Decisive and Indecisive Military Operations in World War II

by C.J. Dick, author of “From Defeat to Victory” & “From Victory to Stalemate”

The philosopher Georg Hegel wrote that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. He undoubtedly had a point, but mostly because people so often do not make the effort to use history as a vehicle for leaning lessons. Of course, history is not usually written with a didactic purpose in mind and it is generally read it selectively for the myths it propagates or refutes. Many use it to prove their prejudices about which future courses of action to pursue, and to demonstrate that their opponents or rivals are mistaken; false analogy is perhaps the most common form of argument. I believe, however, that history can be used as a vehicle for instruction if done with care. That is why I have written my book.[I]

The genesis, and raison d’etre, of the book is to be found in army intelligence work I started doing in 1975 and later experience, which came with accumulating knowledge, advising BAOR HQs on ‘the threat’ and playing the Soviet enemy during command post exercises (CPXs). It became clear to me that, in the late seventies and early eighties, NATO and the Soviet Army were preparing for very different wars. It was evident that British and other allied generals on the central front were accustomed to accept as givens certain dangerous preconceptions, even illusions. Like most stereotypes, there was an element of truth in some of them. Others were more akin to truthiness. The more egregious of these conceptual errors, on which planning was based, included the following.

The Soviets, it was believed, placed almost total reliance on numerical superiority for victory. For this reason, no Soviet offensive could or would be mounted before mobilization and forward concentration and deployment were very far advanced. Largely for this reason, our generals mostly discounted the possibility of being surprised. The voluminous Soviet literature on the importance of surprise and how to achieve it was left unread or regarded as of purely historical interest. This was especially true of its stress on achieving victory in ‘the initial period of a war’, that is, by Soviet definition, the period of mobilization, concentration and deployment. Of course, there were other factors. There was a dangerous reliance on the certainty of intelligence providing timely warning of both the nature and scale of enemy preparations and, still more dubiously, of their raison d’etre. This error was compounded by an assumption that such warnings would immediately be acted on by NATO governments which would unanimously initiate timely counter-measures. In every CPX, supposed warning time (something actually recognized only in retrospect by historians) would be translated into adequate preparation time. There would be no question of a failure of political understanding or will to deter such as that shown by the Israeli government in the run up to the Arab attack in 1973, or the US before the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait in 1990. Quite probably, different perceptions in one or two allied governments on the central front would have acted in somewhat laggardly fashion and this would have created gaps or lightly held sections.[ii]

When the blow fell, the Warsaw Pact was routinely portrayed as attacking relatively evenly across the front, like the legendary but somewhat mythic ‘Russian steamroller’ of the Second World War. This reflected the assumption that the Soviets had an essentially attritional approach. Every exploitable axis would be used in frontal attacks by forces deeply echeloned so that the exhaustion of leading formations would not lessen the weight of the offensive or even lead to an operational pause. More cynically, this might also reflect a perceived need, both in appreciations (estimates) and on exercise, to give each central region corps a ‘fair’ share of the enemy. Certainly such simplistic teaching ignored the exhaustive Soviet analysis of the issues of force ratios and densities appropriate in various situations.

Most NATO corps were responsible for frontages that they considered uncomfortably wide. There was thus a temptation towards considering axes and obstacles where the going was difficult as being too problematic for an enemy that was obsessed by the need for tempo. Such areas were usually merely screened. This inevitably created vulnerabilities, especially if the enemy achieved partial surprise. Again, Soviet historical studies repeatedly emphasized the exploitation of unexpected axes as a method of wrong-footing their opponents.

On exercise, the Soviets were routinely portrayed as attacking prepared positions using hasty attacks mounted from the line of march. Such tactics were appropriate only on a fluid battlefield, where the situation was frequently and rapidly changing — circumstances often resulting from the attacker achieving surprise. Because NATO wanted a relatively static FEBA battle its armies mostly understood only imperfectly and did not train for the essential concept of the tactical meeting battle let alone the operational level meeting engagement.[iii] This was what the Soviet Army, by definition holding the initiative at the outset, expected to be the typical form of combat, perhaps even at the operational level if surprise were achieved and one or more allied contingents had not completed their deployment and fully occupied their FEBA positions. It devoted much training time to the meeting battle and produced a steady flow on the subject of books and articles in military journals.

Seduced by a comforting stereotype of the enemy as subject to a rigid, top-down command and control system, the allies denigrated his flexibility and asserted that his officers were generally incapable of exercising meaningful initiative. All that could be expected, of tactical commanders especially, was the mindless application of rigid tactical drills in all circumstances, however inappropriate. Furthermore, it was believed that attacks would be persevered with long after their culmination. For a defender facing superior numbers, this was a cozy piece of received wisdom that suggested his superior skill would carry the day. It was confirmed by only a very selective use of history.

