The South’s Great Intelligence Miscalculation

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. Within a few months, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina followed them. The seceded states banded together to form the Confederate States of America, led by West Point graduate, President Jefferson Davis.



The stated aim of the CSA was to maintain “states’ rights” against the threat of federal intrusion by the administration of the new president, Abraham Lincoln. Though not all Southerners were willing to claim the possible abolition of slavery in Southern states as their cause for secession, it was the one “intrusion” from the federal government that concerned them, in spite of the fact that Lincoln had made it clear that his priority was not abolition, but preservation of the Union. Politics and cultural sensitivities aside, Southern states seceded from the Union in order to maintain the institution of slavery and to allow their individual states to operate with less central authority from any national government.

By the time the war ended in May of 1865, the Civil War had brought about two major changes to the US federal government.

The first change was the growth of the authority of the federal government, which led to a drastic decrease in states’ rights. The second change was that slavery had been abolished in the Confederate States by that now more powerful federal government. States no longer had the right to individually decide the issue of slavery.

When, after a century and a half of deliberation and debate, we view the South’s fatal choice to undertake a civil war with the United States, any student of military or political history has to wonder how the Southern leaders managed to make such a bad decision.


Ft. Sumter Engraving in Harper's Weekly, Jan. 26, 1861 public domain

Ft. Sumter
Engraving in Harper’s Weekly, Jan. 26, 1861
public domain


What could Beauregard and his political supporters have expected when they opened fire on Fort Sumter, the Union garrison in Charleston Harbor? Clearly, they expected a surrender of the undersupplied and undermanned fort. In this they were correct, but what did they think would follow? We cannot blame Jefferson Davis and other leaders in the CSA for lacking clairvoyance, but there were well known facts that should have enabled them to draw a more accurate intelligence assessment on the prospects of war with the Northern States.

Let us consider some of the important facts that were readily visible from the beginning.

The North:

  • 23 Northern states
  • Population ~ 22 million
  • Jobs to offer immigrants
  • Over 120,000 factories
  • Well-established international banking system, with over $100 million total in deposits
  • Iron production in 1860: 2,700 tons
  • A canal system and 20,000 miles of railroads that were almost completely on a standard gauge, allowing tremendous capacity to transport passengers and cargo

The South:

  • 11 Confederate states
  • Population ~ 9 million, including over 3 million slaves
  • Few jobs to offer immigrants
  • 20,000 factories, many of which were small and close to the Mason-Dixon Line, making them vulnerable to military attack
  • Few banks, with less than $38 million total in deposits
  • Iron production in 1860: 155 tons
  • 9,000 miles of railroads with varying gauges, requiring frequent transfer of passengers and cargo within a single journey

The one economic advantage enjoyed by the South was in greater export surpluses, but that export surplus was completely dependent on cotton.

However, the South had an advantage in terms of military leadership at the beginning of the war. While most US naval officers at the time were Northerners, maintaining an overwhelming advantage over the navy of the Confederate States of America, over 300 trained army officers resigned from the US Army and received commissions in the army of the CSA.

Strategically, the CSA counted on one critical advantage – it did not need to invade and defeat the Union. It simply needed to defend CSA territory.

Fighting from prepared defensive positions against invading Union armies allowed the CSA to suffer fewer casualties in most of the battles it fought. When Confederate General Robert E. Lee strayed from these defensive tactics at Gettysburg, the Southern casualties mounted. While US General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army suffered more casualties in his campaigns against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Grant could easily replace his losses from the North’s abundant population. Lee could not fully replace his casualties from the more sparsely populated South.

Given the obvious advantages of the Northern states, the miserable intelligence assessment on the part of the CSA that led them into battle was, in large part, dependent on two gross miscalculations.


Oklahoma Cotton Field, c. 1897 National Archives & Records Administration public domain

Oklahoma Cotton Field, c. 1897
National Archives & Records Administration
public domain


First, the CSA held the wildly optimistic assumption that France and England would come to its aid in order to obtain cotton from the South. In their view, cotton was “king.” In order to force Europe to support the CSA, the South burned its cotton harvest in 1861.

Europe yawned.

France and England had both invested in building a strategic cotton reserve, and when cotton stopped coming from the South due to the CSA’s temporary ban on cotton exports, Europe invested in vast new plantations in India, Egypt, and Brazil. If cotton had ever really been king, the king was now quite dead. Europe was happy to sell high quality arms to the South, but the collapsing CSA economy and the Union Navy’s blockades and captures of Southern ports prevented the South from purchasing enough weapons to match Northern production.

The South’s second gross miscalculation concerned the willingness of Northerners to support a war. There were always war protestors in the North during the Civil War. Their influence was never enough to force Lincoln to prematurely halt the war.

While Jefferson Davis had been acutely aware of the many disadvantages faced by the CSA, he and his supporters allowed their passions to lead them to gross miscalculations.

The great intelligence lesson to be learned from the suicidal miscalculations of the Confederate States of America:

Passions and emotions have no place in intelligence analysis. Stick to the facts. Romantic delusions will not win on the battlefield.

Speaking of romantic delusions, in another article, we will consider US intelligence failures in the Korean War.

America is Not a Location

By Piper Bayard

America is not a location. America is an ideal. It is the dream of a country in which freedom is paramount, and it is secure because the government is the servant of the people.

Because America is an ideal, Americans are not born. Rather, America, itself, must be born anew with each generation. Each generation has the choice of embracing the American ideal of a government that answers to the people, or of rejecting that ideal in favor of a more paternalistic system of government.


Actual photo of ideal elected American official at work.

Actual photo of ideal American government at work.


