Slain Ukraine journalist Oles Buzina rellies on the memoris of infamous German commando Otto Skorzeny to highlight many key deficiencies of the German war machine - that were not shared by its Soviet counterpart
Every Spring in the run up to Victory Day, television starts to show feature films devoted to the Great Patriotic War. Honestly: most of them are simply exploiting the grand subject-matter. They need to sell something “interesting” to the belching inhabitant sitting with a bottle of beer in his hand in front of the TV, something pleasing to his eyes which have grown lethargic from his peaceful life.
This is where those shows such as “Fighter” appear, the main plot of which is who gets into the female pilot’s knickers – the “bad” political officer or the “good” son of a repressed pre-revolutionary aristocrat, who carries a small volume of Goethe – in German – under his arm and is played by the actor Dyushev?
Those that don’t themselves fight and don’t even serve in the military tell others who do not fight that war is fascinating and erotic. There is even, so they say, time for a Russian soldier to read Goethe. Frankly, such films disgust me. They are immoral and false.
As false as the American film “Pearl Harbour”. Because they are founded on the same clichés – war and girls. And such films do not add to our understanding of the question: why did our grandfathers win back then?
After all the Germans were so organised, so well-armed and had such an excellent command system, that a “realist” could only surrender. Thus Czechoslovakia surrendered (without a fight), Poland (with almost no fight), France (nice and easily – like a Parisian prostitute “surrendering” to a client), as well as Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Yugoslavia, Greece…
But this didn’t work in the East – everything went awry and it ended for some reason not in Moscow but in Berlin. Where it had all started.
It seems to me that the memoirs of SS Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, the world’s most widely published “commando” and “super-saboteur”, can help clarify this issue. This liberator of Mussolini, kidnapper of Horthy and hunter of Tito, was the same person who, smelling of gunpowder, took part in the 1941 offensive campaign against Russia. He was part of the SS “Das Reich” division, which belonged to the Panzer Group Guderian.
THE PURGE OF 1937 STRENGTHENED THE RED ARMY
Otto Skorzeny was in the middle of the troops of the Southwestern Front in Ukraine, advancing via Brest and Yelnya and admiring through binoculars the far away domes of Moscow. But he never made it there. And the question – how come they didn’t take Moscow? – plagued the retired Obersturmbannführer for the rest of his life. After all they wanted to. And were prepared.
And they were such fine fellows: with a feeling of deep satisfaction Skorzeny describes how he completed a 12 kilometre forced march in full gear and was able to shoot almost without missing a single shot. But his life came to an end in far-away Spain – in exile, fleeing post-war German justice, which went after him with the typically German meticulous “denazification” in the same way that a housewife poisons a cockroach. What a shame!
Skorzeny’s memoirs have never been translated in Ukraine. In Russia – there are only excerpts -chiefly those episodes which describe special operations. The Russian version of the memoirs starts at that point when Skorzeny lands in hospital following his adventures close to Moscow. But in the original there are 150 pages preceding this. About the road to Moscow and how, in the author’s opinion, the shame came about.
Hidden sabotage among the German Generals was, according to the SS veteran, one of the reasons for the defeat of the Germans: “Right in the heart of the old Prussian System – in the General Staff of the Army – a small group of generals were still hesitating between tradition and the new ways, some unfortunately didn’t accept the benefits of those … It was difficult for such people, for example Beck and his successor Halder to obey a person, whom some called the “the Bohemian Corporal””. Skorzeny diverts a lot of attention to the military conspiracy and believes that it existed as a form of secret counteraction to the Führer long before 1944.
The author of the memoirs holds up Stalin in 1937 as an example to Hitler:
“The massive purge of the military, carried out after multiple executions among the politicians, did not just mislead Heydrich and Schellenberg. Our political intelligence was convinced that we had achieved a decisive victory, the same opinion was shared by Hitler. The Red Army however, contrary to popular belief, was not weakened, but strengthened… Young officers – committed Communists – took over the posts of the purged commanders of the army, of the corps, of divisions, brigades, regiments and battalions. And the conclusion: “After the wholesale, horrific purge of 1937 a new political Russian army appeared, capable of withstanding the most brutal battles. Russian generals carried out orders, but did not engage in conspiracies and treachery, as often happened in our highest circles.”
