Storm over the Rhine: an American artilleryman recalls his thunderous crossing

The Allied armies fighting in northern Europe had many rivers to cross, but none more significant than the Rhine, a defensive trench of sorts protecting Germany’s industrial powerhouse, the Ruhr Valley.

  • I first saw that famous and formidable river on a March night in 1945. The leaves of a few trees on its near bank, barely visible as shadows, cautioned where land met river. The violent booming and reverberations of massed artillery fire drowned the sound of water moving. Between the natural screen of night and smoke from shell bursts that intentionally obscured the west bank from the enemy on the opposite shore, I could see little. I was a first lieutenant. In 10 days I would be 22 years old–if I survived crossing that river.


  • I had outlived several campaigns in northern Europe as a field artillery forward observer with the 30th Infantry Division, which had been in the fight since shortly after D-Day. (See “View from the Hill,” July/August 2013.) My job was to march, live, and fight with the infantry, protect them from the enemy, and aid them in securing their objectives. A forward observer didn’t do this with a rifle or a machine gun, but with artillery. I have been asked what weapon I carried. Well, I had a Colt .45 pistol and a battalion of 12–sometimes more–105mm howitzers, each of which typically shot 33-pound high-explosive shells. Because forward observers needed to be at the leading edge of the fighting, our casualty rate was very high; I had already been wounded twice in 1944.

The Ruhr Valley, a bulwark of the Reich’s military might, stretched some 60 miles southeast of Wesel, a small city near the border with the Netherlands. The Ruhr had produced more than half Germany’s coal and steel before the war and was home to manyindustries, including the Krupp conglomerate, which manufactured steel, tanks, munitions, and armaments–among them, the deadly “88” artillery piece. The Allies knew well what the Ruhr Valley industries meant to the German war effort. But the Ruhr would not fall to bombing alone. Allied armies had to cross the Rhine, seize the Ruhr, and sever the valley from Nazi control. Since before D-Day, considerable planning had gone into this task.

Americans first crossed the Rhine some 100 miles south of the Ruhr, at Remagen, on March 7, 1945. (See “A Bridge in Time,” page 31.) Aided by a battlefield conspiracy of luck and German ineptitude, they dashed across the Ludendorff Bridge and established a modest beachhead on the far side before stiffened enemy resistance slowed the advance. With their hands full, forces at the Remagen bridgehead could not be diverted to make a wide swing to the north to encircle the Ruhr.


Under these circumstances, any armchair strategist with a good map could see that the way to cut off the Ruhr was an all-out drive focused on Wesel. This suited Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, commander of the 21st Army Group and an advocate of the “set piece” approch to battle that concentrated overwhelming force on a small sector. Montgomery assembled an assault force of almost a million and a quarter men, thousands of artillery pieces, huge stores of bridging equipment, and boats and supplies of every nature, a preparation bearing a similarity in scope to the advance work for D-Day. His 21st Army Group consisted of the British Second Army and the First Canadian Army, but for the Rhine crossing it would also include the U.S. Ninth Army and the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps, although only after some wrangling and considerable posturing over who would be commanding U.S forces.

The battle plan called for British and Canadian troops to cross the Rhine north of Wesel.

American forces would cross and invade a sector south of Wesel. Airborne troops would drop north and east of Wesel, essentially attacking the enemy in the rear.


The Ninth Army assault was called Operation Flashpoint. South of Wesel, the Lippe River and the Lippe-Seiten Canal intersected the Rhine and formed the northern boundary of the Ninth Army’s sector. At this juncture the Rhine’s riverbed, uncoiling from an east-west path, takes a south-north course for about three miles. On either side, broad, gently sloping sandy beaches channel the river, about 1,100 feet wide at that point: ideal for a cross-river attack and an easy landing.

Preparations for Operation Flashpoint began in early March. The engineers readied immense quantities of bridging material. The U.S. Navy–yes, the navy, which had the boats and men trained to operate them–unloaded an assortment of vessels: LCVPs (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel; better known as Higgins boats), LCMs (Landing Craft, Mechanized), 14-man assault boats–even small tug boats and seven-man storm boats.

  • The Ninth Army’s thousands of tons of supplies included 2,070 artillery pieces. Of those, 13 battalions–roughly 200 guns–came under the direction of the 30th Infantry Division, more than double the number of artillery pieces we had been assigned since Normandy.
  • As Ninth Army troops honed their river-crossing skills, all insignia came off. Men disfigured or covered over unit designations on vehicles. Troop movements and locations were concealed as much as possible. Other soldiers in other locations assumed our identities. Since the Ninth Army staked success on an attack along a narrow front, the Germans had to be kept in the dark about the crossing site. While the preparations for the attack could not be entirely concealed, the assault point could be. Engineers constructing roads to the vicinity built roads elsewhere, too. If a reconnaissance patrol went out near the site, additional patrols went out along the length of the Ninth Army’s river frontage.


A major component of the attack was the artillery fire plan. Normally, limited artillery bombardment preceded infantry attacks to soften up the enemy. The fire plan for Operation Flashpoint meant to obliterate the enemy.

  • As a forward observer I got a glimpse of the plan at 30th Infantry Division Artillery Headquarters. Never before had I seen such premeditated carnage. Sketched in detail on a representation of terrain east of the river, the timetable specified a full hour of relentless shelling to precede the infantry’s cross-river attack, set for 2 a.m., March 24. The drawing listed each artillery unit and, minutely, its zone of fire and the number of rounds to direct at an initial target area. After gunners had fired the initial rounds, the plan minimally increased the range, indicated the number of rounds to fire at the new range, and so on, for one hour–a rolling barrage meant to chew up extensive enemy terrain. By the time Allied infantry stood ready to cross, the artillery would have shifted to deeper targets.

Around 1 a.m. on March 24, the 13 battalions directed by the 30th Division began firing the first of some 20,000 high-explosive shells at our target area. That’s roughly one round every half a minute for each artillery piece, an incredible rate of sustained fire. Even on that cool night, gun crews were hot and sweaty, delirious with exhaustion by the time the hour ended and they could slow their rate of fire.

With thousands of shells screaming overhead, what was it like crossing a damp open plain under a mist-shrouded moon?