Since the 1930s, a critical facet of the Red Army’s concept of the offensive was deep battle at the tactical level and deep operations at the higher level. Convincing themselves that they could win the attritional struggle for the FEBA and constrained by an arbitrary ‘no withdrawal behind line’ a very few tens of kilometers to the west, NATO exercise scenarios did not allow for any but small scale, local, tactical penetrations that were always contained. The fact that shifting the focus of combat into the rear areas of the defense was the essence of Soviet operational art seemed merely to prove to western minds a lack of realism in Soviet thinking.

The ability of Allied airpower to provide close air support at will, to compensate for Soviet numerical superiority, was largely taken for granted. So too was its ability to penetrate into the enemy’s operational depth to interdict his ‘follow-on forces’.[iv] Enemy air interdiction, complemented by special forces actions, was generally seen to be containable. It may well be true, as NATO air commanders asserted, that the alliance would have overcome superior Soviet numbers and won air superiority, over the course of time. It would probably not have been achieved in the, to the Soviets, critical initial period of the war.

The origins of these misconceptions can be traced to misinterpretations of the Russo-German war 1941-1945. As the Cold War took shape, western armies sought guidance on how to defeat Red Army offensives. They sought the advice of the vanquished about how to defeat the victor. Studies were commissioned examining tactically successful Wehrmacht battles and its generals were consulted and their memoirs read. Their common refrain was accepted, that their army was greatly superior qualitatively and doctrinally but unable to cope with the consequences of overwhelming enemy numbers and Hitler’s mistakes. Too little attention was paid to the frequent, latterly routine way in which tactically successful German formations were consumed in vast operational-level catastrophes. To give but one illustration. In the early 1980s, the Army Staff College at Camberley held up as an example to follow the XLVIII Panzer Corps’ defense of the River Chir in November-December 1942. The Staff College instructors were apparently unaware that the attacking Red Fifth Tank Army’s mission had intentionally morphed into a pinning action while Operation Little Saturn was accomplishing the destruction of Eighth Italian Army in a surprise offensive and thereby sealing the doom of even more German forces than those already encircled in Stalingrad. It was in their concepts of operational art and its execution, not in tactics or solely in numbers, that Soviet superiority lay. If the assumptions which underlie a doctrine are suspect, the doctrine must be questionable. Only objective analysis of the material available for study can lead to better conclusions.

When NATO moved from the doctrine of massive, nuclear retaliation to the notion of flexible response, its ability to fight conventionally became a crucial issue — at least when the Soviets too (and rather later) moved away from the belief that war with the West would be nuclear from the outset. Having embraced the belief that there could be at least a conventional phase in a war with the USSR, western armies continued down a conceptual cul-de-sac in their preparations to fight it. A major reason for this was the failure of its armies adequately to study and understand contemporary Soviet doctrinal writings.

To focus in on the British case, there were several reasons for this lacuna. The end of empire saw an increasing hollowing-out of the Army resulting from inflation combined with ongoing fiscal restraint and rising costs. Although the Army’s principal focus was theoretically on BAOR, from the early 1970s Northern Ireland proved a constant drain on manpower, money and intellectual effort and there were other distractions such as the Falklands war. There was little enthusiasm to provide resources for the study of Soviet military writings. It is clear, however, given the trivial financial cost of such study, that the real issue was lack of interest. The Army was comfortable with its stereotype, not least because it knew no better.

Being unfamiliar with an often very un-British approach to the conduct of battle and operations, the Army tended to squeeze Soviet concepts into the familiar molds of British ones and then point up the resulting bad fits as weaknesses. One example will make the point. The Soviet attack from the line of march was intended for meeting battles in which the enemy too was on the move or had only just transitioned to hasty defense. In British teaching and on exercise, the enemy was made to use the tactic against well-prepared defenses and suffered accordingly. Where the Soviets manifestly did things completely differently, it seemed self-evident that they must be wrong — after all, we were the ultimate in professionalism and therefore, by definition correct. The proof of this contention was plain from the great superiority shown over the Red Army in combat by the Wehrmacht. Western ideas were better.

