’s know, the German high command had also taken notice of the Izyum salient and had formulated their own plan to pinch off the ungainly protuberance at the cessation of their current operations in the Crimea. Thus the Germans had already initiated a major reinforcement of their Army Group South forces in Kharkov and throughout the neighboring Donbas region. Although the German’s Operation Fridericus was not scheduled to go off until May 19, Hitler intentionally moved it up to counter the formidable gains the Soviet forces had begun to make against the German 6th Army, strung out around Kharkov. The Soviet forces under Marshal Semyon Timoshenko initially made strong gains and nearly succeeded in inducing a mass panic in the German rear. But his green and inexperienced formations were unable to cope with the immediate transition from offensive to defensive tactics when the German tank forces counterattacked and they were mercilessly corralled into submission when the bulk of the German Luftwaffe was transferred over from the Crimea. Two whole Soviet armies were annihilated in the resulting pocket German forces had created when they burst through the opposite side of the Izyum salient. This was a huge price to pay for an operation that had absolutely no strategic value for the further progression of the war other than Stalin’s inexplicable yearning to waste the cream-of-the-crop of Russian youth on inflicting maximum punishment on the invaders any and every chance he got.
4.) The Battle of Huertgen Forest (Sept 19-Dec 15, 1944): One of the acute psychological effects of Germany’s final collapse in Normandy and the subsequent Allied breakout from Northern France was that it engendered an almost mystical belief in the Allied armies that all German resistance was fading fast and that final victory was just around the corner. Most American and British commanders were already forecasting a Christmas at home for the bulk of Western Allied soldiers plying the rapidly moving front toward Hitler’s Westwall. However as they were soon to find out, the German Army was far from being dead and it’s formidable resistance was to demonstrate a steely resilience when pushed behind its own borders. The German Army was after all, the most well-trained and led, tactically proficient military force in the world and its high command was keenly adept at taking advantage of interior lines of supply and communications. It was not about to falter when pressed to defend their homeland from an enemy that had still not revealed its true intentions toward the vanquished citizens of Hitler’s Third Reich.
After Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s aborted Operation Market-Garden concluded the British attempt to break into Germany by utilizing a narrow-front strategy, the Western Allies fell back on their broad-front strategy and began moving up all along Germany’s western border. One by one the Allied armies fell into place: Gen. Dever’s 6th Army Group moving onto the southern front between the Vosges Mountains and the Swiss border; Gen. Bradley’s 12th Army Group taking its place on the line between the Saar and the westerly bend of the Rhine River and Montgomery’s 21st Army Group poised to break into the North German Plain from its staging points in Southern Holland. Right after the Germans put a halt to the British attempt to seize the Arnhem Bridge; armored forces from Gen. Courtney Hodges 1st US Army punched through a gap in the Siegfried Line and pushed their way into Aachen, the first German city to fall to enemy forces in the war. Bradley immediately ordered Hodges to strengthen the Aachen flank by undertaking infantry operations in the Huertgen Forest—south of the city—to keep the Germans from throwing major reinforcements onto the Aachen axis. Hodges began this effort on Sept. 19, even though the bulk of Allied resources were being allocated strictly for Op. Market Garden.
|German heavy infantry gun firing from the Huertgen Forest|
Gradually the battle in the Huertgen Forest took on a life of its own. The American commanders ordered the taking of the town of Schmidt, which was held to be the key point on the map for which German supplies would traverse the forest on their way to Aachen. American forces did take the town in October but they were swiftly expelled by determined German resistance and then they wasted three more major efforts to retake the town to no avail. From this point on, either through the calamitous effects of mission creep or Bradley’s hapless determination to seize the dams over the Rohr River, the battle began to suck in astronomical amounts of American manpower, artillery, armored vehicles and engineering equipment. But the more the Americans threw against the German defenses the more the defenders dug in and took advantage of the favorable defensive terrain to thwart each and every American advance. Thousands of American troops were whittled away in futile and unimaginative frontal assaults on well-fortified enemy positions. Yet slowly they pushed forward until developments further south compelled the American high command to break off the Huertgen Forest operation. The German assault in the Ardennes Forest finally put a brake on Bradley’s exorbitant, strategic folly. Moreover, the enemy aimed right for the part of the front which Bradley had reserved for a rest and refitting zone for all the depleted forces withdrawn from Huertgen to recuperate.