I later learned that General Dwight D. Eisenhower had watched our progress from a church tower, along with Ninth Army commander Lieutenant General William Hood Simpson. But their perspective would have been very different. Likewise with Winston Churchill, whom General Simpson had to coax off a railroad bridge at the Rhine when enemy artillery rounds threatened. The British prime minister “wanted to go messing about on the Rhine crossings and we had some difficulty in keeping him back,” Field Marshal Alan Brooke, who accompanied Churchill, noted in his diary. “The look on Winston’s face was just like that of a small boy being called away from his sand castles on the beach by his nurse!”

No sweaty delirium enveloped the infantry and its few attached artillery forward observers–myself included–as we proceeded solemnly toward the beach, only a clammy sense of apprehension. Two thousand guns firing: the drumbeat of an apocalypse. The roar and boom came from all directions, violent, hugely threatening, as if a gigantic eruption was ripping the earth open. Twenty thousand shells tearing the planet apart. The British and Canadian forces had assembled more than 3,400 artillery and related guns, and those weapons, farther from us than our own artillery, were banging away, too. A fearsome sound battered us on the empty plain we marched across–a sound such as we had never heard before and wished never to hear again.

I sensed my bladder trying to empty, but kept control: there wasn’t time for that, nor was this the place. The thunder of volley upon volley drove us to an uncertain future. For half a mile, we marched in darkness to the beach.


The planners had timed all aspects of the attack with precision: the stockpiling of supplies, the artillery barrage, the airborne drops, even our trudge to the river. Before wetting our feet in the Rhine, four 2nd Battalion riflemen, my radio operator, and I came to where the navy had stacked storm boats in a pile like cordwood. The six of us shouldered one. I thought it looked like a narrow dinghy, something like a racing shell, with none of the attributes of a seaworthy vessel.

Unlike most other attacks across the Rhine that day, the 30th Division committed all three of its infantry regiments in a simultaneous surge, leaving no troops in reserve. The 119th Regiment was on the left flank near where the river begins its three-mile south-north course. Upstream the 117th was at the center. The 120th, the regiment my artillery battalion supported, was to cover the right flank. There, I walked in file with the procession of riflemen down to the sodden beach as the night closed about us with concussive force. We were the first wave of the 120th.

The 2nd Battalion was to hit the beach across the river, where it resumed its east-west path. The mighty Rhine was calm. No wind raised waves on its surface. I could not see the far bank. We dumped our craft into the water, bow pointing toward the opposite shore. Distrustful of our slender craft’s stability, we stepped aboard and carefully seated ourselves.

An olive drab-garbed seaman took charge of the outboard motor. He grabbed the lanyard and pulled. Nothing. I was clinging to the gunwale on the port side and so had a view upstream, through the murky night. The explosions from our artillery blanketed almost all other sounds, and I could hear nothing close by. Not many yards upstream, by the river’s edge, a thin column of black water rose: an enemy shell. The Germans were no dummies; they knew an attack was coming. When Allied shelling began moving inland, it signaled that we were about to leave our side of the river. So the Germans fired back, zeroing in on our beach.

The sailor yanked the lanyard again. Again nothing. More spouts at river’s edge. By this time the current had angled our skiff s bow downstream. A few more moments and we would be stranded on the beach. I took a deep breath and waited. For a third time the seaman pulled the lanyard. The engine coughed into life and, in a wide swinging arc, we headed into the river. Minutes later we landed on the opposite bank, safer there than on the shore the Germans were targeting. Somewhere back on the other side, someone was readying my jeep, which my radioman and I used when we weren’t walking with the infantry, for the same voyage.

The rest of the night’s work is history. The artillery had substantially curtailed any fight the Germans might have made. The troops to which I was attached moved swiftly in the dark. Resistance was slight: only the occasional rifleman. By morning we were a considerable distance from shore, stopped at a farmhouse serving as an infantry company command post. The men were taking a breather. Until the unit was ready to resume the attack, one of the riflemen and I decided to take a look around.

A short walk brought us into a copse near the house, small trees, brush, not much to see. As we strolled along, we came upon a German soldier. He was kneeling behind a wooden post nibbling on a cookie as if he had been waiting for us. The rifleman leveled his rifle. The German willingly surrendered, handing over his gun–but not the cookie–and returned with us to the command post.

Soon, a battalion of brand new, fresh-from-the-box light tanks rolled up. The battalion’s organizational chart included one tank specifically designated for an artillery observer (nowadays, the army use vision supporting devices, such as high-quality rangefinders, laser binocular to enhance range of artillery observation). I would do. One of the men took me on a quick tour of the tank. It was like all the others, a rolling hulk of steel.

I’ve often been a skeptic, particularly of planners who have not actually surveyed the territory or come into close contact with the circumstance for which they are planning. So I climbed into the tank and gave its insides a once-over. A tight cramped little box it was, with no easy way to get a broad view of events going on around it: not really a place for an artillery observer. Besides, it took little imagination to visualize the tank as an incinerator–with me and my radio operator inside. I declined the offer, instead finding my driver and jeep; visibility from a jeep was fair and bailing out was easy.

The battalion commander showed me his military objective, just as his commanding officer had shown it to him. It was very simple: a small-scale map of Germany with a big arrow slashed across it in black marker. The butt of the arrow denoted where we were, the business end aimed at the heart of Berlin. I nodded. The battalion commander gave a signal, and the battalion started its engines. Off we went, a tank destroyer or two in the lead, next a couple of unblemished tanks, then my crew and I in our jeep, followed by the rest of the tank battalion.

Before long the battalion took a wrong turn and got lost, and then stuck, on the only narrow street through the middle of a small village. The planners had not counted on that. Nor had the battalion had much practice at turning around an entire column of tanks on a street one tank wide. After much backing and turning, shouting, fuming, and cursing, the tanks headed in the right direction.

Within hours I, too, changed direction when I received a more promising, but also more dangerous, assignment–back with the infantry on the attack. The tanks and I parted company. I never learned how far that battalion got in its mission.

But the Rhine crossing was an unqualified success. The 30th Division and the other troops had done their job well. In a gush of enthusiasm the next day, March 25, Churchill told Eisenhower, “My dear General, the German is whipped. We’ve got him. He’s all through.” The prime minister spoke the truth, but six more weeks would pass before the war in Europe ended. Six more weeks until the Germans surrendered, until they finally quit. Some fought on to the nihilistic end.

