The inefficient strategic planning of the Wehrmacht

When you were rounding up the great war with the offensive of the entente powers against the spent German forces that survived the Kaiserschlacht you quoted a historian whose name I don’t remember but you said that the Germans were geniuses in achieving tactical victories but they were pretty bad in attaining strategic victories. I know that the quote is incomplete but does it apply in the situation that the Wehrmacht found itself right after the battle of Kursk and especially in the southern salient where the armored forces of Manstein’s army were spent?
Btw I’m a huge fan of Indy since 2015 and congrats on getting married


Despite common belief that German soldiers were over-disciplined automatons under the direct control of sadistic officers and generals (which hadn’t been true since the armies of Frederick the Great were disassembled in detail by Napoleon 20 years after Frederick’s death), Prussian and later German armies were remarkably willing to delegate control on the battlefield to far lower-ranking officers and even NCOs than other armies. Here’s an extended quote from “Severian”, screen name for a retired US history prof:

Auftragstaktik is German for “mission-type tactics” or “mission-oriented tactics”, and it’s the main non-genetic reason they were so fearsome in battle back in the 20th century. Basically the idea is to delegate command authority to the lowest possible level, because the guys who are actually in the shit have a much better sense of the tactical realities than the guys back at headquarters. So long as the guys at the front are adequately briefed about command’s strategic objectives, they can, and should, make the tactical decisions in their areas of responsibility.

They started developing it before WWI, but proof of concept was in the trenches, and it succeeded spectacularly. It’s hard to exaggerate just how outmanned and outgunned the Germans were in that conflict, and I don’t have the exact numbers to hand, but one especially fearsome measure was “artillery density”. On the German side, the preparatory barrage before an attack averaged, at best, something like 1 shell per square foot (this is from memory, so doubtless incorrect, but you get the idea). The Allies achieved something like one shell per square inch, and there you have it …

… or there you should’ve had it, if the Allies had anything close to German-level command-and-control. But they didn’t. British WW1 memoirs, especially, are full of the kinds of ludicrous fuckups that Joseph Heller wouldn’t dare put in his novels. Robert Graves (yeah, I know, not the world’s most trustworthy source) had an especially funny scene where his company got this elaborate set of orders to move to such-and-such coordinates, build an elaborate strongpoint (laid out in minute detail), then move on to some other coordinates and do something else, again spelled out to the nth degree.

Those coordinates were, of course, a mile and a half behind enemy lines.

Or consider that silly movie 1917. If you haven’t seen it, don’t. If you have, and you know a little bit about WWI, you’ll remember how ludicrous the premise was. You don’t need to send a squad, Saving Private Ryan-style, to get a message to a distant dugout where they’re waiting to jump off for an attack. For one thing, there’s this little gadget called a “radio”, and by 1917 they were portable enough to get there. But even if not, there’s this other gadget called a “telephone”, and any C-and-C bunker anywhere along the line would have one, no matter how fast the advance was moving. Finally, even if they didn’t have either of those, the supporting artillery park sure as hell would’ve — just ring them up and call off the preparatory barrage, and I promise you, none of those troops would’ve moved an inch, even if it meant shooting Colonel Sherlock Holmes right in his prissy, pencil-mustached mug.

If you know a bit more about WWI, that kind of ludicrous, plot-ruining stupidity seems like the most accurate thing in the movie, because that kind of bullshit happened all the time. Telephone wires were always getting cut by shellfire, for instance, and since none of the red tabs [staff officers] back at the base would dream of seeing the situation for themselves, field soldiers were always getting scads of contradictory orders, sent at bewildering times. More than one advance was held up by frontline troops having to send runners back to check the orders of other runners, which had been countermanded by yet other runners, coming up with telephone messages …

The guys in the opposing trenches, meanwhile, were just getting on with it. [British poet and novelist Robert] Graves again (and again, I know), quoting from memory, wondered what the High Command would’ve done had they known that for the better part of a year, the entire sector opposite the Royal Welch Fusiliers had been held by no one higher than a corporal.

And another extended quote from Professor Bret Devereaux on how the Germans in WW1 attempted to break the trench stalemate with innovative tactics (the same Auftragstaktik discussed above):

One way to respond to a novel tactical problem is with novel tactics. And the impetus for this kind of thinking is fairly clear: if your own artillery is the problem digging you into a hole, then find a way to use less of it.