The Battle of the Bulge forced the Americans away from the Huertgen Forest for several months and they were only able to reach the Rohr River after the German forces had been decisively reduced in the Ardennes. But in the three months that Hodges components were engaged in the Huertgen, America’s premier, mechanized maneuver commander Gen. George S. Patton and his 3rd Army were left stranded in the Saar with empty fuel tanks in its armor and empty shells in its artillery batteries. These forces could have effectively navigated through the maze of river lines along the Main, Mosel and Rhine River basins if given the opportunity to do so, since the terrain in that sector greatly favored American armor. But Bradley made the calculated decision to place Patton’s advance on the backburner while he struggled to puncture the German front in one of the most inhospitable terrain features on Germany’s western frontier. Had Bradley shifted his main line of advance onto Patton’s axis in September, it is quite plausible that the Western Allies could have procured a crossing of the Rhine River later in 1944, which may have saved the 33,000 American troops that fell as casualties in the useless Battle of the Huertgen Forest.
3.) The Battle of Kursk (July 5-16, 1943): One of the residual effects of the Red Army’s vigorous, 500-mile romp across Southern Russia in the winter of 1943 was the ominous appearance of a huge, 60 by 90-mile salient protruding deep into German lines, situated smack-dead in the center of the Eastern Front. The impressive salient was the direct result of German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s momentous, “back-hand stab” counterattack to halt the Soviet offensive along the Donets River. Germany’s premier tactician anticipated further reducing the salient while his forces had regained the initiative but the sudden arrival of the spring rasputitsa brought all offensive momentum to a halt and both sides were forced to dig in and contemplate future operations in and around the formidable pocket. The massive bulge on the Eastern Front immediately attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler, who saw in its inviting silhouette a plausible start line to commence offensive operations for the summer of 1943. It would be a far less ambitious offensive than the previous German attacks in the summers of 41’ and 42’ but by this time in the war the German fuehrer had come to realize the futility of reaching out for such extravagant, strategic objectives deep in the heartland of the Russian interior. Kursk gave him the opportunity to remain on the offensive while eliminating a huge mass of enemy soldiers that could later materialize into a sizeable threat to the German position in the east.
Timing was of the utmost importance to the success of such a predictable operation. The German high command knew this just as much as the Soviet command would expect it. This brought a considerable amount of opposition to the plan among all the relevant German field commanders, not the least of which was Manstein and his operational counterparts, Field Marshals Gunther von Kluge and Walther Model, as well as the army’s blitzkrieg guru, Gen. Heinz Guderian. And as the weeks went by and delays and postponements continuously hindered the Wehrmacht’s preparations, the Soviet’s used the lengthening interval to embark on the greatest man and material buildup of a strategic, defensive bastion the world had ever seen. This gave pause to the German high command, which were naturally drawn to the salient’s strategic defensive accouterments as a way to forestall Hitler’s penchant for offensive warfare. With operational surprise surely negated because of the delays, the German generals practically begged to have Hitler cancel the plan outright and to seek a decision in the east by formulating a defensive strategy for the rest of 1943. But Hitler had no intention of ceding the strategic initiative to his reviled nemesis, Josef Stalin.
|German Tiger tank scores direct hit on Sov. T-34|
On July 5, 1943 Germany’s eastern army commenced Operation Citadel, the plan to pinch off the Kursk salient by executing two, simultaneous thrusts from both sides, through the base of the pocket. Hitler had amassed some 900,000 troops, nearly 2,900 tanks and almost 10,000 artillery pieces, rockets and mortars to provide the offensive punch to his undertaking. But these formidable numbers were unable to prompt the breakthrough the operation required to take the city of Kursk and encircle the bulk of the 1,750,000 Soviet troops situated inside the pocket. It was also a catastrophic waste of more than 70% of the German tank strength on the Eastern Front, which was now compelled to implement a debilitating, thousand-mile fighting retreat for the duration of the war. Once the German attackers had been halted on the bloodstained field of Prokhorovka, they had effectively ceded the strategic initiative to the Red Army and the colossal loss of men and equipment sustained during the battle greatly impeded their ability to counter the Soviet forces when they swiftly went onto the offensive.
In retrospect, the Battle of Kursk just may have been Hitler’s most devastating, strategic blunder since it sapped his army’s strategic reserve in the east right when it was needed the most. Had the fuehrer refrained from initiating offensive operations in the east as his most resourceful high commanders were advising, the German Army just may have been capable of enduring the series of powerful Soviet counterattacks that came on the heels of the Kursk battle and which might have allowed the Wehrmacht to undertake its own formidable, defensive buildup on the left bank of the Dnieper. If anything, a defensive posture on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1943 would have greatly extended the timeframe before the German collapse in the east thus creating a far different scenario for 1944, which could have brought grave consequences to the Western Allied invasion of Normandy. But Hitler’s decision to go ahead with the Kursk offensive, despite all the strategic inferences against such an undertaking was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. The overlying tragedy is the fact that the German Army was effectively done in by an operation that it should never have contemplated to begin with.