My division never reached Berlin–the target of the arrow on the map I had seen. Eisenhower stopped us before then, and on April 18 the 30th shut down its attack, at Magdeburg on the Elbe River. After the Rhine we had fought on with vigor and perhaps enthusiasm–not enthusiasm for the war, but for its ending. We looked forward to that moment and to being alive for it. No one wanted the ironic distinction of being the last soldier killed before the curtain came down on those many tragic years of destruction, devastation, and death.

Death of an Army


Kalabin looked back on the last days of the 2nd Shock Army, his description had all the terrible vividness of events impossible to forget. “We weren’t an army anymore,” he wrote:

   We were a market crowd. The forest burned,
   the peat bogs smoldered. Bomb craters
   everywhere, and twisted, broken trees. Piles
   of useless rifles, wrecked gun carriages. And
   corpses--corpses wherever you looked.
   Thousands of them, stinking and covered in
   flies, decomposing in the June sun.... And on
   every bit of dry ground--wounded soldiers.
   Screaming, moaning, pleading--for water,
   or for somebody to finish them off. But
   nobody paid any attention. People wandered
   about the woods--numbed, sullen,
   half mad; in hats with the ear flaps tied
   under the chin so as to keep off the mosquitoes,
   eyes red and swollen from lack of
   sleep.... Nobody had a watch; we lost track
   of time. What date is it? Is it day or night?

The story of the Vtoraya Udarnaya Armiya–simply the 2nd Shock to the men who served in it–is one of the least-known tragedies of World War II. The second of five “shock armies,” designed to spearhead key offensives, it consisted of one rifle division and eight brigades–about 100,000 men in total. It met its end exactly a year after Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union, in an encirclement that saw–as Kalabin so graphically described–as many men die of starvation as from fighting and bombardment. After the war, the army suffered another cruel blow when an act of treachery by its commander, General Andrei Vlasov, prompted authorities to wipe the army’s demise from the official record. Only since the Soviet Union’s collapse has the story come to light.


THE SEEDS OF DISASTER WERE SOWN in early January 1942, when Stalin reacted to the swift-moving German invasion by overruling his generals and insisting on a counteroffensive along the entire front, from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south. One main objective was the relief of Leningrad, whose 2.5 million civilian inhabitants were entering the depths of mass starvation. In December, 53,000 had succumbed to what death certificates euphemistically called “dystrophy” and “exhaustion”; more than 100,000 would die during each of the next three months.

Stalin’s plan–basically a larger-scale repetition of smaller offensives that had failed the previous autumn–was to break through the German siege lines at their thinnest point. From inside the ring around Leningrad, the 55th Army would strike south and east, retaking the main Moscow-Leningrad railway line and the southern shore of Lake Ladoga, just to the east. From outside the ring, five armies–the 59th, 54th, 52nd, 4th, and 2nd Shock–were to push north and west, across the Volkhov River. They were to meet another army–the 55th–near the railway town of Tosno and encircle the forward divisions of Germany’s 18th Army.

It was a good plan on paper, but not in practice. Hungry, exhausted, short on experienced officers, and chronically under-equipped, not one of the Russian armies was fit to attack–especially those in the north, where a record-breaking winter had sent temperatures plummeting to -20 degrees and below. Trapped inside the siege ring, the 55th Army was especially weak. As files of the NKVD, the Soviet internal security service, later revealed, men were shot for complaining. Corrupt quartermasters abused the rationing system, and left many soldiers dying of starvation; some of them even resorted to cannibalism.

Newly called up from the reserve, the 2nd Shock Army was better supplied but inexperienced. It had been formed two and a half months earlier, most of its troops coming from the grain fields of the Volga Steppe. Few had ever seen a forest, none could ski, and their tendency to avoid woods in favor of open ground would soon make them easy prey for German attack planes. Their commander, Lieutenant General Grigoriy Sokolov, had no military experience at all, having climbed the ranks of the NKVD to become deputy to its sadistic head, Lavrentiy Beria. Sokolov reported to General Kirill Meretskov, a capable professional soldier who might have shown more initiative had he not been temporarily imprisoned and tortured on Stalin’s order at the start of the war–one of dozens of senior officers scapegoated for Stalin’s own failure to foresee the German invasion.


LAUNCHED AT FIRST LIGHT on January 6, 1942, Stalin’s Leningrad offensive began with a bloodbath. Attacking on foot over the frozen Volkhov without artillery preparation, air cover, or winter camouflage, Russian infantry were cut down by the thousands by German gunners sheltering in well-built firing points on the Volkhov’s higher west bank. Thrown into battle the following morning, the 2nd Shock Army was supposed to expand a bridgehead established by three armies the previous day. But in reality there was no bridgehead, and in the first half hour of its assault the 2nd Shock lost more than 3,000 men. As Kalabin recalled:

   Uniquely for January, the river ice started to break up
   and drift. The grey Volkhov boiled with shellfire, and
   turned red with human blood. We were getting used to
   war by then, but seeing human arms and heads sticking
   up out of the river, and human bodies under the transparent
   ice, we recklessly cursed those who, through
   stupidity and irresponsible thoughtlessness, plunged us
   infantrymen alive into the frozen river.... Later I was
   in the battles for Kishinev and Budapest, but the sight of
   the bloody mortal Volkhov stays with me to this day.

Three days later, prompted by Stavka, the Red Army high command, Meretskov halted the offensive. He replaced Sokolov with the more experienced Major General Nikolai Klykov, commander of the 52nd Army. The assault was renewed on January 13–this time with better artillery preparation, though troops still lacked supplies and were hampered by snow so deep that wounded soldiers would fall into a sitting position, held upright by the drifts. On January 24, the 2nd Shock Army finally succeeded in breaking across the Volkhov, near the prophetically named village of Myasnoi Bor, “Meat Wood.” Led by a cavalry corps, it advanced 25 miles in five days, taking a broad swathe of countryside about 30 miles square between Leningrad and the small medieval city of Novgorod, some 90 miles south.


