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Can someone explain "encirclement battles"?

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  • Can someone explain "encirclement battles"?

    This is something I've never quite understood, and hope someone who knows more about warfare than I do could clear it up.

    Most historians who write about the German invasion of the Soviet Union seem to take it for granted that an encircled army is, for all practical purposes, defeated. But if one army were really to encircle another not much smaller than itself, wouldn't the front have to be stretched very thin? And wouldn't that allow the "encircled" army to break out, simply by concentrating firepower at one point?

    Yet I read in books that huge Soviet formations, comprising hundreds of thousands of men, were destroyed time after time in a matter of days by being "encircled." Moreover, they were "encircled" by an opponent that never substantially outnumbered them. I don't get it. Couldn't the half-million or so defenders of Kiev turn the city into a fortress and tie down the enemy army indefinitely? To me it's bizzare that 600,000 armed men, who must have had some military training at least, proved incapable of offering more resistance. Surely they didn't all run out of ammo! The same difficulty applies to the other battles, like Bialystok-Minsk and Viazma, where hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops surrendered after having been "encircled."

    I should welcome any explanation without jargon or nonsense.
    Last edited by Stan S.; 19 Aug 12, 15:08.

  • #2
    You forget one obvious thing. The Soviet troops had relatively poor radio service. And when communication between units was broken those units became much understrengthened. Also I have to notice that all that large number of captured POWs included not only soldiers, but also civilian men of proper age captured in that area and unarmed recruits.
    Besides all many Soviet units had soldiers recruited in May 1941. they merely had no enough experience.
    Later in 1942-43 nothing similar took place. At least no compatible surroundings.
    Also, don't forget panic and disorder of the first days of the war in the western front in June 1941.
    As for the other surroundings they were a result of German initiative, which they got in the first days of the war. Catastrophe of the western front in June 1941 made possible for German for deep impact to the soviet territory. They made danger for the right flank of the SW-front. And the soviet high-command couldn't parry the blows in deep rears of this front in September.
    Again, dispersion of units, panic and as a result loosing guidance of large units (armies, corps, divisions).
    It resulted in collapse of supplement. Without ammunition vehicles couldn't move, soldiers can't shoot, guns can't move and shoot.
    (Btw, the largest unit which Germans managed to capture as a whole unit was battalion-size.)

    Germans took care of there surrounded units. Having radio they could coordinate air support, supply and other items. that's why they were more resistant.

    And I also forgot to mention one important thing. Before the war, the Soviet troops had no any training how to act in surroundings and escape from them.
    If you fire a rifle at the past, the future will fire a cannon at you.....

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    • #3
      Encircling an army in the old days before the twentieth century was not necessarily critical, unless you could attack the encircled forces from all sides right away - men hit in the back are pretty easy to defeat. Once modern artillery and infantry weapons came into use just before WWI (specifically, in the Balkan Wars of 1911 - 1913 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05) that changed dramatically. Before this, an infantryman could carry enough ammunition to last him through a battle or even an entire campaign all by himself: the average infantryman in the American Civil War fired less than 30 bullets per battle. By 1914, the average infantryman carried 100 rounds or so (it varied from army to army) and he could fire them all off in less than 10 minutes without being in any hurry. Each artillery piece carried 100 - 200 rounds with the battery, and could fire them all off in 10 - 30 minutes. Even 200 rounds of 75mm ammunition (the lightest field gun in use) weighed 1.5 tons. A battery of 6 guns, then, needed AT LEAST 9 tons of ammunition per day to remain useful in combat - more if you were going to attack.
      That means, that any modern army needs a constant, huge stream of supply from the rear to remain an effective combat force for more than a few days. The larger the force, the more 'internal' (army, corps, division) supplies may be available, but even an Army Group rarely has enough of everything on hand for more than a week - and once encircled, may have trouble getting its internal supplies to the front line troops that need them, as fuel runs out very fast.
      Consequently, an encircled force loses fighting power very quickly - even if they can feed themselves from the local area, their weapons stop firing and tanks stop moving very quickly, and after that, it's just a large body of men in funny suits carrying scrap metal.
      Note that not only did the Soviet forces encircled in 1941 collapse within weeks of being surrounded, but those in other armies did the same: the 10,000 men of the US 106th Infantry Division encircled on the Schnee Eifel during the Battle of the Bulge surrendered within days, even though the troops encircling them were about half of one Volksgrenadier Division - no panzers at all! The German armies and corps surrounded at Stalingrad and in the Korsun (Cherkassy) Pocket both requested relief or permission to break out within hours of being encircled, and within a week 6th Army in Stalingrad was complaining that without a relieving force, it was too weak to do more than break the encircling ring, and had no mobility to actually get away from the city (I've read the teleprint messages back and forth between 6th Army and the Army Group HQ in late November - December 1942, and they are revealing in how fast the encircled force deteriorates).
      It has been true with modern armies since at least 1914: the quickest and easiest way to defeat them is to cut them off from supply. Encriclement or 'cauldren' ('Kesselschlacht") battles are the most efficient way of doing that, other than having the enemy do it for you, as when the German army considerately moved itself out of supply in October 1941 a Moscow and in September 1942 in the Caucasus and on the Volga (6th Army at Stalingrad was on half rations from October on - they could not have survived the winter in Stalingrad even without the Soviet counteroffensive!).

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      • #4
        Another thing is to understand how the Germans counted their prisoners. The Minsk Operation was not one encirclement. First was the Bialystok encirclement which escaped into the the larger Novogrudok pocket where the bulk of the prisoners were taken. And there was a smaller pocket in the Hainovka forest. But when the Germans announce that they took 389,000 prisoners in the Minsk operation they mean they took 389,000 prisoners from 22 June to 9 July 1941 in ALL OPERATIONS by Army group Center. The same is true for the Smolensk battle. The Germans did not take 330,000 prisoners in the Smolensk pocket, Army Group Center took 330,000 prisoners from 10 July to 5 August 1941. 50,000 were taken at Mogilev alone and more likely only 180,000 at Smolensk proper, but at least another 100,000 escaped. The prisoners taken at Kiev were taken by two army groups from 25 August to 24 September in all engagements by 2nd Army, 2nd Panzer Group, 6 Army and 1st Panzer Group. That includes forces from Bryansk Front, Central Front and South West Front. The main kessel south west of Kiev the Germans maybe took 450,000 prisoners after being fully cut off for about 10 days. If the official Soviet line is that SW Front only had about 564,000 men and that 100,000 got away, it rings true. But those 564,000 did not include Militia formation that "were not taken on strength" as well as the bulk of Central front which was also caught up in the trap. But the Luftwaffe had all road and rail traffic effective shut down days before the Germans physically closed the encirclement. So when the trap shut the forces contained in it were already unsupplied in the larger sense of the term. Vyasma was similar in that there were several pockets, the main one yielding up about 400, 000 prisoners, but that pocket wasn't collapsed until 19 October and mopping up operation lasted to the end of the month. Again the Army Group Center report on prisoners taken in the operatio covers the period 30 September to 31 October, when the Germans ceased operations of Army Group Center until 15 November.

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        • #5
          Napoleon for example in his early days loved for his enemies to try and encircle him.

          Since his troops were better unit for unit he could then manoeuvre on internal lines and defeat them in detail.

          Russia 1941 the encircled troops were not really functioning units due to lack of supply and c&c as pointed out above

          a routing enemy can be encircled by inferior or equal forces, this should never be attempted against an unbroken enemy.
          Major Atticus Finch - ACW Rainbow Game.

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