When the government spies on us with everything from street corner cameras to warrantless searches of random individuals to collection and analysis of our every electronic transmission and phone communication, we are no longer the masters, and the government is no longer our servant. It is our ruler. It is a parent searching our rooms and opening our mail on the off chance that we might be doing something it doesn’t want us to do. That is exactly what is happening now.

The difference between the government being the servant and the government being the master can be boiled down to one thing:  a warrant.

When an agency such as the NSA, FBI, DHS, etc., is required to obtain a warrant, an official paper trail is created by which the people can force the government to answer for who and how it searches, why it searches, and what it obtains. It is a record by which citizens can hold the government accountable for its actions in a court of law.

Since Edward Snowden dropped his NSA whistleblower bomb, the White House has gone from denying that the U.S. spies on its own citizens to unashamedly stating that it will continue to collect and analyze data on American citizens in the name of “national security.”


meme by

meme by


At this point, numerous disturbing facts have become public information:

  • Through various means, our government is collecting and storing every digital transaction American citizens make – every email, every phone communication, every bank transaction, every credit and debit card transaction, every check remittance, and every online health and education record.
  • Our government allows the other Five Eyes countries – Canada, New Zealand, the U.K., Australia – as well as Israel and unnamed others access to this raw data on American citizens.
  • Our government has written agreements with these countries for their unlimited access to our raw data, with only smoke and mirror oversight of what data they collect or how they use it. It is an “honor among eavesdroppers” arrangement.
  • Our government trades information about American citizens and intelligence operations with corporations in exchange for their data on American citizens.
  • When trigger words* like “snow,” “bust,” or “sick” alert one of the countless analysts in both the government and the private sector who are tasked with pawing through this hoarder’s mountain of raw data, they are free to peruse and interpret the threads of our lives at their personal discretion.
  • Everything these analysts do is off the public record. No probable cause. No individual warrant. No accountability.


U.S. Government Serving Up Americans to the World

U.S. Government Serving Up Americans to the World


The administration rationalizes all of these acts with the all-encompassing buzzwords “national security” and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Originally, FISA was enacted to allow data collection on foreign terrorists. Warrants were based on probable cause, and the judges of the FISA court approved them. These boundaries slipped substantially with the Patriot Act. Now, under the current administration, there are no meaningful boundaries at all, with the FISA court essentially rubberstamping every administrative request* to spy on American citizens that comes their way, issuing blanket orders that are nothing but fishing trips, subjecting Americans to data collection and retention with no probable cause.

One example of a typical FISA-approved blanket order is the Top Secret order to Verizon Wireless signed on April 25, 2013, which was published by The Guardian on June 6, 2013.

This order was requested by the FBI, which in turn receives its orders from the White House. It forces Verizon Wireless to give the NSA information on ALL telephone calls in its system on an “ongoing daily basis.” Telephone calls originating and terminating in foreign countries are specifically excluded—the height of irony considering the original purpose of FISA was solely to collect data on suspect foreigners. For full text of this order, see Verizon Forced to Hand Over Telephone Data–Full Court Ruling Dated April 25, 20143 (below).

At its core, our government has given itself authority and provision to maintain a wiretap on every American and foreigner within U.S. borders.

No probable cause. No discretion. No accountability to the public. Each and every one of us is now assumed guilty until proven innocent. Each and every one of us now answers to the government master that was once our servant, turning the American ideal on its ear.


Ideal photo of actual U.S. government at work.

Ideal photo of actual U.S. government at work.


Spy on suspected terrorists. Do it unapologetically. Do it inside or outside our borders. But let there be probable cause. Let there be warrants. Let there be public records. Let there be accountability. If we are to remain American, we must not allow the government to exercise such omnipotent power with impunity.

Freedom is the essence of the American ideal. It is about shouldering the responsibility for ourselves, for our safety, and for our governance. It is not about perfect security from cradle to grave. When we abdicate our responsibility for our freedom in favor of comfort and the illusion of safety, we become wards of the state. What were once our rights as responsible adults are now merely our privileges as subjects, granted or withheld by our rulers at their whim and discretion.

We must demand more of our leaders. Freedom can be won, and freedom can be surrendered, but Freedom will never be given back once successfully taken by the ruling class. Unbridled surveillance of American citizens is that taking.

Like nuclear weapons, the surveillance train has left the station. But like nuclear weapons, we have the choice about how we will use that technology. America is at a crossroads. Will our generation shoulder the responsibility for our freedom and set firm boundaries on the actions of our government? Or will we devolve into a location on a map? The choice belongs to each of us.


This Means You

This Means You

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Verizon Forced to Hand Over Telephone Data–Full Court Ruling Dated April 25, 2013. The Guardian, June 6, 2013.

NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily, Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian, June 6, 2013.

NSA PRISM Program Taps in to User Data of Apple, Google, and others. Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian, June 6, 2013.

Obama Blasts Media ‘Hype’ Over Secret Program, Calling Them ‘Modest Encroachments on Privacy’. Brett LoGiurato, Business Insider, June 7, 2013.

US, British Intelligence Mining Data from Nine U.S. Internet Companies in Broad Secret Program. Barton Gellman and Lora Poitras, The Washington Post, June 7, 2013.

Here’s the Law the Obama Administration is Using as Legal Justification for Broad Surveillance. Brett LoGiurato, Business Insider, June 7, 2013.

Obama: No One is Listening to Your Calls. Michael Pearson, CNN Politics, June 9, 2013.

Edward Snowden: The Whistleblower Behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations. Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Lora Poitras, The Guardian, June 9, 2013.

US Agencies Said to Swap Data with Thousands of Firms, Michael Riley, Bloomberg, June 14, 2013.