The mature form of this tactical framework is often called “Hutier” tactics, after German general Oskar Emil von Hitier, though he was hardly the sole or even chief inventor of the method. In its mature form, the technique went thusly: instead of attacking with large waves of infantry which cleared each objective in sequential order, attacks ought to be proceeded by smaller units, carefully trained with the layout of the enemy positions. Those units, rather than having a very rigid plan of attack, would be given those general objectives and left to figure for themselves how to accomplish them (“mission tactics” or Auftragstaktik), giving them more freedom to make decisions based on local conditions and the ground.

These elite spearhead units, called Stoßtruppen or “Stormtroopers” were well equipped (in particular with a higher amount of automatic firearms and hand grenades, along with flamethrowers). Importantly, they were directed to bypass enemy strong-points and keep moving forward to meet their objectives. The idea here was that the follow-up waves of normal infantry could do the slow work of clearing out points where enemy resistance was strong, but the stormtroopers should aim to push as deeply as possible as rapidly as possible to disorient the defenders and rapidly envelop what defenses remained.

These sets of infantry tactics were in turn combined with the hurricane barrage, a style of artillery use which focused on much shorter but more intense artillery barrages, particularly associated with Colonel Georg “Breakthrough” Bruchmüller. Rather than attempting to pulverize defenses out of existence, the hurricane barrage was designed merely to force enemies into their dugouts and disorient the defenders; much of the fire was directed at longer ranges to disrupt roads and artillery in the enemy rear. The short barrage left the ground relatively more intact. Meanwhile, those elite infiltration units could be trained to follow the creeping barrage very closely (being instructed, for instance, to run into the shell explosions, since as the barrage advantages, no gun should ever strike the same spot twice; a fresh shell-hole was, in theory, safe). Attentive readers will recognize the basic foundations of the “move fast, disorient the enemy” methods of the “modern system” here.

So did infiltration tactics break the trench stalemate? No.

First, it is necessary to note that while infiltration tactics were perhaps most fully developed by the Germans, they were not unique to them. The French were experimenting with many of the same ideas at the same time. For instance, basic principles of infiltration were being published by the French General Headquarters as early as April, 1915. André Laffargue, a French infantry captain, actually published a pamphlet, which was fairly widely distributed in both the French and British armies by the end of 1915 and in the American army in 1916, on exactly this sort of method. In many cases, like at the Second Battle of Artois, these French tactics bore significant fruit with big advances, but ran into the problem that the gains were almost invariably lost in the face of German counter-attacks. The Russians, particularly under Aleksei Brusilov, also started using some of these techniques, although Brusilov was as much making a virtue of necessity as the Russians just didn’t have that much artillery or shells and had to make due with less and Russian commanders (including Brusilov!) seem to have only unevenly taken the lessons of his successes.

The problem here is speed: infiltration tactics could absolutely more efficiently overrun the front enemy lines and even potentially defeat multiple layers of a defense-in-depth. But after that was done and the shock of the initial push wore off, you were still facing the same calculus: the attacker’s reinforcements, shells, artillery and supplies had to cross broken ground to reach the new front lines, while the defender’s counter-attack could ride railways, move over undamaged roads and then through prepared communications trenches. In the race between leg infantry and trains, the trains always won. On the Eastern Front or against the Italians fighting under the Worst General In History at Caporetto (1917), the already badly weakened enemy might simply collapse, producing massive gains (but even at Caporetto, no breakthrough – shoving the enemy is not a breakthrough, to qualify as a breakthrough, you need to get to the “green fields beyond” that is open ground undefended by the enemy), but against a determined foe, as with the 1918 Spring Offensives, these tactics, absent any other factor, simply knocked big salients in the line. Salients which were, in the event, harder to defend and brought the Germans no closer to victory. Eventually – often quite rapidly – the front stabilized again and the deadlock reasserted itself. Restoring maneuver, the actual end-goal of these tactics, remained out of reach.

Somehow, the lessons the German military learned from successful delegation of military decision-making at the tactical or even operational level did not seem to lead to better understanding of strategic and grand strategic problems. This may be partly due to the fact that where Aufstragstaktik create a lot more individuals working to solve problems, pretty much by definition strategic/grand strategic decision making will be the realm of a far smaller group of leaders.


I must’ve missed that (I’m not on Instagram). Congratulations to Indy! :partying_face:


On WWI: The Germans did a pretty good job on the Russians. In the Kaiserschlact, they picked the British to attack because they believed (with some justification) that only the British might be able to be defeated and run out of France. The key component of the German strategy was not to go toe-to-toe with the British Army, but to break the spirit of exactly one man: Sir Douglas Haig.