The gains were more impressive on paper than in reality. Efforts by the 52nd and 59th Armies to broaden the gap in the German line–8.5 miles wide by mid-February–foundered against swift enemy reinforcement, and the captured ground consisted of virtually uninhabited forest, peat bogs, and swamps. As the 2nd Shock Army penetrated deeper into the enemy’s rear, its supply lines stretched to the breaking point. “What was High Command thinking,” Kalabin wrote,

   sending horses into forest without paths or roads, with
   the snow up to their bellies? One look at a map would
   have shown them that this empty space beyond the
   Volkhov was wilderness upon wilderness.... Ninety percent
   of our transport was horse-drawn. What were we
   supposed to use for feed? We had neither hay nor oats.
   Often, while we slept, the horses would gnaw away the
   shafts of their wagons. Or they would simply die of
   hunger. When he discovered a horse dead, the man in
   charge would weep, because he could be court-martialled
   [on suspicion of killing it to eat]. Headquarters
   and hospitals were supplied with big tents with felt
   floors, but we slept outdoors, around fires. Often men
   slept too close, and burned their felt boots. The only way
   to get new ones was off a dead soldier.

Red Army tactics also remained rudimentary. German soldiers were amazed to see Russian infantry advancing across open ground in line abreast, shouting loud “hurrahs”–which, one German veteran observed, “told us where to shoot.” Nor did the 2nd Shock Army coordinate with the 54th, pushing toward it from the north: one side’s attacks tended to peter out as the other’s started.

To reanimate the advance, in mid-February Stalin sent Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, the incompetent crony who had carried out thearmy purges of the 1930s and bungled the previous autumn’s defense of Leningrad. With him, to take over as Meretskov’s new deputy, came a tall, bespectacled, 42-year-old professional soldier–Andrei Vlasov.

Newly decorated for having extricated an army from encirclement at Kiev, Vlasov was at this point to all appearances the model of a successful Soviet general. War reporter Ilya Ehrenburg, who interviewed him shortly before his posting to the 2nd Shock Army, found him charismatic and popular with his men, noting that he addressed them in vivid, colloquial language rather than the usual Soviet jargon.

One of 13 children in a peasant family, Vlasov joined the Red Army at 19 and rose quickly through the ranks during the RussianCivil War. Afterward he stayed in the army, won a series of promotions, and at 30 joined the Communist Party. The most unusual item in his CV–proof that his superiors considered him politically reliable–was two years in Manchuria, advising Chiang Kai-shek in his war against the Japanese.

But Vlasov’s run of luck was coming to an end. In mid-March, having been refused reinforcements, Meretskov asked Stavka for permission to pull back the 2nd Shock Army before it bogged down in the spring thaw. Stalin equivocated, again sending Voroshilov to assess the situation. The delay was fatal: Hitler had already ordered the 18th Army to activate Operation Predator, designed to cut off the 2nd Shock Army. “The fuhrer,” his chief of staff, Franz Halder, wrote in his diary, “specifies air preparation beginning several days before the opening of the offensive (heaviest bombs against camps in the forest). After the elimination of the Volkhov salient, no blood is to be wasted on reducing the enemy in the marshes; he can be left to starve to death.”

In five days of fierce fighting, the 18th Army, aided by troops of the Spanish Blue Division (sent to the Eastern Front by the ostensibly neutral Spanish dictator Francisco Franco), severed both supply roads connecting the 2nd Shock Army with the rest of the Volkhov Front. On March 27 the Russians managed to reopen the bottleneck, clearing a passage two to three miles wide near Myasnoi Bor. But the connection remained fragile and intermittent, crossable–if at all–only at night and only on foot.

APRIL BROUGHT THE SPRING THAW–in Russian the rasputitsa, the notorious “time without roads.” Operations on both sides came to a halt as frozen bogs turned into lakes and patches of high ground became islands. Quartered in an abandoned monastery on the western bank of the Volkhov, a German reconnaissance officer (and keen bird watcher) watched the landscape change:

   Reed beds, wide bodies of water between stretches of
   yellowed grass, black moorland and the sparse remains
   of snow. Over it all a high spring sky with lamb's-wool
   clouds; a sea of jubilant lark-song and lapwings' cries. In
   the marshy forest to the right, goldfinches in every
   bush.... The men sit in front of their bunkers with their
   shirts off, their torsos pale.... They are whistling and
   singing. The cheerful noise must carry to the Russians,
   but I am not going to forbid it.

Other Germans were less lyrical, erecting signs outside flooded dugouts that read “Kein Trinkwasser” (“Not Drinking Water”) and “Hier beginnt der Arsch der Welt” (literally “Here Begins the Ass of the World”).


For the trapped 2nd Shock Army, spring brought only new miseries. The corridor connecting it to the rear became impassable, halting evacuation of the wounded and delivery of supplies. Horses died and were eaten; troops had to carry artillery shells by hand, wading up to their waists or jumping from tussock to tussock like rabbits. Painfully built “corduroy roads” of tree trunks laid side by side sank into the mud.

Angry at the army’s helplessness, Stalin recalled Meretskov on April 21. He handed command of the Volkhov Front to Mikhail Khozin, a protege of Marshal Georgi Zhukov and commander of the neighboring Leningrad Front. At the same time, Vlasov flew into the Myasnoi Bor pocket to replace Klykov as the 2nd Shock Army’s commander. “Wolfish” and “not talkative” according to his new subordinates, Vlasov was no longer the flamboyant officer of two months before. In Moscow, Meretskov visited Stavka to make a final plea for reinforcements, declaring, in Stalin’s presence, that the 2nd Shock Army’s position was critical and that “if nothing is done, catastrophe is inevitable.”


Khozin, who had avowed that he would “completely destroy the enemy” by the end of the month, came to the same conclusion. On May 12, aware that the Germans were employing two new infantry divisions to close the Myasnoi Bor bottleneck, Khozin submitted a withdrawal plan. The 2nd Shock Army would stage a retreat southeastward, then break out to join the rest of the Volkhov Front. Stavka took four days to approve the plan, by which time it was too late. The army had already begun to disintegrate. “The enemy would first surround a unit,” I. I. Kalabin remembered,

   wait for it to weaken for lack of supplies and then start
   pounding. We were completely helpless, since we had no
   ammunition, no fuel, no bread, no tobacco, not even
   salt. Worst of all was having no medical help. No medicines,
   no bandages. You want to help the wounded, but
   how? All our underwear has gone for bandages long ago;
   all we have left is moss and cotton wool. The field hospitals
   are overflowing, and the few medical staff in
   despair. Many hundreds of non-walking wounded
   simply lie under bushes. Around them mosquitoes and
   flies buzz like bees in a hive. Come near and the whole
   swarm comes after you, envelops you, gets into your
   mouth, eyes, ears--unbearable.... Nothing new about
   lice, but in such quantities.... The grey devils eat us alive,
   with gusto, completely covering our clothes and bodies.
   You don't even try to squash them; all you can do is
   shake them off onto the ground....