2.) The American Campaign in the Philippines (Oct. 20, 1944- Apr. 17, 1945): The year 1944 was to become the breaking point in Imperial Japan’s ability to forestall certain defeat in its long, expansive war with the Western Allies. After almost three years of hard fighting throughout the Pacific, US forces had irrefutably taken the strategic initiative and were moving closer by the day to the Japanese home islands. Although the Japanese Army was still capable of launching a surprise offensive in their more fortified, occupation zones in China and Burma, the areas in the Pacific controlled by the Imperial Japanese Navy were under virtual siege by an unrelenting US Navy and their indomitable amphibious forces of Marines and army infantry. The American’s dual command package of Adm. Chester Nimitz and Gen. Douglas MacArthur had put in place a formidable and dynamic strategic blueprint that had swiftly put a halt to the Japanese advance across the Pacific and they could now begin the final phase of bringing the war to Japan. The only question now was how to go about isolating the Japanese home islands from its scattered military outposts in the colonial lands it possessed.
After taking the Marshal Islands in January, isolating the Admiralty Islands in February and seizing Dutch New Guinea in April, Nimitz brought his powerful naval forces to bear on the Marianas Islands, in the summer of 44’. These islands, made up of Saipan, Tinian and Guam, would become the main staging points for USAAF squadrons flying B29 missions over Tokyo and the rest of Japan’s urban centers. By taking the Marianas the US could set its sights on implementing a strategic bombing campaign against Japan, just like the one that was now leveling Nazi Germany’s urban and industrial centers. At that time in the summer of 1944, it was believed that Japan would need a great deal of softening up before American ground troops could be unleashed on the home islands for the expected invasion. But before that immense undertaking could be contemplated the American high command would need to devise a plan that could best isolate the extensive Japanese forces committed in China. These powerful forces made up the bulk of active duty troops in the Japanese Army and would present a formidable obstacle to a US invasion force if they were to be redeployed in Japan for the islands’ defense.
|US Adm. Chester Nimitz|
In August of 44’, MacArthur and Nimitz were summoned to Hawaii to consult with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The American high command wanted to establish a detailed plan for the final phase of the war in the Pacific. During the proceedings two schools of thought, based on the staff deliberations of each military commander, came to dominate the discussion. MacArthur cited the moral obligation that the US had as the prewar occupying power of the Philippines, to come to the nation’s aid and free its people from the debilitating constraints of a harsh, Japanese occupation. Nimitz’s staff wanted to target the island of Formosa (Taiwan), since it offered a far less formidable obstacle then the huge Philippines archipelago and it was strategically situated close to the Chinese mainland, where US Navy and air forces could easily intervene in the shuttling of Japanese forces between the two countries. Nimitz reasoned that since the US had taken the Marianas Islands there was now a daunting barrier between Japanese forces in the Philippines and their high commanders in Tokyo. This effectively isolated the Philippines from its communications and supply lines. The harsh occupation was likely to continue but the Japanese troops stationed there were no longer of any strategic value to the defense of the Japanese home islands, thus Nimitz argued, should be allowed to wither away on the vine. At the end of the day, it was MacArthur’s plan that Roosevelt approved.
On Oct. 20, 1944, MacArthur commenced Operation Musketeer I, the US amphibious landings on the Philippines island of Leyte. After fierce fighting, the US 6th Army under Gen. Walter Krueger jumped across the straits and descended upon Mindoro and established a formidable air force base at San Fabian, from which to soften up the main Japanese forces on Luzon. In January the Americans descended across the Lingayen Gulf and moved onto Luzon, followed quickly by secondary landings on Bataan and south of Manila. Fighting was pretty much a one-sided affair and Japanese forces were brutally thrown back. The fighting in Manila was probably the hardest battle US forces had to face since the Japanese defenders—as usual—elected to fight to the last man. The whole Philippines campaign took roughly six months to conclude, although some Japanese holdouts fought on for thirty more years. US forces suffered some 62,000 casualties in the more than six months of combat; a relatively light price to pay for such a long, drawn-out affair. In the end MacArthur was able to redeem himself in the eyes of his adopted homeland by making good on his vow to return but one has to wonder if the action in the Philippines didn’t prolong the war somewhat longer, which a concerted assault on Formosa could have negated. Although taking Formosa would not have been a cakewalk by any means, it probably would have brought a more ferocious assault on Japan to bear and compelled its government to see the pure futility of further resistance far quicker than it actually did.
