How To Lose A War

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Table of Contents

Modern Mistakes 1
A Cold War Ignites 3
To the Yalu, and an Attack in a Different Direction 14
Vietnam 21
The Six-Day War 44
Little Wars, Big Mistakes 57
Glory or Bust 59
There’s Audacity, and Then There’s Hernando Cortez 72
Egyptian-Wahhabi War 79
South of the Brand-New Border 83
The Anglo-Sudan War 100
The Boer War 109
The Mau Mau Rebellion 119
The Uganda-Tanzania War 128

Napoleone Buonaparte 135
To Lose a War, Fight the Last One 137
Napoleon’s Seapower Lost at Sea 156
The Weeping Spanish Wound 169
A March Into and Out of Hell 180
The Lion Trapped 195
Losing Big 211
Beware of Greeks 213
The Collapse of the Spanish Armada 240
Lobster Stew 257
The Confederacy 270
The Franco-Prussian War 291
War in the Winter 301
Germany in WWII 306
Japan in WWII 326
Blood, Dust, and Oil 340
Afterword 349
Endnotes 355

WAR IN THE WINTER

A Schooling in the Snow:
Finland, 1939

 

   Large, militarized countries taking over smaller, weaker countries:
in late 1930s Europe, it was all the rage. By autumn of 1939,
Italy had gulped up Ethiopia and Albania, and Germany had swallowed
the Rhineland, Austria, western Czechoslovakia, and finally
Poland. Josef Stalin, chairman for life and absolute dictator of the
USSR, got involved with the conquest of Poland by “virtue” of the
Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact. This was a breathtakingly cynical agreement,
in which the foreign ministers of Nazi Germany and the USSR
agreed to divide up the country along a prearranged border. When
Germany invaded Poland at the beginning of September, 1939, the
Soviets simply waited a few days and then moved in to claim their
half of that hapless country.

   But war between the two great powers still loomed as likely,
even inevitable. To further protect the USSR, Stalin imposed “mutual
defense pacts” upon the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and
Estonia; Soviet troops moved into those small countries during October
and November. Together with eastern Poland, these occupied
states created a buffer zone between Nazi-controlled territory and
the Russian heartland.

   But Stalin wanted to extend this buffer zone to include Finnish
territory, including islands in the Gulf of Finland, and part of the
Karelian isthmus, which was the land route connecting the key city
of Leningrad to Finland. When the Soviets proposed a pact with
Finland similar to those they had used to claim the Baltic states,
Finland rejected Stalin’s demands, and mobilized to face a potential
Soviet invasion. Some 300,000 troops, the vast majority of them
hastily called up reserves, formed Finland’s defensive army. They
were under the command of the elderly, but very capable, Marshal
Baron Carl Mannerheim, who had been the leading Finnish military
commander in two wars (the 1917 Civil War, and the war for
independence from Russia in 1919 and 1920).

   Stalin reacted to this mobilization with an order to attack. On
November 30, 1939, hostilities erupted when the Red air force
bombed Helsinki, the capital of Finland, and Viipuri, the key city
on the Karelian isthmus, without warning or declaration of war.
That same day, the Red army attacked with something approaching
1,000,000 men. The Soviets launched a series of amphibious invasions
across the Gulf of Finland, and attacked across the border in
locations ranging from Leningrad to the far northern coast, where
the two countries met the Arctic Ocean.

   Every one of the amphibious assaults was repulsed by the vigorous
Finn defense. In the north, the Soviets seized the border city of
Petsamo, then started a southward drive along the Arctic Highway.
The Soviet force of three divisions was halted after less than a hundred
miles by a reinforced battalion of Finnish troops entrenched
around the city of Nautsi.

   In the central border region, the Soviet Ninth Army, comprised
of some five divisions, thrust into Finland’s forested terrain along a
series of narrow roads. South of the Ninth Army, the Eighth Army
attacked with six divisions and an armored brigade, also plunging
into wooded country that was broken up by numerous large
lakes and wetlands. Both of these massive offensives found the
going slow, as the freezing cold and deep snow impeded the Soviet
columns, while the Finnish defenders—equipped for winter
temperatures with warm clothing and winterized weaponry, white
camouflage, and skis—utilized hit and run tactics to inflict casualties
and slow down the attack, all the while nimbly avoiding the
heavier guns of the Russians.

   The main attack moved from Leningrad directly up the Karelian
Isthmus, with the city of Viipuri as its main objective. This offensive
consisted of two armies, the Thirteenth and Seventh, totaling thirteen
divisions of infantry and five armored brigades. The massive onslaught
came to a halt almost immediately when the Soviets smashed
into a well-prepared, deeply fortified position known as the Mannerheim
Line. The line consisted of a series of WWI-type trenches
and pillboxes, cleverly designed to make good use of the hilly, forested
terrain. Lake Ladoga, to the east, and the Gulf of Finland, to
the west, ensured that the line could not be flanked. After suffering
heavy casualties during a massive set-piece attack in late December,
the attack against the Mannerheim Line ground to a complete halt.

