Daily Archives: October 10, 2009

Unequal Allies: Lessons from The German’s and Their Allies on the Eastern Front for Today

patton with french tankPatton with French Renault F1 Tank in WWI

One of the problems that any coalition of unequal partners as is the case in Afghanistan is the role of the lesser partners, their capabilities and limitations imposed on them by their own governments.  When NATO joined the US led effort in Afghanistan a number of NATO allies contributed troops to the effort.  The same was true of the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq.  While obviously the US appreciated and continues to appreciate the efforts of its allies in both theaters the unique problems associated with coalition warfare are often not appreciated until the strengths and weaknesses of each junior partner in the coalition are shown to include the effect of each nation’s choice of units sent, logistics capability and rules of engagement.  Thus when some Americans are critical of the contribution of some allies, or the limitations imposed by their governments they should remember that in the First World War the United States was dependant on France and Britain for the majority of the Artillery, all of the tanks and aircraft as well as instructors and training facilities for the rapidly recruited American Expeditionary Force.

RickenbackerUS Ace Eddie Rickenbacker with French Supplied Nieuport 28

Every nation works within its own national interests and domestic political situation as well as its military capabilities. Unfortunately many people do not look at history to see how a coalition of a major power allied with a number of minor powers each with their own limitations as well as motivations for entering the war execute that war after the initial plan is foiled.  This is something that has happened in Afghanistan after the initial success disappeared with the corrupt and ineffective Afghan government, the resurgent Taliban and the resiliency of Al Qaida in their bases in the remote border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

nato_france_a_0403French Troops in Afghanistan: The French, British and Canadians have the most Robust Rules of Engagement of Non US NATO Forces (Time Magazine Photo)

One of the best places to find such an example is the German relationship with their allies on the Eastern Front.  The question of the German dominated European Axis alliance in the Second World War is one of the more neglected subjects of World War Two II. In most accounts of the war, the relationship of the Germans to their coalition is minimal.  This includes the works of B.H. Liddell-Hart, Williamson Murray, Chester Wilmot and David M Glantz.   Italy usually receives some attention in the context of the campaign in North Africa and Mediterranean.  Hungary, Romania and Finland receive scant attention from anyone except as to how their armies were overrun during the Stalingrad campaign. Popular German memoirs provide little substantive help. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s memoirs and Erwin Rommel’s papers give some views of the Italian efforts in North Africa and the Mediterranean and Erich Manstein gives a limited amount of attention to the Italians, Finns, Hungarians and Rumanians in Russia.

Finland-HitlerConflicting War Aims: Hitler with Finland’s Field Marshal Von Mannerheim

In his essay The Dysfunctional Coalition Robert Di Nardo examines the relationship of Germany to her allies on the Eastern Front where the Germans due to their own limitations were forced into a coalition war with weak allies of uncertain reliability. This is a subject that Di Nardo expanded on in his book Germany and the Axis Powers: from Coalition to Collapse (University of Kansas Press, 2005).  Di Nardo believes that there are important lessons to be learned from the failure of Germany and its coalition. Unfortunately we in the west are more often than not content to judge coalitions by the success of the Allies in the Second World War.  Di Nardo’s work on the subject is something that the United States must learn from as it works with coalitions whose members have significant military weaknesses often magnified by the domestic political climates in their own country. The situation, especially in Afghanistan places he United States in a similar position to Germany in relation to the current wars on terror and campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

m 13-40 tankItalian M 13-40 tanks were the mainstays of Italian Armored Units, Slow, Undergunned and Poorly Armored they were No Match for Soviet T-34s

Di Nardo asserts “the way in which Germany conducted coalition warfare was reflective of the manner in which Hitler and the German military looked at the world, as well as the war in general.”  Germany often displayed a haughtiness toward its allies and even knowing their weaknesses was both unable and often unwilling to do much to strengthen them for the fight against the Soviet Union.  Di Nardo believes that the German attitudes were “a significant factor that contributed to the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.” (p.712)  In the essay Di Nardo notes the few successes of the coalition. In particular he looks at the German work with Rumanian air defense around the Ploesti oil refineries and the German-Finnish Winter Warfare School.  Apart from these instances he characterizes Axis coalition warfare on the eastern front as “poor” with “failures at every level.” (p.713)

italian troops stalino

Di Nardo analyzes the problems with language barriers, the wide differences of modernity of the armies and levels of technology and training of the coalition partners many of which are common to the war in Afghanistan. Germany’s failure to become the “arsenal of Fascism” which the United States became “the Arsenal of Democracy” for its allies hindered the Germans in their relationship to their poorly equipped allies.  Likewise, the lack of understanding of all the partners regarding the “relationship between national objectives, strategy and the morale of soldiers of officers and soldiers alike”(p.713) was a major obstacle.

finnish at gun

Di Nardo provides a good description of the German liaison detachments allotted to the coalition armies.  These teams functioned as advisors to their allies as well as liaisons between the German army and the allies. These teams dealt with language, tactical communications weaknesses and often displayed the generally haughty attitude that the Germans displayed to their partners. There is an excellent illustration of this in dealing with the failure of XLVIII Panzer Corps at Stalingrad when the German Liaison to the Romanian 1st Panzer Division was wounded.  At the operational and strategic levels Di Nardo describes the German policies and attitudes toward their allies as “imperialist.” (p.718)

