(Edited by Ray McGovern)
Last June Scott Ritter wrote an instructive review of key aspects of WWII, “What Russia Rightfully Remembers, America Forgets” ( See: https://www.truthdig.com/articles/what-russia-rightfully-remembers-america-forgets/ ). Scott’s fellow Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) were asked to comment on his article and an informal colloquy emerged – primarily between Scott and Larry Wilkerson.
Looking toward the 75th anniversary of VE Day Friday, I have the dubious distinction of remembering that glorious day as a 5 year-old). I am grateful to be still around and happy to have the opportunity to offer below the fact-based views of younger esteemed colleagues, who have grappled long and hard with political-military issues of this kind – both as historians and as practitioners. I have slightly condensed their prose.
From “What Russia Rightfully Remembers, America Forgets”
Scott Ritter, June 26, 2019
On June 6, 2019 President Trump commemorated the 75th Anniversary of Operation Overlord, popularly known as D-Day, when approximately 160,000 U.S., British, Canadian and Free French soldiers landed in and around the beaches of Normandy, France. Speaking at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, where the remains of 9,388 American fighting men, most of whom perished on D-Day, are interned, Trump promoted the mythology of American omniscience that was born on the beaches of Normandy. …
For Americans, D-Day stands out among all others when it comes to celebrating the Second World War. Immortalized in books, a movie starring John Wayne, and in the HBO series titled “Band of Brothers,” the landings at Normandy represent to most Americans the turning point in the war against Hitler’s Germany, the moment when the American Army (together with the British, Canadian and Free French) established a foothold in occupied France that eventually led to the defeat of Germany’s army.
What Trump overlooked in his presentation was the reality that the liberation of Europe began long before the D-Day landings. And the burden had almost exclusively been born by the Soviets … his speech was simply the latest in a series of historically flawed remarks delivered by a succession of American presidents ever since they began giving speeches at Normandy in commemoration of D-Day. President George W. Bush’s address on the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings was typical of the genre, maximizing American glory while ignoring that of the Soviets. … Bush: Our GIs had a saying: ‘The only way home is through Berlin.’ That road to VE-Day was hard and long. …. And history will always record where that road began. It began here, with the first footprints on the beaches of Normandy.”
But Bush was wrong; the road to Berlin had its origins at the approaches to Moscow, where the Soviet army turned back German invaders in December 1941. It was paved at Stalingrad in 1942 with the blood and flesh of 500,000 dead Soviet soldiers, who had killed more than 850,000 Nazi soldiers and their allies; and it was furthered in the bloody fields of Kursk, in 1943, where at the cost of more than 250,000 dead and 6,000 tanks destroyed, the Soviet army defeated the last major German offensive on the Eastern front … The Russians destroyed more than 40,000 German tanks from June 1941 to November 1944. By the time the U.S., British, Canadian and Free French forces came ashore at Normandy, the Germans had already lost the war. …
It was as if the road to Berlin had ended with Americans capturing the Nazi capital, compelling Adolf Hitler to commit suicide …. But that honor fell to the Soviets, who, in a two-week campaign, lost more than 81,000 killed and a quarter of a million men wounded seizing Berlin from fanatical Nazi defenders. …
The German Attack
On June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany. Some 3.8 million Axis soldiers, backed by more than 6,000 armored vehicles and 4,000 aircraft, launched a surprise attack along a continuous front that ran from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Known as Operation Barbarossa, the German offensive decimated the defending Soviet forces, breaking through the front lines and driving deep into Soviet territory, initiating a conflict that would last nearly four years. During that time, more than 26 million Soviet citizens would die, including 8.6 million soldiers of the Red Army (these are conservative numbers—some estimates, drawing upon classified information, hint that the actual number of total deaths might exceed 40 million, including more than 19 million military deaths). [In contrast, the U.S. military killed or MIA in both the European and Pacific theaters numbered about 407,000 – less that 5 percent of Soviet losses.]
The traumatic impact of what became known in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War cannot be overstated. The complete devastation of entire regions at the hands of the invading Germans is something Americans never have experienced, and as such can never comprehend. …
Bogged Down in the West; Relentless Attack From the East
While the landing at Normandy had gone well, the advance inland was a different matter. By June 23, 1941—a mere 17 days after the D-Day landings—the U.S. and U.K. forces were stuck in ferocious fighting with German troops dug in behind thick hedgerows that made movement of men and armored vehicles virtually impossible. The port of Cherbourg was still in German hands, which meant that desperately needed supplies were not getting to the troops doing the fighting and dying. Any serious reinforcement of the German position in France would have made the allied beachhead tenuous.
But there wouldn’t be any German troops moving into France, for the simple reason that they were all tied down fighting a life-or-death struggle on the Eastern front, trying to cope with a massive Soviet offensive known as Operation Bagration … [that] made anything taking place in France pale by comparison. [Operation Bagration was named after a Tsarist general who had fought Napoleon.]