At the root of this problem of incomprehension and consequent arrogant dismissiveness was the great hole in British (and American) military doctrine. Neither had an understanding of the concept of operational art, the conduct of war at the levels of theatre, army group and army in order to achieve the goals set by strategy. This was the bedrock of the Soviet design for victory. It was superior operational design that enabled the Red Army to eviscerate a usually tactically superior Wehrmacht. Of course, an army’s success was a product of cumulative tactical successes, but the conditions which made these possible, including surprise, the generation of required force ratios, etc were created at army and higher levels. A reverse for a division, let alone a regiment, would be a minor matter recoverable through effective action by army. Defeat of an army, at least on an important axis, could seriously impact the campaign and failure by an army group would likely be fatal to it. This thinking stressed the synergies to be found in treating the campaign as    a whole and not merely as the sum of its parts, whereas AFCENT for a long time viewed the campaign to come as a series of largely separate corps battles with higher levels retaining only limited resources to influence the outcome.

The British and US militaries became conscious of operational art only in the 1980s, half a century after the Soviet establishment of the General Staff Academy to develop, refine and teach the subject.[v] That they did so was due primarily to the work of the Soviet Studies Research Centre in Camberley and its American counterpart, the Soviet Army Studies Office in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The former was created in 1973 and developed thanks to the vision of a handful of far-sighted generals, especially Anthony Farrar-Hockley, Michael Gow and Nigel Bagnall. Baqgnall was particularly important as he reached the highest positions and by the mid-eighties was driving through radical reform to make the Army both maneuver-minded and capable and thus ready to take on the Soviets at their own game. The US Army noted the British developments and accepted their rationale. It created SASO, about a decade after SSRC was founded, to replicate and build on the work being done at Camberley.[vi] It was not long before the American military was going faster and further down the road to transformation.

As I reflected on our flawed understanding of the Soviet way in war, I went back over military history that I had read and came to see it in a new light. I realized how consistently, throughout history, so many armies have theorized about and trained for the wrong war and consequently achieved at best expensive and often indecisive victories or suffered catastrophic defeat. This was not always the result of a lack of professionalism. It was often the result of cultivating the wrong sort of professionalism for the war with which an army ended up. This is arguably what the British (and the Americans) have seen most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan where false analogies contributed to sub-optimal approaches: the British saw their successes in Malaya and Northern Ireland as providing models for counter-insurgencies in the 2000s, though the historical background, contemporary conditions and socio-political make up of Iraq and Afghanistan bore little resemblance to those of Malaya or Ulster.

There was a lesson for the future lurking here, and it is that lesson that I have tried to bring out in my book. I concentrate on war at the operational level with enough on the strategic and the tactical to provide context. I have compared and contrasted British, American and Soviet understanding of and approach to operations in the summer of 1944, making it clear that, like all armies, they were prisoners of their own experience. I analyze the course of operations over a limited period only, roughly July-September, because this was a period when linear-attritional, indecisive battle was succeeded by operational maneuver to potentially decisive effect. Strategically decisive results were indeed achieved in the East. They were not achieved in the West. I explain the main military reasons why the Soviets scored a more complete victory than the Allies, in doing so highlighting several factors not often dwelt on by western historians (who in any case mostly prefer narrative to analytical studies and who have mostly shied clear of comparisons). Some of the more important of these are briefly addressed below.

Contrary to popular myth, Soviet-German force ratios were not overwhelming; indeed, they were not generally more advantageous than Allied-German and were not, therefore, an explanation of greater Soviet success. Compare two contemporaneous operations in the West and in the East: the US Cobra and the British Bluecoat, starting respectively on 25 and 30 July, and the Red Army’s Belorussian and L’vov-Sandomir which commenced on 22 June and 13 July. The following table compares the force ratios on the first day of each. The two Soviet offensives both yielded great dividends, especially the larger Belorussian, quickly translating tactical into operational and then strategic success. The Americans, having (temporarily) abandoned their linear-attritional approach and aided by German logistic failure as a result of air interdiction, achieved operational success with unexpectedly far-reaching consequences. The British, having by contrast made no provision for deep exploitation, made only a limited impact.

Operation Operational Level Force Ratio (a)
Personnel Armour (a) Artillery
Cobra 3.8:1 4.7:1 3.0:1
Bluecoat 4.4:1 10.5:1 3.6:1
Belorussian 2.5:1 2.9:1 3.0:1
L’vov-Sandomir 1.7:1 2.2:1 2.5:1

Notes (a) Armour excludes light tanks; artillery includes guns and mortars over 80mm

The Soviets recognized that operational surprise to wrong-foot the Germans was all but a prerequisite for decisive success, not least because it enabled the concentration of superior forces, and they consistently put great efforts into achieving it. By 1944, deception and concealment routinely caused the Germans to miss over 50% of the Red Army’s offensive concentration: consequently they underestimated the build-up by 25-40%. This in turn meant that Soviet superiority estimated at an acceptable 2-3:1 was in fact up to 5:1 operationally and 8-10:1 tactically.[vii] After their brilliant achievement at the very start of the Normandy campaign, the Anglo-Americans were more intermittent in their efforts to achieve surprise and very often did not enjoy the benefits of this force multiplier.