British Spy Agency Taps Cables, Shares with US NSA , Reuters, June 21, 2013. (Info on Five Eyes)

NSA Shares Raw Intelligence Including Americans’ Data with Israel, Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian, September 11, 2013.

NSA and Israeli Intelligence:  Memorandum of Understanding–Full Document, The Guardian, September 11, 2013.

What Makes US-Israeli Intelligence Co-operation ‘Exceptional’?, Matthew Brodsky, The Guardian, September 13, 2013.

Judge Upholds NSA’s Bulk Collection of Data on Calls, Adam Liptak and Michael S. Schmidt, New York Times, December 27, 2013.

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court Orders 1979 – 2014, Electronic Privacy Information Center, May 1, 2014.




Manila–Triumph Over Devastation

By Jay Holmes

In The Scream Heard Around the World–Manila, Part 1, we saw the far-reaching effects of a speech given by Carlos Cespedes in Cuba and how it spawned a movement for freedom in both Cuba and the Philippines. In The Battle That Wasn’t–Manila, Part 2, we looked at how the reach of that scream carried on through a poem by Dr. Jose Rizal and influenced the course of a nation. In A Nation Becoming and the Battle for Manila, we investigated the challenges the budding Philippine nation faced, as well as the WWII Japanese invasion and the Bataan Death March. Today, we review the Japanese occupation of Manila, WWII, and the realization of Dr. Rizal’s dream.

After the Japanese defeated the main formations of U.S. and Philippine forces at Corregidor in May of 1942, it took them two more months to defeat them on the other major islands. Throughout the Archipelago, a few thousand U.S. and Philippine forces that had managed to avoid death or capture served as nuclei for the formation of various guerilla groups. By way of submarine delivery and a few airdrops, the Allies were able to keep them supplied with weapons, ammunition, explosives, radios and medicine.

A few additional U.S. troops were inserted into the islands to help organize and coordinate the various guerilla groups. The allied guerilla activities caused the Japanese to retain more infantry and aircraft in the Philippines than they had intended. With airpower, the Japanese were able to prevent the guerillas from billeting in large formations or moving on roads and trails except at night. Though the guerillas were usually unable to cause significant casualties to the occupying Japanese troops, the drain on Japanese forces further hampered the Japanese advance to the South and the Southeast. This helped the Allies in coming to grips with the Japanese in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.


Tanks line up for the invasion of Cape Sansapor, Dutch, New Guinea, 1944

Tanks line up for the invasion of Cape Sansapor,
Dutch, New Guinea, 1944


By the middle of 1944, General MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Command (SWPC) had managed to leapfrog its way up the northern coast of New Guinea. In September, Allied forces captured Morotai in the Dutch East Indies. The Allies quickly built a large, reinforced runway on the island, which provided SWPC with a valuable base of operations for heavy bombers and long-range reconnaissance against the Japanese forces in the southern half of the Philippines. The U.S. Navy sent carrier groups under Task Force 38, commanded by Admiral William Halsey, to conduct repeated raids against the various Japanese airbases in the central and northern Philippines. The raids were highly successful in destroying Japanese planes at a surprisingly low cost to the pilots of TF 38.


Admiral William F. Halsey, 1944 image from U.S. Navy

Admiral William F. Halsey, 1944
image from U.S. Navy


The Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) had allocated resources to SWPC for an invasion of the southern Philippines in late December. Halsey and his staff were convinced that Japanese airpower had suffered a terrible attrition not just in numbers, but also in declining quality of pilots. Based on intelligence information from guerilla groups throughout the Philippines and on the minimal opposition that pilots had faced during their repeated raids, Halsey felt certain that the U.S. invasion of the Philippines should be moved up from December to October, and that they should strike in the central Philippines to quickly defeat the main Japanese formations. General Douglas MacArthur concurred with Halsey’s assessment.

By 1944, based on Admiral Halsey’s many successes against the Japanese, his reputation had grown to epic proportions, and he had the trust of both the CCS and the Allied political leaders. Wisely, MacArthur left it to Halsey to make the recommendation to the CCS that the invasion timetable be moved up. With offensive operations taking place on multiple fronts from Europe to the Pacific, the competition for supplies and shipping to support operations was a limiting factor in Allied offensive operations around the globe. Halsey’s reputation carried the day, and the CCS quickly agreed to his recommendations.


Gen. Douglas MacArthur wades ashore at Leyte Philippine Islands, Oct. 1944

Gen. Douglas MacArthur wades ashore at Leyte
Philippine Islands, Oct. 1944


On October 20, 1944, the U.S. Sixth Army landed on the eastern shore of Leyte, northeast of Mindanao Island. The Japanese general staff underestimated the strength of the U.S. forces supporting the invasion. In conjunction with waves of kamikaze air attacks, the Japanese launched a complicated, three pronged attack with the majority of their remaining naval ships in an attempt to destroy the U.S. landing forces.

A series of large naval battles ensued from October 23 through 26. The combined might of the U.S. surface ships, carrier planes, and submarines ensured a disastrous defeat for the Japanese Navy. The defeat was so complete that the Japanese Navy was never again able to attempt any major engagements for the remainder of the war. Henceforth, the entire Japanese Navy became a kamikaze force.

Once the U.S. 6th Army was ashore on Leyte Island, the Philippine guerillas attached themselves to them, volunteering to handle scouting and sabotage missions. The newly supplied guerillas were able to befuddle Japanese defensive maneuvers on Leyte by blowing up the right bridges and telephone lines at just the right time while the 6th Army conducted its offensive. Their efforts undoubtedly saved thousands of U.S. lives.