1.) The Battle of Stalingrad (Aug 23, 1942-Feb 2, 1943): Maybe the biggest tragedy to afflict the German Army in all of WWII was the deference it paid to one Adolf Hitler for having rescued it from the jaws of defeat during the Red Army’s stunning counterattack at the gates of Moscow in the winter of 41’-42’. Hitler’s obstinate “not one step backwards” order in December of 41’ virtually saved the German Army from a fatal collapse when its panicked, frozen and weary frontline troops were about to be overrun by the rejuvenated Red Army. When the threat finally passed later in the winter, the humbled German Army high command was willing to go wherever the now revered fuehrer could take it. In doing so, the top generals reluctantly ceded their institutional integrity by surrendering their strategic insight to the machinations of its amateurish commander-in-chief. From this point on it was solely Hitler’s war to win or lose and the German high command was relegated to mere stoical consultants to the fuehrer’s whimsical strategic ideas. And 1942 was to prove the fuehrer’s undoing when the high command was finally awoken to Hitler’s disastrous interference in the running of the war.
Case Blue, the Wehrmacht’s comprehensive plan for offensive operations in 1942 was the brainchild of its contemptuous commander-in-chief. It may have been composed by the Army General Staff chief, Gen. Franz Halder but it was virtually concocted from scratch by Hitler. In the plan Hitler takes into account his army’s inability—as Barbarossa plainly showed—to affect three simultaneous thrusts toward three strategic objectives, thus he confines the 1942’ version to a large-scale offensive on only the southern part of the Eastern Front. This operation would be undertaken solely by the forces of Army Group South, which relegated the rest of the German front to ancillary operations and defensive holding actions. Hitler’s main objective was the Caucasus oilfields in Baku, Grozny and Maikop. These extensive fields comprised nearly 80% of the Soviet Union’s petroleum-producing capacity, for which Hitler reasoned their conquest would render the Red Army incapable of sustaining any kind of war effort. The importance of Stalingrad in the original plan was given little attention, as Hitler merely sought to screen the Volga city from acting as a staging point for a possible Soviet counterattack.
|Paulus & staff in captivity after Stalingrad|
It was thus another tragedy for the German war effort that the amateurish fuehrer was saddled with an uncontrollable urge to habitually deviate from the original plan whenever circumstances arose that he had not foreseen or was unprepared for. His constant meddling in the operational plan had already caused the dismissal of the army group’s commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, one month after the plan commenced yet far more inept alterations were soon on the horizon. After Bock departed, Hitler broke the attack force in two and sent the two spearheads on largely divergent thrusts, where they were of little value to the neighboring formation. Then he split his northern force once again by sending the 4th Panzer Army on a wild ride to the south in order to secure an unnecessary crossing over the Don River near Rostov. This merely expended valuable amounts of petrol for the panzer forces and caused another three-day delay in the crossing of the Don River when the 4th Panzer Army became bunched up with the forces heading south into the Caucasus. Yet while all the confusion and detours were serving to confound the German advance, somewhere along the line Hitler began to look at the relevance of Stalingrad in a far more different light. He no longer looked to simply screen the Soviet leader’s namesake city on the Volga; he now wanted it totally obliterated.
Most of us know what happened next. The German 6th Army and a major portion of the 4th Panzer Army were ultimately surrounded and destroyed inside the Stalingrad pocket after a brutal, four-month slugfest in the urban ruins of the city. This particular battle has been replayed and rewritten in contemporary war games more than any other battle in military history and they usually come up with the same conclusions. Had Hitler stayed the course and stuck to his original plan for the screening of Stalingrad rather than its complete conquest, it is quite plausible that the two German armies would not have met with such an untimely end. Germany’s uncommitted panzer forces might than have been sent onto the northern flank of the Case Blue enterprise, where they might’ve been of some help to the German allies holding the sector when the Red Army came crashing across the Don at the commencement of Operation Saturn. Obviously a vastly different scenario would have come to fruition had the Germans refrained from investing Stalingrad and it’s easy to say that the tragedy that confronted the 6th Army could very well have been averted. But it does give credence to the assertion that the Battle of Stalingrad was probably the greatest engagement of WWII that definitely should never have been fought.
The Western Allied Invasion of Norway (Apr-Jun 1940): It was a good start for the British and French forces that originally contested the German invasion but why on earth would they endeavor to do such a thing if they never had any intention of staying? Chalk this one up to poor military intelligence for their failure to prepare for all contingencies. Then hang a medal on the commanders of the German naval staff for persevering through the fog of war.
The German Ardennes Offensive (Dec 16, 1944- Jan 28, 1945): We all know what a waste it was for the Germans to partake in such a grandiose scheme so late in the war nevertheless it was a risk that probably had to be taken. The strategic implications of success were far more compelling than relying on a negotiated settlement with the dreaded Bolsheviks.