Verlorene Siege, Lost Victories by Field-Marshal Erich von Manstein (1887 – 1952) is a well written, thought provoking book written in a manner comprehensible to the layman detailing von Manstein’s Eastern Front career as Chief of the General Staff, Chief of Staff to Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt then, Commander of an Army Corps then Commander of 11th Army. When Sevastopol fell he was promoted to Field Marshal. von Manstein oversaw the retreat of Southern Army Group from Russian territories to the Polish borders including the re-taking of Kharkov. von Manstein was relieved of his command as a result of Hitler’s interference with operational procedures on the battlefield. von Manstein was a soldier’s soldier he was the popular choice as overall commander of German Armed Forces during WWII, this occasion never presented itself.
Clausewitz said everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is incredibly difficult. Hitler was politically astute, Erich von Manstein deliberately outlined the steady decline in Hitler’s outlook and the constant deterioration of Germany’s war effort as suggested by the title Lost Victories. The tragedy for all thoughtful, knowledgeable, and sensitive German soldiers like von Manstein was the dilemma of trying faithfully to serve their country while disapproving the Fuehrer’s aims and methods. ‘I am a gentleman’ he told Hitler pointedly. This is a story of bright prospects turning to ruin.
Count Schlieffen said the weaker party made their own contribution to the victory of their adversaries. Poland by fighting on their western frontier instead of initially from the Bzura redoubt hastened their defeat in September 1939. Hitler then took over the functions of the triumvirate of king, statesman and war lord, but had the drop of ‘Samuel’s anointing oil’ which Schlieffen considered indispensable for at least one of the triumvirate really fallen on his head? Ober Kommand des Heeres (OKH) Operation Order Yellow was modified by von Manstein to clear Anglo-French forces from the battlefield fully ensuring overall victory in the West. No ready made works of art spring from the brain as did Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus, thereby the OKH operational plan in October 1939 was the result of tremendous hard work. Napoleon coined the phrase on s’engage partout, et on voit, the French Army waited for the Germans to attack in May 1940. The Goddess of war shone upon the German Army June 1940 as they struck southwest across France.
The military planning for operations in Southern Army Group detailed war on two fronts when the breakthrough at Perekop and the battle on the Sea of azov allowed the Crimea to be taken after a six month battle by Eleventh Army. The Stalin offensive highlighted the fanaticism of the Commissar led Soviet Armies, operation Bustard to re-take the Kerch Peninsula was a bloody battle.
As Schiller once said: ‘What we omit from a single hour is lost to all eternity’. The delays in re-supply and reinforcements ensured the German Army was never rested and re-fitted at any stage during Operation Barbarossa.
‘Stranger! To Sparta say, her faithful hand Here lies in death, remembering her command.’ Never will these lines of the heroism of the defenders of Thermopylae be carved in stone at Stalingrad in memory of Sixth Army’s martyrdom on the Volga.
Stalingrad was where the waves of German offensives broke on the Volga. However von Manstein appreciated the Sixth Army holding down 91 Soviet Army formations whilst the Southern Army Group fought defensive retreats to the Dnieper. 48Pz Army succeeded in fighting its way within 50km of Sixth Army but Hitler refused to order a fighting break out. Seydlitz at the Battle of Zorndorf said ‘After the battle the King may dispose of my head as he will, but during the battle he will kindly allow me to make use of it.’ von Manstein was growing increasingly frustrated at Hitler’s interference - von Manstein said the only successful military commanderis are the ones who can think ahead. Hitler did not allow detailed planning of large scale military operations. In 1942-3 there was an unmistakable fall-off in the quality of Soviet infantry, they forced men from newly reconquered Soviet lands into massed frontal attacks. however, they had taken over the German armoured technique of penetration in depth. The Soviet command never managed to co-ordinate strength and speed when hitting a decisive spot. The German fighting troops, convinced of their superiority as soldiers, stood their ground in the most desperate situations, and their courage and self-sacrifice did much to compensate for the enemy’s numerical preponderance. von Manstein remonstrated with Hitler that, for a casualty total of 133,000 men there had been only 33,000 replacements.
Hitler’s refusal to withdraw from Nikopol on the Dnieper tied down German forces which were badly needed to counter the Soviet build up west of Kiev. The partial withdrawal included the majority of the Russian population glad to escape the dreaded Soviets. Ukranians and Caucasians still preferred to fight in the German Army.
Hitler dispensed with Field Marshal von Manstein services 2nd April 1944, a grave error.