Monday, August 25, 2014

Cauldrons, Kessels, Pockets, and Ukraine

There is a lot of talk on the pro-Russian side of the Ukrainian question about “cauldrons” in which hapless Ukrainian troops are trapped and doomed to destruction or surrender.

Perhaps the use of “cauldron” is meant to evoke memories of the mother of all cauldrons, the trap that encircled and annihilated the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad and signaled the turning of the military tide against Hitler.

However, as a point of interest, it might be pointed out that the “cauldron” (in German, “kessel”) was originally a clever and successful tactic employed by the Wehrmacht in its retreat from Leningrad, in order to slow down, tie up, and otherwise confound the advancing Red Army.

The Ur-kessel, I believe, was at Demyansk, in the Novgorod Oblast just south of Leningrad.

The Red Army encircled 100,000 German troops in a cauldron or kessel at Demyansk in the winter of 1942-43, but this turned out to be somewhat less than an operational triumph.  

Since I’m feeling a bit lazy this morning, I’ll cut and paste the excellent Wikipedia article on the subject:

The [Soviet] Northwestern Front grew increasingly desperate to wipe out the pocket, and over the winter and spring, launched a number of assaults on the "Ramushevo corridor" that formed the tenuous link between Demyansk and Staraya Russa through the Ramushevo village that were repeatedly repulsed. In total, five Soviet Armies composed of 18 rifle divisions and three brigades were tied up for four months.

The reason that the Soviets were unable to seal the deal was because the Germans were able to keep the encircled troops supplied by air.

After being assured that the pocket could be supplied with its daily requirement of 270 short tons (240 t) of supplies by Luftflotte 1, Hitler ordered that the surrounded divisions hold their positions until relieved. The pocket contained two fairly capable airfields at Demyansk and Peski. From the middle of February, the weather improved significantly, and while there was still considerable snow on the ground at this time, resupply operations were generally very successful due to weakness of the Red Air Forces in the area. However the operation did use up all of the Luftwaffe's transport capability, as well as elements of their bomber force.
[T]he two pockets (including Kholm) received 65,000 short tons (59,000 t) of supplies (both through ground and aerial delivery), 31,000 replacement troops, and 36,000 wounded were evacuated. However, the cost was significant. The Luftwaffe lost 265 aircraft, including 106 Junkers Ju 52, 17 Heinkel He 111 and two Junkers Ju 86 aircraft. In addition, 387 airmen were lost.  

In March, the Soviet high command basically gave up and turned its attention and troops elsewhere.  The Germans were able to open a corridor and fight their way out between March and May 1943.

German casualties were sizable but not devastating: maybe 3000 + killed, eleven thousand wounded out of 100,000 men.

The greatest and most fatal consequence of the Demyansk kessel, however, was that it encouraged the vain hope that the kessel strategy could be duplicated at Stalingrad on a somewhat larger but still rather equivalent scale:

The success of the Luftwaffe convinced Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Hitler that they could conduct effective airlift operations on the Eastern front.  Göring later proposed a similar "solution" to supply the 6. Armee when it was surrounded in Stalingrad. In theory, the outcome could be equally advantageous; with the 6. Armee trapped, but still in fighting condition, the Soviet army would have to use up much of its strength to keep the pocket contained. This could allow other German forces to re-group and mount a counterattack. However, the scale of the forces trapped in the two operations differed greatly. While a single corps (about ⅓ of an army) with about six divisions was encircled in Demyansk, in Stalingrad, an entire and greatly reinforced army was trapped. Whereas the Demyansk and Kholm pockets together needed around 265 t (292 short tons) of supplies per day, the 6. Armee required an estimated daily minimum of 800 t (880 short tons), delivered over a much-longer distance and faced by a much better organised Red Air Force. The air transport force had already suffered heavy losses, and was much further away from good infrastructure. The Luftwaffe simply did not have the resources needed to supply Stalingrad.