      Our main misfortune, though, was hunger. Oppressive,
   never-ending hunger. Wherever you went, whatever you
   were doing, the thought of food never left you.... Our
   food supply now depended on air deliveries by U-2 [a
   small utility biplane, better known as a Po-2]. Each could
   carry five or six sacks of dried bread. But there were
   thousands of us. How could there possibly be enough
   for everyone?... Otherwise you're on your own, you have
   to eat what you can find--bark, grass, leaves, harnesses.

Even so, through May substantial numbers of troops escaped the pocket. On the 16th, one cavalry corps, three rifle divisions, and four rifle and tank brigades reached Russian lines. At the month’s end, they were followed by another rifle division and an artillery regiment, together with many sick and wounded, and heavy equipment. Desertions also increased, with about 1,000 men voluntarily surrendering on May 21, according to German records, and another 1,000 the following day.

As they gave up ground, units followed the Red Army’s usual scorched-earth policy, forcibly requisitioning grain and livestock and torching barns and cottages. Homeless peasants tagged behind the soldiers in a pathetic train. “Our territory wasn’t big enough to support even us,” a political officer remembered” and suddenly we had all these old women and children on our hands. It was horrendous. The children begged for bread but we had nothing to give them. Sometimes you’d give a child 100, 200 rubles, but there was nothing to buy with it.” A photograph shows women and children lying under trees whose bark is stripped to the height of an up-stretched hand.

Meanwhile, Stalin shuffled his Leningrad generals a second time. Hearing that the Germans had closed the Myasnoi Bor corridor yet again, he promptly relieved Khozin of his command, upbraiding him–in a directive issued at 3 o’clock in the morning of June 8–for failing to withdraw the 2nd Shock Army in a “timely and rapid” manner, for “bureaucratic control methods,” and for “isolating himself from his forces.” Command of the Volkhov Front went back to the vindicated General Kirill Meretskov, who would remain there for the rest of the war.

The change had no effect on the ground. Now confined to a small area of boggy woodland west of Myasnoi Bor, the 2nd ShockArmy finally met its end during the relentlessly sunlit nights of June 21-24, attempting suicidal breakouts through a gap in the German lines that was 2.5 miles long but only a few hundred yards wide. Those who could carried rifles; the emaciated and walking wounded, nothing at all.

“No imagination can recreate what happened in that Valley of Death,” a survivor remembered. “A continuous wall of fire, unceasing howling and roaring, a stupefying stench of burned human flesh–and thousands of people rushing into this fiery corridor…. But only the mobile could try to escape. Many were too seriously injured to walk, or collapsed from hunger. All of them still lie there.”

German newsreels announced the army’s complete destruction and the capture of 649 artillery pieces, 171 armored cars, and 32,000 prisoners. Since the launch of the offensive over the Volkhov River in January, 149,838 Soviet soldiers had been killed in battle, captured, or had gone missing, and another 253,280 had been wounded or died in military hospitals, a casualty rate of almost three in four. Of the 2nd Shock Army’s 100,000 men, more than 66,000 had been killed or captured, or were missing.

AMONG THOSE WHO FAILED to make it out was General Vlasov, who ceased all radio communication with headquarters on June 21. According to a staff officer picked up by partisans and flown out of the pocket for interrogation, Vlasov at first attempted–along with about 50 others–to break through German lines on the Polist River, at the entrance to the “Valley of Death.” Exhausted and hungry, the group tried but failed to capture a German supply truck. “In a trance,” Vlasov ordered the men to break up into small groups and go their own ways. He wandered off into the woods with his mistress, the headquarters cook.

How and where Vlasov spent the next two weeks is unclear. On July 11 he walked into a village, where–perhaps voluntarily, perhaps having been informed upon by local peasants–he was picked up by a German patrol and flown to a camp in central Ukraine for high-ranking Soviet prisoners. There, with no apparent warning, Vlasov turned traitor. He wrote a letter to the German authorities in which he argued that many Soviet citizens were privately anti-Bolshevik, and that if Germany behaved more kindly toward Russian POWs and civilians in occupied territory, it could recruit an army, led by him, to overthrow Stalin.

What triggered this spectacular U-turn? On one level, Vlasov was betraying the ideology he had fought for his entire adult life. On another, it is not surprising that he should have wished for Stalin’s defeat. Like millions of others, he had seen friends and colleagues unjustly imprisoned or executed in Stalin’s purges. Private diaries show that a significant minority of Russians felt–at least initially–that German victory might be a price worth paying for a new, less murderous regime. Critics say Vlasov was simply an opportunist, seeking power and status under German rule. Defenders paint him as naive, hopeful that he could improve conditions for civilians and POWs and spark more defections from within the senior ranks of the Red Army. Undoubtedly he was embittered by Stalin’s refusal to either reinforce the 2nd Shock Army or let it retreat, and he must have feared being scapegoated for its collapse.

Whatever Vlasov’s motivation, his plan, in the Nazis’ hands, was doomed. The Nazis exploited him for propaganda purposes, touring him around the occupied territories and putting his name on airdropped leaflets inciting Red Army soldiers to surrender. But he never met Hitler, and was only given command of two understrength POW-based divisions in January 1945.

Four months later, Vlasov’s fledgling Russian Liberation Army was caught in the chaos of the Prague uprising as Czech partisans rose up to liberate the city from the Germans. With the Red Army quickly approaching, Vlasov briefly allowed his forces to fight with the Czech resistance before retreating westward in an attempt to surrender to the Americans. During the negotiations his escort ran into a Soviet column; he was arrested and flown to Moscow. In July 1946 he was tried for treason and hanged.

AFTER THE WAR, the 2nd Shock Army shared in Vlasov’s disgrace. It went virtually unmentioned in official war histories; its dead were left unburied, no memorials were erected or medals issued, and the widows of its fallen were denied military pensions. Veterans of the army were forced to treat their service as a shameful secret. Those who did talk risked losing their jobs and ostracism by friends and neighbors. Rehabilitation did not begin until the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy relaxed censorship.