Also, the Germans were becoming desperate. Nobody thought the home-front would survive another winter, and a decisive action was needed. The Germans simply could not wait out the Allies, they had to impose victory. The Americans were coming, and nobody knew what effect that would have - offensively or defensively.

Haig had not fought a defensive battle since Mons in 1914, during which he did not distinguish himself – that is he panicked, and his 1st Corps was only saved by quick action by the 2nd Corps. Just like then, in 1918 he panicked again, issuing a shrill “backs to the wall”/“every position must be held to the last man”/“fight on to the end” general order, and began begging the French for men to help him (for days). When the French offered to swap fresh French divisions for Haig’s worn-down ones, Haig immediately refused the offer. He was more afraid of “intermixing” with the French than losing to the Germans.

By the time the Kaiserschlact was over, Haig had threatened to retreat to the Channel ports (to better defend them, he said), and was ordered point-blank not to do it.

So I’d say the Germans had a good strategy - really grand strategy, dealing with not only the military issue, but the problems back home.

In WW2, the German General Staff did pretty well, but were hamstrung by an overarching leader (remember, Hitler was not only leader of the State, he was commander of the Wehrmacht, and every soldier had sworn personal loyalty to Hitler) who had some really terrible ideas, most especially as a man in a hurry.

Hitler didn’t believe in having a successor (I mean, c’mon, Hess? Goering?), and believed only he could see to the creation of the 1,000 year Reich. He built a government and military in which he, and only he, was indispensable. He believed in imposing his will on enemies. A fluid, counter-punch strategy in 1943 just wasn’t in his nature. He had to attack. He decided that taking the city of Stalin would impose his will on Stalin’s (which is ridiculous, to anyone not within 5 meters of Hitler). He decided he could impose his will on the British in North Africa. He decided he could impose his will on the Western Allies in December 1944. He decided he could impose his will on the Russians in Hungary in 1945, for pity’s sake.

With that kind of brief, the military did the best they could. They repeatedly suggested to Hitler to change what he wanted, and Hitler, it turned out, needed to impose his will on them too. Treat the Ukrainians properly, and they’ll join us? Nope, untermechen. Use the Jews, don’t kill them? Nope, untermechen. Don’t attack Stalingrad? Nope, ein beffel. Skip Kursk, pull back to a new, better line and counterpunch. Nope, must impose will. Pull out of Normandy and fight a flexible defense? Nope.

The General Staff was hamstrung by one overarching man’s direction. But they are not just helpless pawns. They took far too seriously their oath, and the ‘tradition’ and all that. Here was a man who was leading the country to disaster, and everybody knew it as far back as mid-1941. In WWI, Ludendorf and Hindenberg elbowed the Kaiser out of the way in 1916 (Ludendorf just didn’t have the imagination to do more than that.). In the event of a coup, the SS could not stand up to the Army (for one thing, the waffen-ss was all a the front), and the Gestapo could be waved away.

The men who should have done it had all convinced themselves it was somehow dishonorable to allow a man to destroy their country while they followed orders. They just set their jaws and ignored the evil going on by and to their country and said it was not their place to intervene.

Hitler was the problem. But he had a heck of a lot of help.


Very good response. I would only point out that strategy should also take into account capabilities. Germany manages regardless of leaders to ignore their capabilities when defining strategy. That led to the decision to invade Russia before concluding war with Britain.

Would liberating Ukraine instead of conquering it have made a difference? Maybe but it was something the Nazis had proven they could not do. Hitler was not the only bad man imposing his will. It was an evil running through the regime.

I know you are not forgiving the military but they bought into Hitler to give themselves power then found they could not control him. They bought into all his leadership when it worked in their favor (Rommel anyone?). I don’t fully buy that they really tried to come up with better strategy’s to Hitler’s face. Am I missing something? Probably. But I really don’t see a backbone in Germany’s leadership period. They were all slime.

On the other hand, Hitler and Stalin were cut from the same cloth when it came to imposition of will. They deserved each other.

I also say to say Germany is the only bad strategic planner is simplified. Every country was guilty. The US strategy was maybe the best because they had the most advantages. Thousands of miles of ocean will forgive a whole lot of bad decisions. The US had. A simple strategy. Keep our enemies away from us. Out produce everyone. Equip our Allie’s so they can do as much of the fight as they can then commit our forces in a way to ensure the outcome good for the USA.