It is impossible not to agree with this. Unlike Hitler, Stalin created a system wholly subordinate to him. For this reason in the autumn of 1941, when the Germans were close to Moscow, there was no conspiracy of generals in the Red Army. But three years later there was one in the Wehrmacht – although Berlin at that time was further away. It is inconceivable, that Stalin would be blown up by one of “his own” in the Kremlin, as Colonel Stauffenberg tried to do to the beloved Führer in the Wolfsschanze.
THE ABWEHR DIDN’T REPORT ANYTHING IMPORTANT
“In war”, writes Otto Skorzeny, “there exists a further little-known but often crucial aspect – that of undercover work. I am talking of events taking place away from the battlefield, but which have a very large impact on the course of the war – they entailed a huge loss of equipment, the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of European soldiers… More than any other war, the Second World War was the war of machinations and plots.”
Skorzeny plainly suspects Admiral Canaris, the head of German military intelligence, of secretly working for the English. It was Canaris who persuaded Hitler in the Summer of 1940, that landing in Britain was impossible: “On 7th July he sent Keitel a classified report in which he informed him that two first line defence divisions and 19 reserve divisions would be waiting for German troops disembarking in England. However the English at that time had only one battle-ready unit – the 3rd division of General Montgomery. The general recalls this in his memoirs… From the very start of the war and in key moments, Canaris behaved like Germany’s worst enemy.”
If Hitler had known about the misinformation that his head of intelligence had slipped him, then Britain would have been defeated. And in the Summer of 1941 Hitler would have been waging war not on two fronts but on just one – the Eastern front. You have to agree that under these circumstances the chances that he would have taken Moscow would have been much higher. “I talked with Canaris three or four times”, recalls Skorzeny, “and he didn’t strike me as a diplomatic or remarkably intelligent person, as some write about him. He never spoke plainly, he was devious and inscrutable and that is not the same thing.” And anyway: “The Abwehr never reported anything really important or significant to the High Command.”
“WE DIDN’T KNOW”
This is one of the most common complaints of the great saboteur: “We didn’t know that the Russians were using outdated equipment and not their best soldiers in the war with Finland. We did not realise that their hard-won victory over the brave Finnish army was only a bluff. We are talking about concealing a huge force which was capable of attack and defence, about which Canaris – the head of German intelligence – had to at least know something.”
Like the rest of us, Skorzeny was impressed by the “magnificent T-34s”. The Germans even had to throw bottles filled with petrol at the tanks. In films such an episode characterises images of the heroic Soviet soldier forced to fight virtually bare-handed. But in reality it was sometimes the other way around.
Moreover – it was quite often so: “German anti-tank weapons, which could easily destroy tanks of the T-26 and BT class were powerless against the new T-34s, which suddenly appeared out of the overgrown wheat and rye fields. Our soldiers then needed to attack them with “Molotov Cocktails” – ordinary bottles of petrol with a lit fuse instead of a cork. If the bottle landed on the steel plate protecting the engine, the tank would catch fire… “Faust-bullets” appeared considerably later, which is why in the early campaigns some Russian tanks could only be held back with direct fire from our heavy artillery.”
In other words, all of the Reich’s anti-tank artillery proved useless against the new Russian tank. It could only be kept in check by heavy guns. But the memoirist was no less impressed by the Red Army sapper units and their equipment – they could construct a 60 metre bridge, making it possible to transport vehicles weighing up to 60 tons! The Wehrmacht did not possess such technology.
LACK OF TECHNICAL UNIFORMITY
The whole design of the German offensive doctrine was based on the high mobility of its motorised units. Engines however require spare parts and constant maintenance. And there was no procedure for this in the German army. The diversity of car types in one division was a problem.