Who were the real betrayers in this story? The 2nd Shock Army, trapped and starving? Vlasov, for siding with Hitler? Stalin, for refusing to let the 2nd Shock Army withdraw, then abandoning it? One clue comes from among the rusted weapons and equipment still being gathered from the woods behind Myasnoi Bor (see “Requiem at Meat Wood,” opposite). Found at the site of Vlasov’s last headquarters, it is a print matrix–lead type, still held tight within a rectangular wooden frame–for the army’s daily one-page newspaper. Dated June 24, the day on which the army’s remnants rushed the Valley of Death for the last time, the headlines read, “The enemy will not break our resistance,” and “Our victory is near.” Brave words, but symptomatic of the state of denial that led to so many Soviet disasters early in the war. Stalin persisted in doomed and wasteful operations. His generals (with very few exceptions) were too terrified to stand up to him. Men on the ground–like those of the 2nd Shock Army–paid the price.

RELATED ARTICLE: Requiem at meat wood.

On the west bank of the Volkhov River, half an hour’s drive in a decommissioned halftrack from the village of Myasnoi Bor (“Meat Wood”), are the remains of what was once a German trench: a zigzag ditch, filled with snow and overgrown with leafless brambles. Sasha Odov, the local historian and activist who brought me here, kicks at the uneven ground. A rusty saw blade appears, then a green glass wine bottle full of earth, then the spiral metal skeleton of a canvas hose. Ten minutes later, our list of finds fills a page of my notebook: a shoe and a boot, another bottle, a stovepipe, a two-foot length of machine gun cartridge belt, an empty case from a signal rocket, and a small wooden box, soft with rot. As Orlov shakes the box free it falls apart: inside are two machine gun rounds, smooth as if newly made. unscrewing one slug, he tips the shell’s contents–shiny black flakes, square and rhomboid–onto the saw blade, and sets his cigarette lighter to them. The powder fizzes and crackles, a miniature fountain of bright white sparks in the forest’s monochrome silence.

Orlov doesn’t explore these woods merely to treasure hunt. He is director of Poisk, the largest of several volunteer organizationsthat search out and decently inter the remains of the 2nd Shock Army’s unburied dead. Since the late 1980s, when the movement began, volunteers have found more than 29,000 bodies in the area, and more are discovered every year. Unlike German soldiers, who wore tin dog tags, soldiers in the Red Army carried pen-top-sized Bakelite cylinders that held rolled paper forms bearing names and details of next of kin. These usually cracked and leaked; only 1,800 of the 20,000 dead recovered at Myasnoi Bor have been identified. Even so, the remains tell the story of the 2nd Shock Army as graphically as any document or memoir. Skulls with bullet holes in the back, Ortov thinks, belonged to the badly wounded, shot by their fellow soldiers before the remnants of the armymade their suicidal dash through the German lines.–Anna Reid

Author Anna Reid (top, left) and historian Sasha Orlov record their battlefield discoveries, including scattered remnants of war (center) and human remains, which are packed into small hexagonal caskets (bottom).

Wars that won the world

It is war–for all its destructive impact on humankind–that has driven the West to its present dominance over the world’s other civilizations. That is the conclusion of advances over the past four decades in our historical understanding about the role wars and military organizations have played. Historian William McNeill kicked off the examination of that role in his monumental works The Rise of the West (1963) and The Pursuit of Power (1982): Simply put, he argued in his first book that the disparate nature of Western civilization, with its ferocious competition among emerging states, had created a situation in which no single dominant worldview could emerge among the peoples huddled at the far western end of the Eurasian landmass. In The Pursuit of Power, he expanded on the military-technological elements of that situation. McNeill’s examinations combined with arguments from other historians of early modern Europe in the 1950s to describe a military revolution that had fundamentally changed the way Western states waged war. What has recently emerged from these examinations is a coherent explanation of Western military and political advances.

Historians suggest there have been four great revolutions in how the West formed and articulated its armed forces. In geologic terms, these episodes were like earthquakes that entirely reordered human polity in the West. Accompanying them has been a series of smaller bur significant, strictly military revolutions, akin to the foreshocks and aftershocks of major quakes. During these smaller revolutions, military organizations worked the tactical, operational and technological elements into a new, more coherent approach to the battlefield.


The first of the four great revolutions occurred in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It involved political and military aspects of the creation of modern states. Since the complex processes involved in that creation took more than a century to evolve, the word “revolution” seems something of a misnomer, but in the larger sense of drastic change, revolution is exactly the right word. Emerging at the end of the 17th century, the modern European state–a political entity capable of projecting real military power over oceanic distances–represented something entirely new in human history That state was capable not only of executing coherent tax policies to support vast military forces, bur also of paying and disciplining those military forces in a manner the world had not seen since imperial Rome.

The re-creation of military organizations with civil, as well as martial, discipline was the first of several key revolutions. Seemingly small things sometimes illustrate the extent of great changes: The Swedish articles of war, drawn up by Gustavus Adolphus in the 1620s, affirm that soldiers were to dig when told to dig. The point is that for more than a millennium since the peak of the Roman imperial army, soldiers had only dug when they felt like digging. More important was the reintroduction of civil discipline to 17th century Europe’s military organizations. Paid, fed and, largely, quartered by the state, armies no longer supplied themselves through foraging and pillaging sprees.

From a strictly military perspective, the 17th century saw a reintroduction of discipline to military organizations to the extent that Roman commands were employed to drill and deploy forces on the battlefield. (Those Roman parade commands still guide American soldiers and Marines on modern parade fields.) Historian Flavius Josephus’ description of 1st century Roman armies now applied to 18th century European armies:

And indeed, they never have any truce with wartime exercises; nor do they stay till timers of war admonish them to use them; for their military exercises b y no means fall short of the tension of real war, but every soldier is every day exercised, and that with real diligence, as if they were in time of war,, which is why they bear the fatigue of battle so easily; … nor would [one] be mistaken that would call those their exercises unbloody battles, and their battles bloody exercises.

This new discipline also allowed modern European armies to organize their firing lines, thus maximizing the potential of gunpowder weapons.