He examines the wide gap in transportation capabilities of the various armies and the failure of the Germans to better provide for the needs of their partners in contrast to the United States assistance to her allies.   Germany provided obsolete captured Czech and French weapons and vehicles to her allies.  They refused to supply the Romanians and Hungary with the plans to build German tank and aircraft in Romanian and Hungarian industrial concerns capable of their manufacture. (pp.718-719) Di Nardo notes how this lack of modern equipment impacted the allies operations against the Red Army and their defeat at the hands of the Soviets.  Although Di Nardo alludes to how even elite German formations had substandard equipment he does not explain principle reason for this.   This was due to the fact that the Germans did not go to a “total war” footing in regard to industrial production until Albert Speer took over as Armaments Minister in 1943.

spanish blue divsion

The number of troops contributed by the German Allies was substantial. Hungary began Barbarossa with two corps, including its Mobile Corps and in 1942 supplied their 2nd Army which was composed of 1 Armored and 9 Infantry Divisions. 2nd Army was crushed by the Soviet offensive against Stalingrad. The Italians began with an expeditionary corps of 2 Semi-Motorized and 1 Light Infantry Divisions. In early 1943 they added 4 Infantry and 3 Alpine Divisions and a number of other smaller formations. This force became the 8th Army. It fought well during the advance toward Stalingrad but spread out over a wide front with little armored or air support was decimated by the Soviet offense against the city.  The remnants were no longer battle worthy and were evacuated to Italy.  Most of the Finnish Army was engaged in the war but after September 1939 made no major offensive contribution to the war. In 1944 following a major Soviet offensive which forced them to withdraw from the territory that they had captured in 1941 the Finnish government sued for peace. The Russians occupied a number of border provinces and islands and Finland was obliged to expel German Forces.  This resulted in the “Lapland War” between the Finns and the Germans with the Germans adopting a scorched earth policy as they withdrew from the country. The quality of the Finnish forces was generally higher than that of Germany’s other Allies.

romanian r35Obsolete French Built Romanian R-35 Light Tank

The Romanians contributed 19 divisions organized into 3 Armies to Barbarossa. They were limited by their equipment and logistics. The 3rd and 4th Romanian Armies were shattered at Stalingrad forcing a major reorganization as they continued the war.  In August 1944 with the Soviets pressing their border King Michael led a coup to overthrow the Fascist dictatorship of Antonescu. The Germans elected to fight and the Romanians changed sides and joined the Russian advance to the end of the war with their 1st Army taking part in the Prague offensive. Another contributor of troops was Franco’s Spain although it was a neutral country. Spain provided a division of volunteers which became the famous “Spanish Blue Division” or the 250th Infantry Division. It was outfitted as a German unit and received additional training from the Germans before it went into action. The division fought near Leningrad and was engaged in many tough fights.  A Spanish “Blue” Fighter squadron allotted to and equipped by the Luftwaffe also distinguished itself. In October 1943 Spain under allied pressure withdrew the division from the front although many soldiers volunteered to remain and fight on as smaller units attached to German formations. One volunteer company became part of the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland at Berlin.  One thing that probably was a factor in the Spanish effectiveness as well as commitment to to German cause was their genuine loathing of the Soviets following the Spanish Civil War.

The final part of Di Nardo’s essay deals with the strategic goals and conflicts among the Axis coalition which were never worked out.  Examples of this include how the Finns never signed a formal alliance with Germany and how their national strategy did not allow them to deeper into the Soviet Union instead settling on recovering territory lost to the Soviets in 1939 with a few minor gains.  There was also the problem that the Romanians and Hungarians distrusted each other so much that they could not work together over their own territorial disputes.  The Italians joined the campaign late and their 8th Army participated in the German advance toward Stalingrad protecting the German flank.  While the Italians provided their own equipment including armor and aircraft they and their weapons were woefully suited for the war that they faced on the Eastern Front.  Di Nardo finishes his essay noting morale problems in the Hungarian, Italian and Romanian armies, the lack of understanding and general lack of motivation for the campaign.

Romanian_Me109-px800Romanian ME-109 E4, The Romanian Air Force Was One of the Axis Success Stories

This article is well sourced. Di Nardo uses histories, archival sources, operational orders and analysis by the various armies as well as interviews with participants. Of particular note is that he goes to sources of the coalition partners and not just German sources.  This allows him to be far more nuanced and detailed in his discussion as opposed to others who simply ignore the contributions of the Axis partners.  His footnotes provide added detail and provide and lend support to his arguments.

The importance of this essay is twofold.  First it provides a look at the relationship of German to her coalition partners on the Eastern Front.  This is important from a historic standpoint simply because it is such a neglected topic in most histories of the period and gives added depth to the reasons for Germany’s defeat.  One has to ask the “what if questions” in regard to had the Germans better treated, equipped and recognized their allies’ contributions to the war effort.

The second and probably more important for Afghanistan is that it provides lessons to any nation which has to engage in coalition warfare.  In particular it has lessons for the United States which has found itself as the senior and vastly superior partner in a war which has multiple coalition partners in several theaters of operations.  Each coalition partner has certain military strengths and weaknesses in relationship to the United States, national interests, geo-political and economic relationships with competitors to the United States and internal political realities which impact their cooperation in the war.  As such the United States cannot allow itself to be cast in the role of a haughty imperialistic senior partner as did Germany.  The US instead must cultivate an attitude of assistance, respect and trust among its partners to assure their full cooperation and assistance in relation to U.S. goals in the war. This is particularly important now was it appears that the Afghan war is reaching a point where the deteriorating situation on the ground could invite the early withdraw of allies and necessitate either the addition of more US troops or a strategic withdraw which would be for all intents and purposes a defeat for the US and NATO. The consequences would not be good and while the Taliban may be able to be contained they undoubtedly would invite Al Qaida back and provide them with a sanctuary just as Pakistan has stepped up its efforts on the border.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, world war two in europe