U.S. Navy gun crews cover landing on Mindoro Island, 1944 image from U.S. National Archives

U.S. Navy gun crews cover landing on Mindoro Island, 1944
image from U.S. National Archives


Although fierce fighting by well dug-in Japanese troops continued for several months, the 6th Army was able to launch an attack on nearby Mindoro Island on December 15, 1944. Mindoro Island is located south of Luzon, and it offered a perfect location for fighter bases to support any future operations against the large Japanese Army formations on Luzon Island. The Japanese had expected the next assault to come elsewhere, and they had not reinforced their garrison on Mindoro. The results of their miscalculation were disastrous. The 6th Army had complete control of Mindoro by December 18.

To confuse the Japanese about allied intentions, Philippine guerillas conducted major sabotage operations in southern Luzon while the U.S. conducted air raids against southern Luzon. When U.S. minesweepers appeared in southern Luzon harbors the Japanese were convinced that a landing and would soon be conducted. It would, but in another area much further north.


U.S. Coast Guard landing barges sweep through waters of Lingayan Gulf carrying first wave of invaders to the beaches of Luzon. 1945

U.S. Coast Guard landing barges sweep through waters of Lingayan Gulf carrying first wave of invaders
to the beaches of Luzon. 1945
image from U.S. National Archives


On January 9, 1945, U.S. forces stormed ashore at Lingayan Gulf. The surprised Japanese offered little resistance. In an amphibious assault that out-scaled the Normandy landings, the U.S. landed 176,000 troops within three days. Japanese General Yamashita, the Tiger of Manila, could see a very effective trap for his army forming in southern Luzon, and he ordered half his army to retreat to the northern mountains of Luzon while the other half moved to block the expected allied assault on Manila. Yamashita hoped to minimize the U.S. advantages of complete air supremacy and armored formations by fighting a prolonged defensive action in the mountains of northern Luzon. It was a wise move on his part.

In the late hours of February 3, the lead elements of the U.S. 1st Cavalry reached Santo Tomas University on the outskirts of Manila. The campus had been used as a prison for U.S., Philippine, Australian, New Zealand, and Dutch civilians. The U.S. troops were shocked by the emaciated condition of the prisoners.  The nightmare was just beginning.

Before they could be ensnared, General Yamashita took his southern force out of the Luzon area to join the rest of his army in the north. Before Yamashita had left Manila, he placed Vice Admiral Denshichi Okochi in charge. He ordered Okochi to destroy the port facilities, declare Manila an open city, and escape northward.

MacArthur’s staff ordered that fire from tanks and artillery only be used selectively and at close ranges to avoid as many civilian casualties as possible. Sadly, an estimated 1,200 Filipinos died from U.S. fire. Sadly, that was the least of the suffering for the inhabitants of Manila.

Admiral Okochi had ignored Yamashita’s orders. Instead of leaving, he used his force of 20,000, consisting of Naval Special Troops and other naval and army troops, to make a last stand in Manila. In a war defined by ruthless Japanese atrocities, Okochi and his men engaged in one of the worst atrocities of the war in the Pacific. Women of all ages were raped and murdered. Hospitals were set afire with patients tied to their beds. Babies were torn from their mothers’ arms and mutilated.

It took the allied forces another month of non-stop, heavy urban fighting to clear the Japanese from Manila. In the final hours of the battle, Admiral Okochi and his staff committed ritual seppuku. At his orders, his forces had raped, tortured, mutilated and murdered about 100,000 Filipino civilian inhabitants of Manila. The fighting reduced most of the city’s historical buildings to rubble.  Allied commanders had grown accustomed to the Japanese military’s barbaric crimes. However, Okochi’s savagery against civilians in Manila and the many other war crimes committed against Philippine civilians and POWs further inflamed Allied anger against Japan and ultimately helped President Truman make his difficult final decision to use atomic bombs against Japan in August of 1945.


Japanese surrender in the Philippines, Sept. 15, 1945 image from wikimedia commons

Japanese surrender in the Philippines, Sept. 15, 1945
image from wikimedia commons


On February 27, 1945, Manila was considered safe for the return of the Philippine government. At Malacañang Palace, a formal ceremony was conducted to install Sergio Osmeña as the President of all of the Philippines. The last pockets of Japanese defenders were not cleared until March 3. At a horrible cost, Manila, or the little that was left of it, was now free. Fighting continued in the Philippines until after the Japanese surrendered on September 2. About 15,000 Allies had lost their lives. Fighting against superior U.S. firepower and U.S. air supremacy, the Japanese had lost about 338,000 soldiers and sailors. During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, about one million Filipino civilians were murdered or lost their lives to starvation and Japanese abuse.

After the war, the Philippine people rebuilt Manila into a capital city. The ground beneath the city is considered by the Philippine people to be their most sacred ground.

In 1946, fifty hard years after revolutionary scholar and poet Dr. José Rizal left his goodbye poem to Manila, My Last Farewell, in his prison cell on his execution day, the Philippine people received their independence. His dream was finally realized.

Fallujah and Benghazi — A Tale of Two Cities

 Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

In a previous article, Intelligence Perspective on Benghazi, we looked at events in Benghazi that resulted from a minimalist approach to military security and response. However, Benghazi was not the first time in recent history when political fantasies held dear in the White House led to misjudging the character of our enemies and the nature of the military conflict.


Battle of Fallujah Image by US Marine Corps, public domain.

Battle of Fallujah
Image by US Marine Corps, public domain.


In March of 2003, the US invaded Iraq.

At least that’s how the mainstream media recorded it. In truth, the invasion started eight months earlier when the CIA and the US Joint Special Operations Command began operating in Iraq with several important goals. These goals included identifying Iraqi leaders who might be willing to turn against Saddam Hussein, organizing the Kurds against the growing Islamic radical groups in Kurdish areas, and locating Iraqi chemical warfare assets.

