Zhukov's Greatest Defeat

(This column was first published in the July 5, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

There are all kinds of reasons for my reading choices, but this one certainly belongs to a category than can best be described as unusual. My Minnesota Boundary Waters canoeing partner and Minneapolis pediatrician, Bob Bugenstein, claims World War II Soviet Army General G. K. Zhukov as a distant relative. That odd relationship led me to this book.

But strange choices do not necessarily mean bad targets. I found this book quite remarkable in its detailed history of a month-long battle. The book is David M. Glantz, Zhukov's Greatest Defeat: The Red Army's Epic Disaster in Operation Mars, 1942 (University Press of Kansas, 1999).

The story reminded me of those magnificent lines of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach: "We are here as on a darkling plane, swept by confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night."

It is quite simply about a slaughterhouse, an abattoir with humans both killers and those suffering as well. Glantz tells of Russian "losses of about 100,000 killed and missing and about 235,000 wounded in Operation Mars.... This closely accords with the German estimates. Even more significant, these losses accord Operation Mars the somewhat dubious honor of being one of the most costly Soviet offensive failures during the war. Expressed in different terms, Zhukov lost 335,000 men in Operation Mars, which lasted less than a month, and Vasilevsky lost 485,000 men in the two and one half months of the Stalingrad strategic victory. Furthermore, Vasilevsky's figure included not only losses in Operation Uranus but also those incurred in Operation Little Saturn, the Kotel'nikovsky Operation, and the operation to reduce the encircled German Stalingrad force." Zhukov's 147th Rifle Brigade lost all but 27 of its 4000 men. And the Germans estimated "total Soviet tank losses at between 1,655 and 1,847 out of an estimated total of over 2,000 tanks committed to combat."

Those familiar with the war will recall that General Zhukov was a major hero at the end of the war for his drive on Berlin, but even then he was prepared to sacrifice soldiers to his cause. As Glantz notes, he "would replicate this bloodletting in strikingly similar fashion when, in April and May 1945, the 1st Belorussian Front, under his direct command, would lose 37,610 killed and missing and 141,880 wounded in the Berlin operation, about half of the total casualties suffered by the three participating Soviet fronts."

But Berlin was a success. From the Russian point of view this November-December 1942 battle was a complete failure, the lines of confrontation between the Germans and the Russians remaining at the end of the battles essentially where they were at the beginning of the operation.

Meanwhile what was especially scalding for Zukhov, his colleagues to the south were enjoying great success. "While Operation Mars was failing and General Zhukov's Western and Kalinin Front forces were struggling and dying for possession of the Rzhev salient, General Vasilevsky was presiding over an unbroken string of Red Army victories in southern Russia. By the time Zhukov's guns were opening fire along the Vazuza River and near Belyi and Rzhev, the armored spearheads of Vasilevsky's Southwestern and Stalingrad Fronts had already united near Kalach on the Don, locking almost 300,000 hapless German and Rumanian troops in the Stalingrad cauldron. The success of Vasilevsky's Operation Uranus surprised even its planners, and the bag of surrounded enemy troops was far larger than they had anticipated in their wildest dreams. Within days, Vasilevsky and his front commanders had to contemplate the imposing twin tasks of destroying enemy forces encircled at Stalingrad and, simultaneously, launching Operation Saturn to exploit further their Stalingrad success." (In fairness to Zhukov, although he was far less involved in the Stalingrad campaign, he was overall commander of all the forces.)

As is so often the case, however, the stubborn German defense hurt them as well. Despite their apparent victory, Glantz tells us, "Appearances, however, were deceiving. For although the Ninth Army had absorbed the best the Soviets had to offer and had prevailed, the operation took a heavy toll on the army's strength. Already smarting from its August battles, Model's force could not withstand such a war of attrition, especially at a time when critical panzer reserves were being routed south. The remaining German divisions were weak, panzer forces were worn down, and artillery ammunition was approaching depletion.

"Despite Model's striking victory, by mid-January the handwriting was on the wall. German defenses would not withstand another such Soviet onslaught. As the preeminent German military historian, Earl Ziemke, later wrote, 'Although the Army Group Center zone was quiet in the early winter of 1942-43 except for partisan activity, its front, in the long run, clearly was untenable. The army group had no reserves. Its left flank was weak, and, after the collapse of Second Army [in late January], its right flank was left dangling in a void. When Army Group North secured permission to evacuate the Demyansk pocket, the great eastward projection of Army Group Center ceased to serve any purpose. To pinch off the Toropets salient was no longer possible, and no one was thinking seriously any more of an advance to Moscow. On January 26 Kluge recommended to Hitler a large-scale withdrawal that would shorten the front and eliminate the danger of the Fourth and Ninth Armies being encircled. As was to be expected, Hitler resisted bitterly, but finally, on 6 February, he yielded to Zeitzler's and Kluge's arguments.'

"In no small measure, it was the damage done to Army Group Center by Zhukov's furious but futile November and December assault that sealed the ultimate fate of the German Rzhev position. The Germans abandoned the Rzhev salient in March, just as Zhukov, unknown to them, was implementing another offensive scheme designed to accomplish what he had failed to accomplish in Operation Mars. Army Group Center's time would come, but not until summer 1944, when Stalin and Zhukov would finally gain their revenge."

Remarkably, Stalin stayed with Zhukov, despite this butchery. The general's fortunes and place in history were to change over the following years when the tide turned. But that in no way helped the grunts who bore the violence. "Sadly, but characteristically," says Glantz, "Red Army lower-ranking officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted men who fell or were maimed in Operation Mars or who survived its conduct suffered the cruelest fate of all. As if the toll of dead and injured were not enough, the Soviet state committed the gravest injustice of all by ignoring the personal sacrifice of the tens of thousands who fell in battle and by forgetting those who survived. Neither markers nor monuments memorialize their struggle and suffering, and history has expunged their magnificently futile efforts. The silence of the dead could not challenge this ignominy, and the living lived only with memories that echoed the silence of the dead. For the ensuing fifty years, a generation of survivors could neither openly discuss nor read about their operation as they watched hundreds of thousands of other soldiers lionized for their sacrifices at Stalingrad."

This is an instructive book for those who wish to see how battlefield commanders operate -- and in particular how German officers were able to blunt and turn Russian advances with far inferior forces in terms not only men but equipment as well. Unfortunately for them, however, the experience of the Russian officers and men was accumulating and would show more to their benefit in later actions.

But as you read you have to wonder about the state of humankind, not in the Dark Ages but in the 20th Century. This confrontation extended over only a single month. To gain some insight into the human devastation in that month, we have only to imagine the cities of Buffalo and Rochester meeting on a battlefield with their entire populations ending up casualties.

How far have we come since the Crusades?