Of the 210,000 German troops in the Stalingrad kessel (twice as many as Demyansk), perhaps 35,000 were evacuated, 105,000 surrendered, and 60,000 died.

A highly successful execution of the cauldron strategy (albeit possible only since in this case the Soviet air force wasn’t shooting down the planes) was the Berlin airlift initiated by the United States in response to the Soviet closure of land transportation to the city in 1949.  

An interesting fact that I did not know was that the closure was triggered by Allied determination to establish the West German Deutschmark as the dominant currency in all four zones of Berlin.  The Allies had already poured 250,000,000 Deutschmarks into the city to general acceptance.  Things did not look good for the Soviet alternative, the “Ostmark”, so USSR contrived to lock the Allies out of Berlin and demoralize the locals in preparation for a putsch to take over the whole city. 

In an interesting foreshadowing of the Russian aid convoy to eastern Ukraine, American strategists played with the idea of forcing open a land route to Berlin, but this was rejected as too confrontational, especially since the small number of combat ready US forces in theater were completely outgunned by 1.5 million Red Army troops.

Another possibility emerged, however. 

Although the Soviets were able to stop the roads and trains on the pretext of forestalling an invasion, they never reneged on the agreement to keep the air corridors open, little expecting that a city of 2.8 million people could be supplied by air.  The United States, however, had extensive experience flying supplies to Chiang Kai-shek over the Hump, and General Wedemeyer judged that the Berlin operation was feasible.

To the surprise of the Soviets, the Allies decided to go ahead with the airlift. The Soviets engaged in some half-hearted harassment, but never made any serious attempt to block the planes.  The operation continued for 15 months, and 278,228 flights transported well over 2.2 million tons of goods—2/3 of which was coal!—to Berlin at a cost, in current dollars, perhaps almost $5 billion.  The payoff, however, was that the Allied occupation zones were able to resist the Soviets and set up their own government in the divided city.   

Soviet overreach on the issue of Berlin also accelerated the combination of Germany’s three other occupation zones into West Germany and the expansion of NATO, and sympathy for the USSR in the United States as the ally who had borne the brunt of the war against Hitler largely evaporated a mere four years after the triumph over Nazism.

The Berlin crisis revealed a combination of Soviet cupidity, clumsiness, unpopularity, and weakness and shortcomings of vision and determination.  

Stalin was, of course, laboring under various difficulties, including the contemporaneous split with Tito’s Yugoslavia, and not really interested in another war.  Also, the US flew a squadron of “atomic bombers” to England to send the message that Mr. Nuke was in the neighborhood in case the Soviets decided to confront US armed forces (even though the United States actually didn’t have enough atomic bombs to arm the planes and the USSR probably knew this through their spies in England).

All in all, in my judgment the 1949-50 crisis was not some of Uncle Joe’s best work, and I wonder if alternate histories exist in which the Soviet army simply stomps into western Berlin, presents the West with a fait accompli, and settles in as the unchallenged master of eastern Europe and hegemon of the entire continent for the next century.

In any case, cauldrons or “kessels”, at least as a conscious operational gambit, are inseparable from air power and the ability to resupply by air.  

When I hear about Kyiv forces trapped in “cauldrons”, there is some dissonance for me.  Unless the Ukrainian armed forces allowed troops in a salient to become enclosed with the expectation that they could be supplied by air and maintained in a battle-ready condition to tie up enemy forces and pose a constant threat to the rear of the rebel forces and cities in the NAF interior, it seems that the correct term for their predicament is the somewhat less glamorous and evocative “pocket”.

1 comment:

Xinxi said...

In German, "Kessel" (cauldron) has always a negative connotation and implies that the troops inside the "Kessel" are getting crushed, e.g. the Russians at during the Battle of Tannenberg. At least in modern parlance, there doesn't seem any positive usage.
If one would want to imply a successful strategy, Germans might speak of a "Festung" (fortress, fortified position), I'd say. Like when German troops retreated to fortified positions during WWI after the initial plan for the invasion of France had failed.