These goals were met economically and with low cost in American and Kurdish lives. Before the main invasion, the Kurdish rebels, with the help of a few dozen Americans, were able to locate and destroy an Ansar al-Islam terrorist base where Saddam was manufacturing Ricin chemical weapons near Sargat in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq.

On the morning of March 20, 2003, a coalition led by the US and the UK launched the main invasion known as the Iraq War.

The stated purpose was to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s government. This invasion proceeded remarkably well in spite of Turkey’s last minute reversal on its agreement to allow the US 4th Infantry Division to enter Iraq via Turkey.

On April 9, Baghdad fell to advancing Coalition forces. The Coalition’s speedy advance against a vastly numerically superior army was partly due to its superior leadership, troops, and air support, and partly due to the rapidly deteriorated morale of the Iraqi troops.

After defeating the Iraqi military and deposing Saddam Hussein, the Coalition faced the question of how best to manage the post-Saddam Iraq.

It remains unclear what, if anything, political leaders in the US and the UK envisioned for that task. What transpired was an attempt at minimal political forcefulness while waiting for something like “government” to occur in Iraq. It didn’t occur.

While the Coalition was happy to turn over the governing of Iraq to the Iraqis as quickly as possible, the Iraqis, mired in their age-old tribal and religious conflicts, were largely unwilling or unable to perform a reasonable imitation of a functioning government. Twelve years later, they are still struggling with that same basic challenge.

On April 23, 2003, in response to intelligence indicating an increasing presence of armed Islamic militant insurgents in the area, the US coalition sent 700 troops from the US 82nd Airborne Division to take up positions in the city of Fallujah.

The Coalition’s chief concern in this operation was avoiding Iraqi casualties and property damage, and the paratroopers operated under heavy limitations. As events unfolded in Fallujah in the following months, the concern for avoiding Iraqi casualties and property damage remained paramount in the minds of the Coalition’s civilian leadership.

The 82nd Airborne has proven its remarkable skills in warfare over the decades. Those skills do not include avoiding enemy bloodshed and property damage. In fact, not surprisingly, bloodshed and property damage are the primary skill sets of most of the world’s military units, including the 82nd Airborne.

I can’t help but wonder why the coalition didn’t send something other than combat units to Fallujah since they were apparently hoping for something other than combat to occur? Note to US politicians: If you want war, send the US military. If you want something else, don’t send the US military.

It quickly became apparent to anyone observing the unfolding drama in Fallujah that many in the Coalition’s civilian leadership were reverting to the Viet Nam era concept, or rather gross misconception, of “non-violent warfare.”

Apparently, some folks in London and D.C. thought they could magically will away a growing insurgent and terrorist presence in Fallujah. No one in our government has yet explained to me precisely what sort of magic was expected to occur, but whatever spells were cast, they did not have the desired effect.

Predictably, on June 28, 2003, while sitting in Fallujah and doing their best to “look friendly,” US troops attracted gunfire during a protest and returned fire.

That’s what paratroopers do when they are fired on. They fire back. Seventeen Iraqis were killed, and 70 more were wounded. The paratroopers exercised restraint and didn’t kill the other 200 protestors. The 82nd Airborne was replaced by troops from the 101st Airborne and 3rd armored cavalry. In the aftermath, Fallujah became a rallying point for the anti-Coalition insurgents and their terrorist pals.

On June 30, an explosion occurred in Fallujah in a mosque occupied by a radical religious leader, Sheik Laith Kalil, and some of his bomb makers. The locals claimed the US had attacked an innocent mosque, but the explosion was self-inflicted by the bomb makers.

While the US forces in Fallujah continued to pursue their policy of “friendliness” as they waited for the new Iraqi “government” to take control of Fallujah, Islamic terrorists reinforced the city. On February 12, 2004, some of these Islamic terrorists, in conjunction with “friendly” Iraqi forces, attacked a US military convoy in Fallujah that included the US Theater Commander General John Abizaid. General Abizaid survived unscathed.

On February 23, 2004, the insurgents escalated their activity by attacking three Iraqi police stations and the mayor’s office.

In March, 2004, US politicians decided the best way to improve the situation in Fallujah was to withdraw troops. On March 31, insurgents attacked a US civilian convoy. They murdered four contractors from the Blackwater security firm. News agencies treated the US public to images of their burned bodies hanging from a bridge.

The public response to the news footage caused politicians to reassess their “love and peace” military tactics in Fallujah. Against the advice of the Marine commanders on the ground, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was ordered to take Fallujah.

On April 5, 2004, the outnumbered Marines entered the city in an attempt to ferret out approximately two dozen terrorists groups. Unfortunately, the US civilian leadership in Iraq and in Washington still stubbornly clung to its theory that warfare could best be waged by not hurting anyone. US leaders denied Marines most of the air support and artillery they requested on the grounds that too many civilians would be killed, and too much property damage would occur.

As the April operations in Fallujah commenced, an insurgent army led by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadar felt confident enough to start his own uprising. Al-Sadar ordered his followers to ambush Coalition forces in various locations around Anbar province.

The US military had had many opportunities to kill or capture the insurgent Muqtada al-Sadar, but was ordered to leave him alone in keeping with the US strategy of avoiding the use of force as much as possible in Iraq. While the Marines chased terrorists around Fallujah, our “friends” in the “new” Iraqi security forces swapped sides and helped the insurgents.

As Iraqi casualties in Fallujah mounted, the Iraqi coalition government demanded that the US operation there be stopped. The US government bowed to the Iraqi Governing Council and ordered the Marines to withdraw to the perimeter of the city. The insurgents took that opportunity to resupply and reinforce while conducting hit-and-run raids against the now static Marines.

On May 1, 2004, the US optimistically decided to turn over the security of Fallujah to a newly formed and US equipped Iraqi Fallujah Brigade.