Such land-based developments were accompanied by equally important maritime developments. Beginning in the early 16th century, the Spanish and Portuguese plied the world’s oceans for trading purposes, bur their ability to project military power remained weak; the conquests of Central and South America had resulted as much from disease as military prowess. Bur by 1700, navies possessed heavily armed ships of the line, able to project real military power to distant shores. The capture of Gibraltar by the British in the first years of the War of the Spanish Succession signaled what was to come: a contest for world empire between the British and the French, which the Royal Navy was to win decisively in 1759, when British amphibious and naval forces destroyed French power in India and Canada. The effects of those British victories still echo in our world, where English rather than French has become the dominant language of global business, politics and exchange.

For most of the 18th century, there was relatively little change in how armies fought. In a technological sense, almost nothing changed: The Duke of Wellington’s soldiers at Waterloo in 1815 used muskets that were virtual copies of those the Duke of Marlborough’s troops had used at Blenheim in 1704-. But in the late 1700s, two monumental social-political-military revolutions completely overturned the 18th century model of carefully articulated violence.

The first of these was the French Revolution, in 1792, threatened with military defeat and the overthrow of their regime, revolutionary deputies in Paris declared a levee en masse (“mass uprising”), which placed everyone in the French nation, as well as their resources, at the state’s disposal. Carl von Clause witz, the great Prussian military theorist, alone among 19th century commentators, grasped the extraordinary nature of this French transformation:

Suddenly, war again became the business of the people–a people of 30 millions, all of whom considered themselves to be citizens…. The people became a participant in war; instead of governments and armies as heretofore, the full weight of the nation was thrown into the balance. The resources and efforts now available for use surpassed all conventional limits; nothing now impeded the vigor with which war could be waged, and consequently the opponents of France faced the utmost peril.

This great social and political revolution had few technological components, but it changed the nature of campaigning and the conduct of military operations.

Meanwhile, technological innovations were brewing across the English Channel, where the Industrial Revolution was literally gathering steam. The changes it set in motion in Britain had no direct impact on the naval battles or the land campaigns of the French Revolution or the Napoleonic period. Nevertheless, it did play a considerable part in winning the war for the Allies. By starting the processes that revolutionized the means of production, the Industrial Revolution altered the basis on which human economic activity had rested since the dawn of time. The economic gains flowing from the Industrial Revolution provided the financial resources that enabled British statesmen to assemble the great coalitions that eventually defeated Napoleon.

In the period between 1792 and 1815, those two great revolutions had come together only tangentially, but that was to change drastically in the 19th century: The fourth of the great social-political-military revolutions occurred during the American Civil War. In effect, the changes spawned by the French Revolution and Industrial Revolution merged, and their offspring was modern war–as the world would witness all too graphically in the 20th century The idea of mass mobilization in a democracy led to the creation of armies, the size of which no prewar analysts or serving officers in the U.5. Army could possibly have imagined. The real challenge for the North lay in how to project military force over continental distances. Here, both railroads and steamboats played decisive roles, while the telegraph allowed the coordination of supplies and reinforcements almost instantaneously

The casualties, suffering and costs of the Civil War should have served as a warning to the Europeans. They did not. Prussian Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke is reputed to have dismissed the Civil War as a conflict between ill-trained militias. The relatively short duration of the Wars of German Unification misled most of Europe’s military theorists and pundits. This was especially true of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War, in which Moltke’s forces destroyed the two main French armies in the opening weeks of the campaign. Without that catastrophic opening, the French might well have turned the conflict into an extended war of the people, approximating the American Civil War in length and casualties, and the Europeans might not have so lightheartedly embarked on war in 1914.

Convinced that a future conflict would be short, Europe stumbled into World War I and destroyed most of the sureties on which it had based its civilization. In many ways, that war was at once one of the most terrible and the most influential of all human conflicts. What added to its horror was that in the years before 1914, Europe’s military institutions had had to grapple with an explosion of civilian technologies and scientific knowledge, all of which carried enormous implications for the battlefield while their understanding of these new technologies was none too impressive.

The 43 years from 1871 to 1914 represented a period quite unlike any other m history The Industrial Revolution matured and changed the entire face of civilization, including the military. For the most part, the Europeans tested these new technologies against colonial opponents who possessed little technology and no real military institutions. Thus, the actual battlefield potential of such innovations remained unclear. In fact, developments during that period had enormously expanded firepower capabilities, while maneuver largely remained muscle-bound and incapable of trumping the advances of fire. Bur even firepower (e.g., massive artillery barrages) remained uncertain and ambiguous in coordination and flexibility.

Another distant conflict, the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, might have served as a warning to Europe. But while reports from the battlefront provided clear evidence that trouble lay ahead, European general staffs mostly ignored the implications of the conflict. They were still thinking in terms of Napoleonic warfare and would soon be forced to grapple with the advent of smokeless powder, high explosives, barbed wire, the internal combustion engine, rifled weapons, machine guns, long-distance artillery fire, aircraft, telephones, radios and a whole host of unforeseen political problems. Adding to their difficulties, much of this technological development emerged from the civilian world, where military organizations had little control over or even access to the scientists, engineers and technologists driving these changes.

Even more disastrous for the fate of a whole generation of European youth was the fact that the Industrial Revolution had created societies of great resiliency, while the French Revolution had provided excellent guideposts to the mobilization of entire societies and their resources. Ironically, most politicians and economists had issued prewar estimates that the modern state was a fragile affair and could not bear the burden of a prolonged conflict. In this, as in much else, they were wrong.

The combination of the two great social-political-military revolutions enabled opponents to assemble increasingly larger armies and to keep those armies well supplied with munitions and equipment. When the pool of volunteers dried up, the modern state proved more than able to dragoon large numbers of the unwilling into service as cannon fodder. Tragically, the generals and admirals were intellectually unprepared to handle the complex tactical problems of a world war.

Adding to the complexity, the tactical and technological situation on the battlefield evolved rapidly as the war progressed. A simple example illustrates the speed of tactical adaptation: If one could take a brigadier off the battlefield of late 1918 and transport him to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he would–after a short tutorial explaining the range and speed of war in the 21st century–be able to grasp what coalition commanders were attempting. On the other hand, if one were to take an equivalent officer off the August 1914 battlefields and bring him forward to the late-1918 battlefield, he would understand nothing.