By the time Operation Bagration ground to a halt, in mid-August 1944, some 400,000 German soldiers from Army Group Center—the most highly trained, experienced men in the German army—were either dead, wounded or taken prisoner, and some 1,350 tanks destroyed. The Soviet offensive tore a gigantic hole in the German lines that had to be filled with troops and material that otherwise would have been available to contain the Normandy landings. The cost of this victory, however, was staggering—180,000 Soviet dead and 590,00 wounded, matching in a span of two months the total casualties suffered by the U.S. in the entire European theater of operations, including North Africa, from 1942 to 1945. …
Operation Bagration saved D-Day, but you won’t hear any American presidents acknowledging that fact. Nor will any Americans pause and give thanks for the sacrifice of so many Soviet lives in the cause of defeating Nazi Germany. Let there be no doubt that the United States played an instrumental role in the defeat of Hitler—we were the arsenal of democracy, and our lend-lease support to the Soviet Union was critical in the success of the Soviet army.
But the simple fact is that we never faced the German A-team—those men had perished long ago on the Eastern front, fighting the Soviets. The German army we faced was an amalgam of old men, young boys, unmotivated foreigners (including thousands of captured Russian and Poles), and worn-out, wounded survivors of the fighting in the east. We beat the Germans, but because of the pressure brought to bear on Germany by the Soviet Union, the outcome in Western Europe was never in doubt.
Why does this matter? Because facts matter. History matters. The hubris and arrogance derived from our one-sided, exaggerated and highly inaccurate version of the Second World War … It gives total disregard for any Russian perspective regarding the future of a continent the Soviets liberated through the blood and sacrifice of tens of millions of their citizens. While we Americans continue to celebrate a version of events that is highly fictionalized, the Russians commemorate a reality anchored in fact. … There will come a time when fiction-based arrogance will clash with fact-based realism. If history tells us anything, those who more accurately remember the lessons of the past will fare far better than those who, by their ignorance, are condemned to repeat their mistakes.
Comments of Larry Wilkerson
It’s all well and good to correct historical perceptions that are dead wrong. … However, any such “correction” ought to at least touch upon the full story, not just parts of it.
The true U.S. strategy in WWII, summed up in George Marshall-like terms, was to become the arsenal of democracy, though of course that’s a misnomer, because those for whom we were the almost existential arsenal were the Soviets, certainly no democracy.
Marshall knew we were not the best soldiers on earth, not by a long shot. So how to win a global struggle against those who clearly were, the Wehrmacht? Marshall knew that what we did do better than anyone else on earth was produce things. So, the “dollar men”. The invention of the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC). The turning of the most massive productive capacity in human history, to war production. That’s what we did.
We supplied the Soviets through Iran (840,000 wheeled vehicles, for example) and through Murmansk. Without the Iran link (actually put in motion BEFORE U.S. entry into WWII in December 1941), Stalingrad would never have been defended successfully. Paulus 6th Army would have won and got to the oil Germany coveted. In short, without the U.S.-established LOCs (lines of communication [and supply]) through Iran and Murmansk, the Soviets would have lost badly.
I used to show my students a grainy, black-and-white video clip of a Russian regimental commander entering Berlin. Close-up on the vehicle in which he was riding: “FORD”. We need to tell the complete story.
Scott Ritter Response
Having spent my life studying the Red/Soviet/Russian military from both the perspective of a historian (my honors thesis dealt with the doctrinal links between the Tsarist military and the Soviets) and a professional preparing to face them on the field of battle, I try to take a responsible fact-based position when writing on any topic that touches the subject. I’ve read extensively on the Eastern Front, and am particular indebted to both John Erickson’s Road to Stalingrad/Road to Berlin, and David Glantz’s When Titans Clashed. Both speak of the tremendous contribution made by Lend Lease to the Soviet war effort, but neither give the US/UK aid program war-winning status.
Glantz in particular addresses the question head on, writing “If the Western Allies had not provided equipment and invaded Northwest Europe, Stalin and his commanders might have taken twelve to eighteen months longer to finish off the Wehrmacht. The result would probably have been the same, except that Soviet soldiers would have waded at France’s Atlantic beaches rather than meeting the Allies at the Elbe.”
I don’t diminish the role played by the US, but my reading of history shows that Gen. Paulus had lost at Stalingrad well before that battle ever began, with the German’s having been exhausted in the brutal winter fighting of 1941-42.
I stand by everything I wrote about the role played by the Soviets in defeating Nazi Germany.
Response from Larry Wilkerson
And I stand by all that I said about the US employing its awesome productive capacity to aid the British, the Free French, the Russians, other lesser “allies”, and itself in an unprecedented way, while waging war on two major fronts, the European and the Pacific (it’s what got us the military-industrial complex, sad to say). There have been few really delving studies of this because logistics is not sexy.
Just as Parmenion made Alexander the Great great (see The Logistics of the Macedonian Army), so U.S. productive capacity “won” WWII. Admittedly, a lot of dead and living Soviet soldiers–and partisans from Stalingrad to Kiev, as well as German high-command mistakes–helped majorly, as did the rugged T-34 tank (particularly at Kursk where battle-sight zero was twenty feet most of the time and tankers whom I have interviewed personally, from both sides, lost their hearing permanently due to the incredible noise of so many tank guns operating simultaneously).
Anyone who’s read Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier (the All Quiet on the Western Front of WWII) knows what the Soviet contribution was and it was, in a word, awesome. Logistics, aside from not being sexy, is always underreported, underplayed, and rarely given its due. It’s the nature of the beast, particularly for Americans who are raised by Hollywood as much as by any biological parents.