The Brigade’s only accomplishment was to surrender its weapons to the insurgents when it deserted in September of 2004. At that point, the US had suffered 27 dead, and the Iraqis had lost approximately 400 insurgents and terrorists, and approximately 250 non-terrorist civilians.

By October of 2004, the interim government in Baghdad that had bemoaned the “illegal and immoral” US operations in Fallujah the previous spring was begging Coalition forces to “clean up Fallujah.”

In November, the Coalition sent a much larger force to Fallujah than they had in April. It included 10,000 American troops, 800 British troops, and 200 Iraqi troops of dubious quality and reliability.By that time, the insurgents numbered approximately 4,000 fighters, most of whom were from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, the Philippines, Kuwait, and Palestine. They had used the six month absence of Coalition forces to reinforce their positions and to plant thousands of booby traps around the city.

As the US Marines took positions outside of Fallujah on November 7, about 90% of the civilians in Fallujah evacuated the city. Many of the terrorist leaders, including Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, escaped with them.

On November 8, while British forces patrolled the surrounding area, the US Marines began attacking the city.

Bloody fighting took place until December 23, costing the lives of 95 Americans and wounding 540 more. Four soldiers from the UK died, and ten were wounded. Iraqi soldiers counted eight dead and 43 wounded, along with approximately 800 Iraqi civilian deaths. The terrorists lost from 1500-2000 fighters, and around 1500 more were captured.

Then, the war took an amazing turn. The Bush Administration ordered the US military to release almost all of the captured insurgents and allow them to leave with their weapons.

To me, this was a watershed moment in the Iraqi war. It seemed insane to lose so many US and Coalition troops to simply let the cornered terrorists walk away. And with their weapons. At the time, the Iraqi Governing Council was pressuring the US and the UK to let the terrorists leave with their weapons in exchange for a promise of good behavior. This dovetailed well with the US and UK mindset of a “nice war,” and the US and the UK yielded.

We’ll never know how many more Americans, allies, and Iraqi civilians later died because 1,500 captured terrorists were allowed to go home armed to fight another day. To terrorists in Iraq and around the world who were following the events in Fallujah, it had to be a humorous and inspiring sight. To me and to other Americans, it was heart breaking and infuriating.

In my estimation, Fallujah unfolded as it did and Iraq became an enormously expensive problem because the US and the UK, though willing to pay the price in blood and treasure to defeat Saddam Hussein, declined to run the country we conquered long enough for it to actually become a nation. In my opinion, the US Bush Administration and the UK government led by Tony Blair allowed themselves to pursue a fantasy of Nice War. Because of our leadership’s pathological insistence on pretending the Iraqis were actually cooperating with us, we continue to pay a high price in blood and treasure.


US Consulate in Benghazi , burning on 9/11/12. Image by Voice of America.

US Consulate in Benghazi , burning on 9/11/12.
Image by Voice of America.


When we compare the events in Fallujah in 2004 with the September 2012 events in Benghazi, we see many similarities born from the Nice War concept.

In both cases, the US administrations allowed their political and sociological philosophies to cloud their judgment. In both cases, our presidents thought that force used could be minimized. But in both cases, to the detriment of the US forces on the ground, they underestimated what level of force was needed. We now know that in Benghazi, as in Fallujah, both presidents had sufficient information with which to make better decisions.

The dissimilarities are equally apparent.

In Fallujah, the journalists were present in large numbers and were willing to report what they saw, though at times they were unable to understand what they were seeing. In Benghazi, the events occurred out of sight of the US media. In Fallujah, the Bush administration dealt frankly with the press. In Benghazi, the Obama administration lied to the press and to the American people and was caught, but for the most part, the press has been willing to ignore that.

It would be of great benefit to our national security if our current and future administrations learn from the mistakes in Fallujah and Benghazi. When politicians are unable or unwilling to look beyond their own political fantasies when making foreign policy and military decisions, more American lives and resources are tragically squandered. How willing and how well the Obama administration will learn the lessons from these two cities and embrace the realities of foreign relations remains to be seen.

Worst Intelligence Failure in US History — Response to Operation Drumbeat

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

If you ask historians to name the worst Intelligence failure in US history, many will name the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. I will depart from that conventional wisdom. Pearl Harbor was, indeed, a major intelligence failure for both Japan and the US, but, in and of itself, it was not the worst US intelligence failure during WWII. In my opinion, that title goes to the US response to Operation Drumbeat.


Large troop convoy on its way to North Africa. Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.

Large troop convoy on its way to North Africa.
Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.


If we consider the strategic outlook in the US military and the US government in general prior to Pearl Harbor, we can see mitigating circumstances that partially explain, if not forgive, the intelligence failures on both sides. On the Japanese side, the Japanese Army largely determined military decisions. The accepted wisdom in the Japanese Army was that any war with the US would last less than a year and would end with the US accepting Japanese domination of Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. This critical miscalculation explains why the Japanese were willing to attack Pearl Harbor.

On the American side of the equation, most military and civilian leaders were focused on the war in Europe. Whereas prior to December 7, 1941, German submarines had gotten US attention by attacking US merchant ships and US Navy destroyers, the Japanese had not attacked US shipping. It was clear that an attack against Pearl Harbor was possible, but other possibilities seemed far more likely. Everyone in the Japanese and US governments knew that Japan wanted and absolutely needed more oil. Everyone on both sides also understood that Japan had thus far directed all its military efforts in the twentieth century against Asia. Japanese attacks against Indonesia and Malaysia seemed to be their next obvious move. Indeed, the Japanese did follow their Pearl Harbor success with southward thrusts into the weakly defended Philippines, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia.

