December 02, 2016

Invading Russia: a beginner's guide

As every schoolchild knows, the big turning point in the Great Northern War was the defeat of the Swedes at Poltava in 1709.

Mistake #1:  Attacking a heavily-fortified, numerically superior enemy on their home ground.  See also:  Kursk, Gettysburg

Now, I know what you're thinking:  what the were the Swedes doing in Poltava, 400 miles south of Moscow?  Well, and this is important, they didn't mean to go to Poltava, exactly.  What happened was, the Swedes were a world power, and, after numerous disputes with Peter the Great, decided to invade Russia.  Things went well at first...

Mistake #2:  Thinking you are winning because your eastward river crossings are unopposed 

So anyway, the Swedes are heading to Poltava because they need to reinforce themselves by linking up with Hetman Mazepa, who has repudiated the Tsar; but also because they need supplies, and they figure they can get some if they can seize Poltava.  Why do they need supplies?  Did they not plan to have supplies while attacking Russia?

Mistake #3:  Assuming capturing a city will solve your logistical problems

It's like this:  the Swedes were doing fine until that idiot Lewenhaupt lost the supply train at the Battle of Lesnaya.  Well, ok, anyone can lose a supply train.  And, since all Russian defensive campaigns feature a scorched earth policy, no, you cannot just live off the land the way Napoleon's armies would later do in Europe.  So, you're going to have to capture some place that has supplies.  Now you ask the obvious question:  why not just seize Baturyn?  It's closer than Poltava, and it's an important trading hub, and there is a potentially sympathetic Cossack population and a good fort.  The answer is: because Menshikov has gotten there first, and destroyed all the supplies and killed everyone in the city.

Mistake #4:  Attacking a place of no great strategic significance

The Swedes might also have headed back to Minsk.  They had spent the prior winter in Minsk.  That was actually clever, you see.  The Swedes know from winter, so when it started to get cold they identified a warm place for their army and went there until it stopped being cold again.

Mistake #5:  Forgetting to be ready for winter

Actually, the Swedes get full marks for getting to Minsk in reasonably good order in the first place.  de Ségur tells us Davout lost 10,000 men just marching to Minsk.  But the Swedes are not able to maintain their good order, and after the failure at Poltava, head west, because west is away from the horde of pissed off Russians pursuing them.  This seems to be a pattern with invasions of Russia:  the invaders try to strike the knockout blow, but don't put much thought into what they will do if they come up short:

  • Charles' Swedes get as far as the Dneiper, and discover, while standing on the riverbank, beneath some cliffs, that there's no obvious way to get an army across.  Meanwhile, up on the heights, the entire Russian Army shows up, leading to the Surrender at Perevolochna.
  • Napoleon's retreat from Moscow was already going poorly when his force reached the Berezina River, where there were no boats or bridges.  The good news was that (according to Wikipedia) "General Jean Baptiste Eblé had disobeyed Napoleon's earlier order to abandon equipment, instead retaining crucial forges, charcoal and sapper tools and thus only needed protection from Chichagov's force on the far west bank to span the river."  The bad news is that the entire Russian Army has shown up, so Napoleon has to burn some of his best remaining forces to buy time to get the bridge built and the army across it.  He loses half his army at Berezina.
  • During Operation Bagration Hitler ordered 4th Army to stand fast in Minsk, allowing the Russians to surround it, leading to the immediate loss of over 100,000 troops.  Hitler did this a lot in 1944, driving competent people like Manstein to distraction.  There are times to stand and fight stubbornly:  being outnumbered and low on supplies in the middle of Russia is not one of them.

Mistake #6:  Not having an exit strategy

Successful operations against Russia tend to have one common characteristic:  they focus on the destruction of the opposing Army, not some arbitrary geographical objective.  One of the greatest German feats of arms in World War I was the 1914 destruction of two Russian armies at Tannenburg, an operation that greatly reduced Russia's relevance in the war and bolstered the reputations of the German generals involved.  By contrast, Napoleon's campaign foundered precisely because he could not bring the Russian main army to battle on favorable terms, settling finally for an attritional bloodbath at Borodino, one from which the Russians could easily recover, while he could not.

Mistake #7:  Focusing on geographical objectives, rather than the enemy force.

It's worth noting that the Russians didn't exactly mean to lose Moscow.  Borodino was a sincere attempt to block the road, and many Russians were furious with von Phull for persuading the Tsar to adopt a scorched earth policy - so much so that he had to flee Russia to avoid retaliation.  Apparently all was eventually forgiven, as he later served as the Russian ambassador to Belgium.

Hopefully knowledge of these mistakes will help you do better than Charles, Napoleon, and Hitler did when they invaded Russia.  Or perhaps, maybe, avoid the thing entirely.  As Field Marshal Montgomery once explained to the House of Lords:
Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: "Do not march on Moscow". Various people have tried it, Napoleon and Hitler, and it is no good. 


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