Rank and File
A Clerk’s War
Saturday 19th April: Initial Reports on Unternehmen Barbarossa
Back in my office, I groaned as I realised what this new war would mean. Tonnes of paperwork for me and my staff. Putting aside all thoughts of the war, I spent much of the morning preparing new work rosters and a detailed application for additional staff and storage space. I thought about requesting a promotion and salary increase in light of my increased work load but decided that might be pushing it. As I worked I could see a trickle of deliveries build up to a stream of clerks and office boys dumping files and document boxes at our front drop off point. Already the two junior staff on duty there were looking harassed.
A few quick telephone calls and I had some extra help, including a couple of young men invalided from the army. I was too polite to enquire as to the nature and cause of their injuries, but Gisela told me that one of the office girls had been told that they had both suffered head wounds in Poland in 1939 and had just left hospital. We often forget the long term effects of war.
All afternoon I was rushing around, trying to make sure my experienced staff were available to assist the juniors and the “new boys”. So it was only late in the day that I could sit down with a cup of tolerable coffee to look at the day’s events.
At first glance it was incredibly confusing: there were reports of battles all over the front, bombing raids, air battles and even some sort of naval action in the Ostsee. But I have not risen to the rank of office manager for nothing. A few foolscap files and some paperclips and a semblance of order was established and I could start reading. Being methodical, I would start in the north and work my way south. First I needed to determine the situation immediately after the assault this morning.
Army of Polen Nord
As best I could determine, the reporter in Suwalki was at the scene of the first conflict. General Felber with just under 32,000 men (1st Panzer and 62. and 88.Infanterie) swept into Kalvarija, held by the Russian AP Pavlov. Although Pavlov is reputed to be a gifted tank commander, he is very inexperienced. Felber is more than his match and although outnumbered (Pavlov has 4 divisions and one in reserve) we hope for a quick breakthrough.
Battle of Kalvarija
Further north, General Eicke was facing a more difficult task. With just two divisions (5th PzD and 26.ID) he has been ordered to clear the forests of Laukuva of enemy troops. As soon as he made contact it was apparent that our intelligence was not quite correct. His opponent, the experienced General Zyriananov (an expert in living off the land), has 5 full infantry divisions with one in reserve. To his credit Eicke has said he will achieve his mission, but this could be a bloody affair.
Battle of Laukuva
The next report had some very sharp comments added to it by a staff member of the headquarters of Army of Polen Nord. General von Manstein’s orders had been explicit: the key objective was Kaunas. Russian units on the coast were to be ignored. But soldiers are soldiers, and General List could not resist what he saw as a gift. Having identified that Liepaja was held by a single cavalry division of just two regiments he ignored the explicit instructions and advanced his 18.ID into the forests where he soon had 43 Kavaleriyskaya on the run. I am sure von Manstein is fuming that his carefully structured plan is already being altered, but soldiers are human, not calculating machines.
Battle of Liepaja
General Hänicke had one of the hardest assignments, together with General von Both. Somehow Hänicke must get his two infantry divisions across the Memel River (the Russians I suppose still call it the Neman) into Marijampole. The far side is held by one the Red Army’s better generals, Kirponos, who has plenty of men at his disposal: nearly 50,000.
Battle of Marijampole
Von Both has one more division than Hänicke, but his job is actually harder. General Ogurtsov is very inexperienced, but our information is that he is keen to use trickery and stratagems, and he has the benefit of no less than 67,000 men, all buried in the woods and undergrowth that line the river banks in this area.
Battle of Taurage
Although the river is not very wide (less 500 metres) and very slow, it will take some courage to cross against those odds. I wonder if the fact that it is mentioned in the “Deutchlandlied” had any impact in the decision to make these attacks. Did von Manstein grow up singing “Von der Maas bis an die Memel”? Or was it the Führer himself, who claims to have heard the song being sung at the battle of Langemarck in 1914? Or, most likely, it was Goebbels who insisted that, for propaganda purpose, we must cross the Memel River on the first day of Barbarossa. Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain. Unless the Luftwaffe can clear the northern banks of the river, we will have a long casualty list.
The initial reports from Mosty were quite confusing. It seems we caught the Russians while they were in the middle of some reorganisation, which has led to a tactical withdrawal. I sure General Brennecke is relieved: he had three divisions with which to drive General Malandin from the dense forests, but against nearly 50,000 men this would have been dangerous work. As it is he has only managed to get two of his units into contact, and many Russians have been sighted retreating to the northeast.
Battle of Mosty
The last report received from von Manstein’s headquarters concerning the battles that started this morning was from General Wünnenberg. From his comments he simply did not have time to stop to write anything. He seems to have led 9th Panzer Division on a wild ride across the plains of Virbalis, chasing Russian infantry and cavalry as he went. His Panzer IIJs met negligible opposition, and the self-propelled artillery of his Sturmpanzer regiment was not required. If only it were all to be as easy as this. It does show, however, what our panzers can achieve in the right terrain.
Battle of Virbalis
Overall, von Manstein was fairly happy with the first assault. Annoyed at General List, concerned about the river crossings at Marijampol and Taurage but pleased with the initial reports from his other generals. Now to see how General Rommel had fared.