However, the far greater intelligence failure by the US occurred after Pearl Harbor.

It was a less forgivable, more prolonged, and more agonizing failure that led to far greater costs in lives and material. The intelligence failure that I refer to is the US failure to predict and counteract the onslaught of German U-Boats against US merchant shipping.


Depth charge explosion, c. 1943. Note merchant ship on left horizon. Image at Library of Congress, public domain.

Depth charge explosion, c. 1943.
Note merchant ship on left horizon.
Image at Library of Congress, public domain.


Nearly every American can remember seeing pictures of the battleship USS Arizona exploding in Pearl Harbor. That and other photographic imagery of the Pearl Harbor attack helped to create strong feelings for most Americans. On the other hand, the losses to German submarines were rarely photographed and occurred over many months. Those attacks lacked the “shock and awe” value of the Pearl Harbor attack.

At Pearl Harbor, the US lost two old battleships. Two more were sunk, but then salvaged and repaired. Another battleship and two heavy cruisers were damaged and then repaired. Those losses and the losses of between 2,500 and 3,000 American lives were significant, but they were not as severe as our losses to German submarines during Operation Drumbeat.

Germany declared war on the US on December 11, 1941 and enacted Operation Drumbeat – an operation in which most German submarines were sent to the US Atlantic coast specifically to destroy merchant shipping on that coast and to inflict as much damage as possible.

By January of 1942, allied trans-Atlantic shipping had, for the most part, belatedly been organized into convoys with inadequate, but significantly effective, naval escorts. The UK’s Royal Navy and, to a lesser degree, the US Navy, US Coast Guard, and Canadian Navy ships primarily provided these escorts. They were undermanned and poorly equipped, but they made it more difficult and far more risky for German submarines to conduct effective attacks against them.


Deck of U-Boat &123, January 1942. Image by German Federal Archives.

Deck of U-Boat &123, January 1942.
Image by German Federal Archives.


The German submariners referred to 1940 and 1941 as the “happy times.” By the end of 1941, the equation was changing. They were still effective in sinking allied merchant ships, but with increasing risks to themselves. Then, after Admiral Karl Dönitz unleashed Operation Drumbeat, the German submariners experienced their second “happy times.”

From January 1942 to August 1942, German submarines, aided in small measure by Italian submarines, sank approximately 400 allied merchant ships along the Atlantic coast for a loss of 22 submarines.

The Germans were amazed by the lack of a credible US response. They could not believe that the US was foolish enough to not immediately institute blackouts of coastal cities or to organize convoys.

While I feel strongly that it is important to accurately calculate the death toll of the merchant sailors, it is impossible to do so. My best estimate is that nearly 6,000 died in those 400 sinkings. Along with them, thousands of tons of weapons and ammunition, millions of barrels of oil, and precious food supplies were lost. Across the Atlantic, the UK desperately needed every gallon of fuel and pound of food that we could ship to them.


Officers watching for submarines on the bridge of a destroyer that was escorting a large convoy. Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.

Officers watching for submarines on the bridge of a destroyer that was escorting a large convoy.
Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.


I apologize to family members of the merchant marine sailors that served so courageously during WWII for my inability to accurately state their losses. Several factors prevent an accurate count.

The first confounding factor is that there was no central registry for merchant sailors at sea. Each shipping company kept its own records, and many did so poorly. Sailors were often added to a crew immediately prior to sailing and were not always counted in the casualty lists. Secondly, many of the sailors survived the sinkings but later died of their wounds. A third factor that, until recent years, had been ignored is the fact that the allies made a concerted effort to understate shipping losses in order to not damage the public’s morale. The losses were appalling, and, sadly, they were greater than they needed to be.

By the time Operation Drumbeat came to bear in January of 1942, the US and her allies had a clear understanding of what had occurred during the first year and a half of U-Boat attacks against allied shipping.

The UK had been slow in instituting convoy measures for several reasons.


Captain Frederic John Walker RN on the bridge of HMS STARLING. Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.

Captain Frederic John Walker RN on the bridge of HMS STARLING.
Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.



The biggest reason was that merchant sailors and their shipping company bosses were not accustomed to being under military control. In democratic nations, there was no clear legal authority to order convoying. By the end of 1941, the UK had learned the bitter lessons of submarine warfare, and shipping companies had come to accept the need for convoys. At the same time, thanks to the brilliant efforts of men like Captain Frederic John “Johnnie” Walker RN, Captain Donald MacIntyre RN, and Captain John Waters USCG, the allies were developing more effective tactics for combating German submarines.


Commander Donald MacIntyre RN on the bridge of HMS HESPERUS. Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.

Commander Donald MacIntyre RN on the bridge of HMS HESPERUS.
Image at Imperial War Museum, public domain.


Given all that had occurred in the North Atlantic by January 1942, the US response to Operation Drumbeat seems unforgivable.

There are few intelligence failures in US history that can compare with this one. It is true that the US Navy and US Coast Guard were limited in the ships and planes that they could employ against Operation Drumbeat, but those that were available were poorly employed. It’s astounding that the US government did not use its authority to immediately order convoying for all coastal shipping and blackouts for all coastal lighting. Once these simple measures were phased in by the end of August, the monthly losses in merchant shipping began to decline, and German submarine losses increased. While the US was not in a position to use all the readily available intelligence to formulate a completely effective response to Operation Drumbeat, better and more timely efforts would have resulted in far fewer dead merchant sailors and much less loss of ships and critical cargoes.


Scientist surveys sunken German U-Boat U-701 of the coast of North Carolina. Image by NOAA's National Ocean Service.

Scientist surveys sunken German U-Boat U-701 of the coast of North Carolina.
Image by NOAA’s National Ocean Service.


