Hitlers Wave-breaker Concept: An Analysis of the German End Game in the Baltic 1944-45

By Paul Robinson 11 Sep 2013 0

Well here is one for you Eastern Frontniks. Retired US Army Colonel Henrik O Lunde reviews the debate over the German strategy in the Baltic area of the Russian Front in the last two years of the Second World War.

It should be said at the outset that Colonel Lunde does not set out to give a straightforward chronological history of the events surrounding the encirclement of the various German pockets against the Baltic Sea (eg Courland, Memel and Konigsberg). Rather he explores the circumstances and decisions that led to this situation, and the impact of so many German formations being left behind the main point of strategic decision (ie the Oder front and the final battles for Berlin). In doing so he covers a lot of ground from Hitler?s Strategic Decision Thinking (Chapter One) to the relationship between Sweden and Germany (Chapter Seven; which includes a short but fascinating review of the Swedish armed forces during the Second World War!).

Also Colonel Lunde takes us on something of a personal quest. In his preface he tells us that the idea for the book go back a number of decades to when he was a student at the US Command and General Staff College, and that he ?became curious about the question of how and why the better part of three German army groups became pinned against the Baltic sea?. It has to be said that the basic answer to the question is simple; Hitler got his strategy, if it can be called that, wrong. What is interesting is to follow Colonel Lunde?s analysis of why the Hitler system led to such an appalling strategic waste of some of Germany?s most experienced troops.

He sets out the reasoning straight away in the book?s Introduction. Hitler?s reasons for maintaining a rigid no retreat strategy in this part of the Russian Front (and which to be fair was applied across most theatres of operation) were; worries about Finland making a separate peace and the entrapment of the Twentieth Mountain Army in the north of that country; the loss of Finnish Nickel (which was of particularly high quality); a breakout of the Soviet Fleet from Kronstadt (which would put German control of the Baltic in danger and threaten flows of Swedish iron); make submarine training in the Baltic no longer possible; concern about Sweden becoming involved on the side of the allies; the protection of the Latvian shale oil fields (and I admit to that being a new one on me!); and the wave-breaker concept.  This basically was an extension writ large of the holding designated ?festungs? that would slow down the Soviet advance and cause them to have to commit considerably more troops to invest such places than it took to defend them.

Colonel Lunde then takes us through all these issues and basically confirms or denies whether they had any actual validity. It is interesting that he covers what he understands by the term military strategy very early to see if Hitler?s reasoning had any sound basis, and is entitled to be given the label ?strategy? at all! As the Colonel says ??Military strategy, to be complete, must specify the ends - military objectives to be achieved - the ways in which these objectives are to be achieved ??. and finally adequate mean to achieve the objectives.?  He reviews how Hitler arrived at his strategic decision in the first chapter proper.  And, like the rest of the book, there is nothing particularly profound or ground breaking here, but is a perfectly sound review. Also at this point I found that the ?wave-breaker? concept doesn?t appear to be a term applied by Hitler at the time. I have to admit that whilst my main interest in the Second World War is North West Europe 1944-45, I thought I knew enough about the Eastern Front to have come across the term before, but it is a new one on me.  And somewhat annoyingly Colonel Lunde doesn?t really expand on whose term it is (I suppose it doesn?t really matter).

The second chapter is review of the planning for Operation Barbarossa and its initial execution.  For obvious reasons it focuses somewhat on the lack of any effective commitment from Finland as to their role and purpose in the Operation, which of course led to difficulties later. I found this chapter sits a little uneasily within the book. I am guessing anyone interested enough in the Second World War on the Eastern Front to pick up a book about wave-breaker concepts would know the background to the campaign?  Am I nit picking?

The next chapter covers the middle part of the Russian campaign (1942-43) as it affects Army Group North, and this fits in a lot better with the book?s purpose than the previous chapter as it sets the scene for the events to unfold in Chapters Four, Five and Six. These cover Army Group North?s retreat to the Panther Line, and Operation Bagration in 1944 that destroyed Army Group Centre and began the isolation of the German Forces in the Baltic area. It is interesting that even after the devastation of Bagration Hitler was still arguing for the necessity for Army Group North to hold its ground (the arguments about nickel, shale oil, Swedish iron, etc set out above). These chapters are more of a general historical narrative explaining the consequences on the ground of Hitler?s ?strategy?, and again the content will be familiar to those who have studied the Eastern Front. However, the point starts to be made (and this is repeated) that ?German failure to make a timely withdrawal from the coastal enclaves and bypassed cities in the interior resulted in their using ?untrained badly led, and ill equipped Volkssturm? for the defence of the Oder in small and badly trained divisions?. Also the author refers to the point made by another historian (Andrew Roberts) ?the Soviets came to view the Courland pocket as an enormous POW camp maintained and administered for them by the Germans?.  Hardly a ?wave-breaker?!

We then depart from a straightforward narrative of the campaign and look to the detail of some of the arguments put forward by Hitler for holding ground in the North. Firstly Chapter Seven explores the relationship between Sweden and Germany. As I mentioned earlier this also covers the state of Swedish military preparedness. My first thoughts on reading this short sub section was what a great hypothetical campaign for wargamers there is here - naval, amphibious and airborne actions would all figure strongly!  Secondly Chapter Eight covers the introduction of new German submarines (the Mark XXIII and Mark XXI) at the end of the war and the issues around their training areas.

The book moves back to the campaign narrative with the Soviet Winter Offensive of 1944 and then the fate of the various German enclaves. The book finishes with a chapter headed Conclusion and this draws together the arguments and reviews presented by the Author. I have to say the book sort of just stops with a final reference to Hitler ultimately preferring a Gotterdamerung for Germany rather than a surrender. I think I was expecting something more profound.

So is this good book? Intrinsically it is. Well written by an author who ?knows his stuff? it covers a lot of ground and provides an overview of the consequences of not having a proper strategy, or having one that relies on ?hoping for the best? rather than making the tough decisions when required. In that respect it would make a great book for senior strategists in any organisation. Is it a book that will appeal to the general reader of military history? I think the answer is yes, but they might not realise it just from the heading and the basic subject matter. The book is not just a general campaign narrative, it is more thoughtful than that. A lot of unusual and different aspects of the war e.g. Germany?s relationship with Sweden are covered. Will it appeal to Eastern front enthusiasts? I would hope so but they might find there is a lot of stuff here that they will already be aware of, so caveat emptor.

The book is also supported by a number of black and white maps showing some of the key operations, and by the usual black and white ?atmospheric? photographs in its centre.

By the way Colonel Lunde?s earlier book ?Finland?s War of Choice? has also been reviewed on this website and if you want more detail about the Finnish aspects of this subject I can do no better than recommend that book to you.

?Hitler?s Wave-breaker Concept? available now in hardback from Casemate Publishing, normal price £20.00/$32.95 (ISBN 9781612001616)





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