Surprise was to become even more important, indeed a sine qua non, in modern conditions where deep and rapid penetration of the defense in a conventional phase would be vital to neutralize NATO tactical nuclear weapons. This would be accomplished by driving deep and fast, disrupting alliance command and control and logistics and by reducing the number of targets offered by a combination of shock, speed and intermingling of forces.

The Red Army consistently pursued the destruction of the enemy as the principal aim and therefore focus of operations. The capture and holding of ground would be an important by-product of the ruination of key enemy formations but not the primary mission. From its early days the Red Army’s obsession was to generate operational maneuver to decisive effect in order to escape from the indecisive, attritional battles that had characterized the period 1915-17 (especially in the west): twenty years of rich doctrinal debate culminated in Field Regulations, 1936 which systematized revolutionary concepts for war-fighting. The enemy’s cohesion was to be disrupted on a large scale, depriving him of his ability to react effectively to a rapidly changing situation by breaking up his organization and control of large formations. Destruction of large groupings, the paramount aim of a strategic offensive operation, would follow from the disruption of his plans, timetables and ability to organize over wide areas and in depth, forcing him into a generally reactive posture. In other words, Soviet operational art was not seen as merely a matter of teeing up and fighting battles. The Soviets did not move in order to fight. They fought usually in order to move, in order to generate and then maintain operational maneuver to force the enemy into a hopeless situation where his annihilation could be rapidly accomplished.

By the end of the summer 1944 campaign, the Red Army had eviscerated three German army groups. When the Allies invaded France in June 1944, the mission given to the supreme commander was to focus on the destruction of the German armed forces. By the end of August, the principal army group in the West had been very severely mauled. Thereafter however, the aim was somewhat lost to sight in practice as various territorial objectives offered prizes attractive to British and American commanders.[viii] Forces and increasingly scarce logistic resources were dissipated in various directions until their offensives ran out of steam short of strategically decisive objectives and with the German defense reviving.

The Soviets recognized the critical importance to the destruction of key enemy groupings of tempo and deep battle and, even more, deep operations penetrating without pauses 250-500 kilometers beyond the tactical zone of defense. Of course, before this became possible they had to break through usually well-developed, skillfully and tenaciously defended positions. They focused their efforts and demanded heavy sacrifices to achieve these complementary goals. Once the conditions were created for converting tactical into operational success, exploitation echelons were committed to drive deep, to hollow out the defense from within by disrupting German command and control and logistic support and seizing depth defense lines before they could be defended. By way of compensation for losses to the first echelon during the penetration of the tactical zone, the Soviets found that exploitation forces had an easier ride: when the rate of advance rose from 4-10 to 20-50 km per day, daily personnel losses fell by 30% and tank losses by 65% (and ammunition and fuel consumption fell dramatically as well).[ix] For the Red Army, the breakthrough battle was the most difficult and expensive phase of an operation and the exploitation was the payoff.

By contrast, shifting the center of gravity of combat into the enemy’s depth had no place in either British or US doctrine. Neither army created formations for this purpose at the operational level or worked hard or consistently to achieve it. While both accepted the desirability of achieving momentum, both saw casualty limitation as more important than unbalancing the enemy. Gnawing through the defense with the aid of overwhelming firepower was usually considered preferable to trading lives for time and tempo. Caution was generally seen as a virtue to be prized in Allied generals and George S Patton’s boldness troubled his superiors.

At the critical theatre and army group levels, the Allies were hampered by the weaknesses endemic in coalition war. American and British doctrinal differences vitiated mutual understanding and cooperation. So too did competition for resources.

Above all, differences over strategy, exacerbated by rivalries between commanders, meant that unity existed at only a superficial level. Not only were operations not always linked to produce synergies, they were frequently the product of rival British and US operational concepts. The result was dispersal of effort and a failure to keep the Germans under such sustained pressure on critical axes that their defeated army group collapsed completely under the strain. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that the British and American logistic systems were separate and both were designed to support linear-attritional rather than maneuver operations. While there was some cooperation between them, there was failure to ensure that clear alliance goals would determine priorities in meeting future logistic needs as the campaign progressed. There was dissipation of effort similar to that of combat forces which meant that ultimately, the Allies were unable to bring to bear their full combat power to complete the destruction of the enemy. The Soviets were not plagued by the need to accommodate allies and their totalitarian system kept rivalries between generals within tight bounds. In campaign design and in the setting up and conduct of each operation, best military judgment guided decisions and determined the need for switching of effort and logistic support between axes.