   While the deep snow and frigid temperatures in the far north
caused the Red army immense problems because of inadequate
clothing, frozen weapons and vehicles, and snow drifts blocking
supply lines, they were faced with a different challenge in southern
Finland. Here it was not cold enough to freeze the rivers and
lakes to an extent that allowed mechanized units to cross—though
lighter ski troops could maneuver there with relative ease. Furthermore,
the weather remained cloudy, with a heavy, low overcast
that prevented the Red air force from utilizing the Soviet advantage
in air power.

   In the forested wilderness of central Finland, the Soviet columns
advanced along the roads, but were unable to support each other.
A key objective was the town of Suomussalmi, where two of these
roads converged. Temperatures dropped to forty degrees below
zero (Fahrenheit), and the Soviet troops, many of whom hailed
from the Ukraine and other relatively temperate areas, were unprepared
for the killing frost. Their lightweight uniforms were inadequate,
and their vehicles with virtually no anti-freeze and with
heavy oil that turned to sludge functioned poorly, if at all.

   Meanwhile the Finns, wearing white uniforms and swooping silently
along on their skis, continued to harass the supply trains and
logistical support of the advancing Soviet units. A full division of
Finnish troops, the 9th, arrived at Suomussalmi ahead of its artillery,
but immediately attacked, and was able to fully surround the
Soviet garrison in that small town. A second Soviet mechanized
rifle division tried to come to the relief of the trapped garrison, but
it too was blocked, ambushed, and surrounded on its forest-cloaked
road. By now, the 9th Division’s artillery had reached the scene,
and in a coordinated attack from December 27th–30th,
the Soviet division in Suomassalmi was completely wiped out.
The Finns continued on, and during the first week in January, they
obliterated the second rifle division. All together, the Soviets lost
some 30,000men, as well as 50 tanks, in the Battle of Suomassalmi;
Finnish losses were less than a thousand men killed.

   France and England, both at war with Germany but currently occupied
in the “Sitzkrieg” wherein both sides stared at each other,
with neither attacking, tried to mount a relief force to come to
Finland’s aid. Neutral Sweden and Norway refused to allow the
force’s passage, however, so the rest of the world could only stand
aside and watch in awe as tiny Finland’s army seemed to bring the
mighty Soviet Union to its knees.

   And, indeed, the Russians had suffered humiliating defeats along
the entire length of the border. None of their attacks had met with
anything other than a few initial successes, and in every place their
spearheads had either ground to a halt, or had been repulsed with
heavy losses.

   But, of course, it was too good to last. The Soviets learned from
their mistakes, and used the rest of January, 1940, to prepare for a
massive and well-coordinated offensive. Russian troops were finally
equipped properly for the winter conditions, and the Red
army concentrated its strength for a conventional assault up the
Karelian Isthmus, which was a confined route of attack in which
defensive maneuvering would of necessity be held to a minimum.
By January 29th, Finland sensed the inevitable and began to put out
diplomatic feelers to Moscow, seeking an end to the conflict.

   Nevertheless, the Soviets commenced a massive attack on February
1st, sending more than fifty divisions directly into the teeth
of the Mannerheim line. Massive artillery bombardments accompanied
these attacks, and the infantry plunged forward against a hail
of machine gun and shellfire. Soviet losses were terrible, but the
outcome was inevitable, as the Russians gradually pushed their way
through the Finnish defensive line. On February 13th the Mannerheim
Line was fatally breached, and the Finns conducted a fighting
withdrawal to Viipuri. When the Soviets entered that city at the
beginning of March, the Winter War was over.

   The Treaty of Moscow was signed on March 2nd. With that agreement,
Finland ceded territory to the Soviets pretty much along the
lines of what Stalin had initially demanded: the border on the Karelian
Isthmus was pushed farther away from Leningrad, and a few
border regions in the central and northern portions of Finland became
Soviet territory. The Soviets also gained control of the key
islands in the Gulf of Finland, and the right to post troops at one
Finnish port, Hanko, which guarded the approach to the gulf.

   The legacy of the Winter War was far reaching, for Finland, the
USSR, and Germany. The Finns developed a deep hatred of their Soviet
neighbors, which pushed them toward the Nazi camp when they
needed an alliance to stand against their powerful foe. The Soviets
learned much about modern warfare, and began to correct mistakes
in their ground and air operations that would serve them in good
stead when the next war began, with the German invasion of the
USSR in June of 1941. As for the Germans, they saw how poorly the
Soviets fought against Finland, and decided that Russia would be an
easy target for the lethal blitzkrieg tactics of the Wehrmacht.

   They were wrong.

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