What did happen on the battlefields of Europe was the invention of modern war. In a terrible process of attrition, the opposing sides developed combined-arms tactics by late 1918. Fearsome weapons systems, such as the armored fighting vehicle, appeared in the field as early as 1916, but learning how to integrate them into the overall framework was to take two more years. At the same time, the birth of air combat saw the development of fighter tactics and the concepts of strategic bombing and interdiction, as well as close air support for infantry and armor attacks.


World War I also altered the balance between the development of civilian and military technologies. From 1914 through the end of the Cold War, developments in military technology drove civilian technological development to a considerable extent. During the interwar years, as a result of economic and political difficulties, technological development stagnated. But as the Nazi and Japanese threats began to emerge in the mid-1930s, the pace of technological and tactical innovation picked up. While military organizations drew extensively on civilian scientific expertise (here the British were far superior to anyone else), it was the military that again became the initiators of technological developments.

The great revolution of 1914-1918 generated a host of aftershocks in military affairs, which carried over into the next world war. Above all, honest assessment of the lessons of World War I proved crucial to successful innovation. In the tactical sphere, General Hans von Seeckt, chief of the disguised German general staff immediately after the war, compelled thorough examinations of what had actually happened on the battlefield. The result? The Germans learned far better than any of their Continental opponents the implications of combined-arms war fare. These studies also pointed the way for the Germans to develop a more coherent and realistic appreciation of the full potential of air power. Unfortunately, the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Corps paid little attention to what had happened in World War I and focused almost exclusively on strategic bombing as the sole mission for their forces.

The Germans took a disastrous misstep, however, in their failure to recognize that they had lost World War I because of strategic mistakes. The great irony of their tactical brilliance in World War II was that they would lose the war due to inept strategic choices, including a declaration of war on the United States. Thus they managed to repeat every mistake they had made in the prior war.

But innovation was not just the provenance of Germany The interwar period revolutionized military affairs, and the U.S. military proved to be the most adaptable of all the world’s military organizations. In the early 1920s, for instance, officers under the guidance of Admiral William Sims at the Naval War College tested and developed an understanding of the potential of carrier warfare before the U.S. Navy possessed a single carrier. Their key insight was that planes would take off from carriers in pulses; therefore, the crucial determinant of carrier effectiveness would be the number of aircraft they could launch and recover. By the late 1920s, the Navy had worked out the parameters of how to do this, with crash barriers, deck parks and other innovations, so that the carriers Lexington and Saratoga could handle upwards of 100 aircraft, at a time when Royal Navy carriers were barely carrying 20.

Similarly, the U.S. Marine Corps, threatened with extinction by the benign neglect of the Navy and grasping hands of the Army, began developing the concept of amphibious warfare; it literally stopped its staff college mid-stride in the early 1930s to develop the definitive manual. Out of that thinking came capabilities that proved essential to the projection of American military power onto the shores of its opponents in Europe and the Pacific.

Perhaps most important for the course of World War II were military developments in Britain, where Hugh Dowding’s insights flew in the face of the RAF maxim that “the bomber would always get through.” Dowding pushed the limits of technology, in the development of both the Hurricane and Spitfire and of radar. Equally important to the success of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain was the fact that Dowding integrated technological developments into a coherent, articulated air-defense system.

The opposing sides would fight World War II largely on revolutions in military affairs that stemmed from concepts developed during the interwar period. Those revolutions had begun to emerge by 1918 and heralded a level of destructive power never before seen in history Modern warfare was no longer a matter of the people, as the French Revolution had determined, bur through the auspices of the Industrial Revolution had become a war against the people. The shattered ruins of European and Japanese cities bore witness to what these revolutions had wrought. The ending of the Pacific war with the dropping of the atomic bombs only underlined that the Western way of war and its search for ever more effective means of destruction had hardly come to a halt in 1945.

Historians have often referred to World War I as the “chemists’ war” and World War II as the “physicists’ war.” What then do the decades since 1945 suggest? The Cold War represented a war that should have happened but did not. In the post-World War II period, two deeply opposed ideologies contested the very world. In the late 1930s, such a state had led to the catastrophe of 1939. Bur in the Cold War, nuclear weapons introduced an element of caution into the strategic equation. By the early 1950s, the long-term radiological implications of their use were becoming increasingly apparent, as deaths from various forms of cancer mounted in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus, instead of massive nuclear exchanges, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a standoff.

But despite optimists’ proclamation that the destructive power of nuclear weapons heralded the end of war, war continued its dismal course. Contests between superpowers were waged through proxies, while colonies of the European powers obtained their independence through insurgencies. Yet the patterns of military-driven technological development continued throughout the Cold War. The most important of these developments had to do with the ICBM face: Computers had first been developed during World War II to help cryptanalysts break the complexities of the German Enigma codes. But the development of ICBMs and subsequent race to the Moon required miniaturization in computers to reduce weight, while still increasing their power. From those efforts emerged the communications and computer revolutions, with their immense impact on civil society.

  • By the late 1980s, yet another military affairs revolution was under way, one that combined precise weaponry, stealth and increasingly sophisticated communications systems. The Soviets were the first to recognize the implications of what they termed the military-technical revolution. They realized the Americans would soon be able to inflict with conventional weapons a level of effective damage the Soviets could only achieve with nuclear weapons.
  • Moreover, they were steadily falling behind in the technological race. Their political system ultimately unraveled, which led to collapse. The subsequent end of the Cold War prompted an onrush of technological development outside the military sphere, a return to the situation that prevailed in the years before 1914.
  • Adding to the difficulties that have confronted Western military organizations–particularly that of the United States, with its vast worldwide responsibilities–is the fact that revolutions in military affairs are no longer a strictly Western affair.
  • The Japanese led the way for other cultures by adapting to the Western way of war in the first four decades of the 20th century. But technology now belongs to the entire world. India, China, Brazil and others are all capable of developing sophisticated military organizations. Posing a far greater threat are nonstate actors with access to the deadliest technologies, including biological weapons.

Thus, the very innovative restlessness that enabled the West to build the global interconnected civilization of today’s First World continues to drive humankind ever forward, even as our penchant for violence and mayhem has shown no signs of abating.

For further reading, Williamson Murray recommends: The Rise of the West and The Pursuit of Power, by William McNeill, and The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050, coedited by Murray and MacGregor Knox.