“Each German car company was still making different models of their brand just as they did before the war, laments Skorzeny, remembering his own experience of service in the “Reich” division in 1941. A large number of models is not conducive to the creation of a corresponding stock of spare-parts. In the motorised divisions there were roughly 2.000 vehicles with sometimes 50 different types and models, although 10-18 would have been enough. In addition our artillery regiment had more than 200 trucks, of 15 different types. In the rain, mud or freezing weather it was not possible for even the best specialist to carry out a high-quality repair.”
And this was the result. Just outside Moscow: “On 2nd December we continued to move ahead and were able to take Nikolaev, which was located 15 kilometres outside Moscow – during clear sunny weather I could see the domes of the Moscow churches through binoculars. Our troops fired on the outskirts of the capital, however we no longer had artillery tractors.” If you still have guns but the tractors are “all out of commission” it means that the German “supertechnology” had to be left behind as breakdown on the road. You just can’t drag heavy guns yourself.
The German army arrived in Moscow absolutely exhausted: “On the 19th October it started to rain in torrents and the “Centre” army group was bogged down in the mud for three days… It was a terrible scene: a column of equipment stretching out over hundreds of kilometres with thousands of vehicles standing in three rows, bogged down in the mud sometimes up to the hood. There was a shortage of petrol and ammunition. Three valuable weeks and large quantities of equipment were lost… At the cost of hard work and back-breaking efforts we managed to pave 15 kilometres of road with round logs… We dreamt of it quickly turning colder.”
But when from the 6th to 7th November cold weather struck and the division in which Skorzeny served was supplied with ammunition, fuel, some food and cigarettes, it became apparent that there was no winter oil for the vehicles and weapons – and the engines started causing problems.
Instead of winter uniforms the troops ended up with the sand-coloured kits intended for the Africa Corps and equipment painted in the same light tone. Meanwhile the temperature dropped to -20° and even to -30° Celsius.
With sincere amazement the dashing SS officer describes the winter uniforms of the Soviet soldiers – short fur coats and fur boots: “It was an unpleasant surprise – at Borodino we fought with Siberians for the first time. These were strapping men – superior, well-armed soldiers; they were dressed in wide fur coats and hats and wore fur boots on their feet.”
The Germans only learned from the Russian POWs that winter footwear should be a little roomier, if you didn’t want your feet to freeze: “After careful study of the equipment of the courageous Siberians, captured by Borodino, we learned that, for example, if there aren’t any felt boots, you don’t have to wear leather boots – the most important thing is that the boots are spacious and don’t press the foot. This was known to all skiers but not to our specialist clothing service. Almost all of us wore fur boots taken from dead Russian soldiers.”
EXCELLENT RUSSIAN INTELLIGENCE
Almost the main reason for the defeat of the German Army was, according to Skorzeny, excellent Russian intelligence. The “Red Orchestra” spy network in Europe – mostly made up of die-hard anti-Nazis – provided the Soviet General Staff with information about German strategic intentions. He also recalls super-spy Richard Sorge, whose information that Japan would not enter the war led to 40 divisions being redeployed to Moscow from the Far East.
“The Reich’s military strategy was superior” Skorzeny says, “and our Generals possessed a more powerful imagination. However, from the ordinary soldier up to the company commander, the Russians were our equals – courageous, resourceful, gifted conspirators. They resisted fiercely and were always ready to sacrifice their lives… The Russian officers from division commander and below were younger and more resolute than ours. From 9th October to 5th December the “Reich” division, the 10th tank division and other units of the 16th tank corps lost 40% of their total personnel. Six days later, when our positions were attacked once more by the newly-arrived Siberian divisions, our losses exceeded 75%.”
So there is your answer to the question – why the Germans did not take Moscow. They were quite simply beaten. Skorzeny himself didn’t fight on the front any more. Not a stupid man, he understood that there were minimal chances to survive this meat grinder and so he took the opportunity to transfer to service in the SS commando unit. The front no longer attracted him – kidnapping dictators was more pleasant and safer than coming face to face with Siberians in felt boots, who were fighting under the protection of T-34s and with the best intelligence in the world.
PS The author of this article – Oles Buzina – famous Ukrainian journalist, writer and historian – was murdered in front of his house in Kiev. “Istoricheskaya Pravda” offers its condolences to relatives and friends of the deceased.