I hope I have said enough to demonstrate that my study of the theory and practice of war 70 years ago is not merely an academic, historical exercise. There are, as I bring out in the final chapter, enduring lessons to be learned about such issues as surprise and working within an alliance context. But the most important of these is the central importance of evolving correct doctrine for the war that an army will actually face rather than the one it would like. From doctrine flows equipment design and procurement, organization and training — how we propose to fight. Thus, for instance, the French went into battle in 1940 with utterly inappropriate doctrine and were speedily and comprehensively smashed. British and American doctrines were flawed and in 1944 this lengthened the struggle and raised the price of victory. Soviet doctrine at the start of their war was fundamentally sound but with lacunae. With modifications, it enabled them to survive horrendous initial defeats and then come back strongly to win convincing victories. Which armies today are producing doctrinal concepts that will provide the least wrong answers to the problems posed by the latest, greatest revolution in military affairs? Which have the mental and psychological flexibility best to adapt to the unanticipated mutations that war will undergo? The questioning study of history will not tell them what to think, but it will help them about to how to think. It might even help them to prove Hegel wrong.

C. J. Dick served in the British Army. After, he worked as a senior lecturer at the Soviet Studies Research Centre, which he directed from 1989–2004. From 2005–2006, he was a senior fellow at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.

[i] CJ Dick, Decisive and Indecisive Military Operations, vol 1 From Victory to Stalemate, the Western Front Summer 1944 and vol 2 From Defeat to Victory, the Eastern Front Summer 1944 (University Press of Kansas, 2016)

[ii] There was much resistance to the idea that the Soviets could achieve surprise in the face of modern reconnaissance and surveillance means (despite the fact they did just that when invading Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979). The issue is dealt with, amongst other places, in C.J. Dick Catching NATO Unaware. International Defence Review 19, 1 (1986) and more recently in C.J.Dick, From Defeat to Victory, pp 270-272.

[iii]  When General Sir Rupert Smith took 1 (BR) Armoured Division to the Gulf in January 1991, he told me that he anticipated fighting meeting battles and urgently needed to teach and train the division for this unfamiliar form of combat. I sent him material on the Soviet concept and the following article: C.J. Dick, Soviet Battle Drills, International Defence Review 18, No.5 (1985)

[iv] There was a tendency to underestimate the effectiveness of Soviet air defence as a whole because of the relative lack of sophistication of many individual systems. This was to downplay the effect of sheer numbers. Although each weapon may have a low kill probability individually, quantity will tell; within a week, the RAF lost five of the 45 Tornados it took to the 1991 Gulf War to old weaponry manned by Iraqis.

[v] The relationship between the levels of war was succinctly described by AA Svechin as early as the 1920s: “Tactics makes the steps from which operational art leaps; strategy points out the path”.

[vi]  Israeli Brigadier Shimon Naveh traced the development of British and American operational thinking in his seminal study In Pursuit of Military Excellence — the Evolution of Operational Theory (Frank Cass, 1997), 273-274. In it he wrote: “Comprising talented scholars like C Donnelly, P Vigor, CJ Dick and John Erickson, the British research group, concentrated in the Centre for Soviet Studies [sic] exercised great impact on the perception of Soviet operational theory held by the American school of reformers. Being far ahead of their American colleagues in the study of Soviet deep operations, the British analysts managed to illuminate essential issues such as echeloning, operational breakthrough, simultaneous deep strike, momentum, deception and surprise. Moreover, aware of the conditions characterizing the Central European theatre, they managed to translate the abstract principles of Deep Operations theory into operational scenarios understood by the military planner. The organizational form and patterns of work that were developed by the British group later served their American counterparts as a model for both the establishment of the Soviet Army Study Office (SASO) in Fort Leavenworth, and the training of a talented generation of analysts who successfully researched Soviet operational theory.”

[vii] D.M. Glantz, Soviet Military Deception (Frank Cass, 1989), 565.

[viii] Interestingly, the most important geographical objective for the longer term viability of the whole campaign, the Scheldt estuary, was neglected by the high command until too late to achieve its timely capture. Consequently, this vital port was opened 85 days after its capture (facilities intact). The issue is thoroughly explored in my first volume.

[ix] A.I. Radzievskiy, Tankoviy Udar (Tank Shock) (Voyenizdat, 1977), 228.