The primary lesson to be learned from this intelligence debacle:

Even when a perfect response is not available, the best possible preparations must be pursued in a timely fashion.

In out next installment, we will consider one of the many intelligence failures of the US Civil War.

Intelligence Fail: How Mussolini’s Ego Saved the Soviet Union

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

In previous articles, we examined the intelligence failures around Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 German invasion of the USSR, from both the German and the Soviet points of view. An important side of the equation that is usually ignored, however, is the Italian contribution to the eventual Soviet success.


Allies Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler Image from the US Holocaust Memorial Mueum public domain

Allies Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler
Image from the US Holocaust Memorial Mueum
public domain


In the fall of 1936, Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini and German Dictator Adolf Hitler announced a military treaty between their respective nations. From the beginning of this alliance, Hitler was convinced that Italy, a junior partner, could at best be most useful in countering British naval power in the Mediterranean and possibly in threatening Great Britain’s hold on the Suez Canal. From Mussolini’s point of view, the alliance with Nazi Germany entitled Italy to be treated as an equal partner. Mussolini expected the alliance to offer Italy opportunities to develop a Mediterranean empire that would stretch across northwest Africa and westward from Italy across the Adriatic.

In March of 1938, without any prior consultation with its Italian ally, Germany entered Austria and managed a coup that is remembered as “bloodless.”

The annexation of Austria was not actually bloodless, but Austrian resistance collapsed quickly, and Nazi propaganda efforts were somewhat successful in convincing the world that Germany was welcomed by the Austrian people. Mussolini was stunned both that Hitler had succeeded so easily in Austria and that Hitler had not consulted, or even forewarned him, of the invasion.

On September 29, 1938, France, Italy, Great Britain, and Germany signed the now infamous Munich Agreement, which granted the Western portion of Czechoslovakia to Germany. While in this case Mussolini was consulted, his role was limited to helping bolster the feeble notion that the Munich Agreement was legitimate, given the fact that the Czechs were not consulted at all about how their country would be carved up.

In March of 1939, Hitler again surprised Mussolini by granting independence to the Slovakian areas of Czechoslovakia and annexing the remaining portion of that country. By this point, Mussolini was beginning to understand that Hitler had no intention of treating him as an equal partner in their alliance.

Mussolini felt that he had to do something to improve his prestige. Without consulting Germany, Italy invaded Albania in April of 1939.


Italian Troops in Albania public domain

Italian Troops in Albania
public domain


Albania had a poorly trained and minimally equipped army of 15,000 men. It was further impeded by the fact that it was already in a state of political turmoil due to tensions between communist, royalist, and democratic nationalist factions.

The 100,000 Italian invaders managed a rare Italian victory, installed a puppet government, and declared that Albania was now part of Italy.

Hitler saw the Italian annexation of Albania as being a sensible move and was likely informed in advance by his intelligence agencies. From Germany’s point of view, having Italy in control of the entrance of the Adriatic Sea from the Mediterranean supported its long-term strategy for the coming war.

In August of 1939, again without consulting his Italian ally, Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with the USSR. Mussolini was angered and embarrassed at having been left out. He would likely have been far angrier if he had known that the pact included a secret agreement for a postwar division of Eastern Europe between Germany and the USSR.

The following month, Germany and the USSR invaded and divided Poland. France and Great Britain then declared war against Germany.

In April of 1940, Hitler once again went on the warpath and unleashed his army on Denmark and Norway. Denmark fell in a day, and Norway managed to resist until June.

Hitler was quite pleased with himself, while Mussolini was feeling more and more like Hitler’s weaker little brother.

Mussolini decided he had to do something to prove that Italy was a modern military powerhouse. He confided to his generals that “to sit at the peace table you have to make war.” This was his way of voicing concern about post war division of spoils between Germany and Italy after what he expected would be a quick war.

In September of 1940, Mussolini made his “big move.” He attacked British-occupied Egypt. He did so after prior consultation with Hitler. Unfortunately for Mussolini and Italy, things did not go quite as they expected.


Royal Air Force preparing to raid Italian positions at Tobruk public domain

Royal Air Force preparing to raid Italian positions at Tobruk
public domain


The British in Egypt were badly outnumbered both in men and aircraft, but their planes, tanks, and equipment were vastly superior to what the Italians had. The Italian attack on Egypt, which should have been a quick success for Italy, turned into an embarrassing failure.

In February of 1941, Hitler had to send German divisions and aircraft to help Italy try to invade Egypt. By the time Germany was able to send adequate reinforcements to North Africa, Great Britain had also reinforced Egypt. In spite of the best efforts of Hitler’s Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, his German Africa Corps, and three full corps of Italian troops, Rommel never reached the Suez Canal.

When compared to the immense scale of operations on the Eastern Front, the Axis defeat in North Africa might seem less important, but their failed North Africa campaign denied the Germans the use of several of their best divisions, along with considerable resources of the overtaxed German Luftwaffe.

In October of 1940, having achieved no success in North Africa, Mussolini did a huge favor for the USSR. He invaded Greece.


Greek Forces in Korce, November 1940 public domain

Greek Forces in Korce, November 1940
public domain


Mussolini was certain of a rapid victory over the smaller Greek Army. The Greeks were not convinced. The Italian invasion turned into an Italian retreat, and the Italians were in danger of being forced out of Albania by the Greek Army and Greek partisans.

Hitler was taken completely by surprise. He and his General Staff were focused on preparing Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR. They had not informed their ally Italy of their intentions.

The UK and the US suspected the planned German invasion of the USSR. The Soviet Army expected the German invasion but could not convince Stalin. In fact, everyone except Stalin and Mussolini expected a German invasion of the USSR. Even when Germany moved massive amounts of men, equipment, and supplies to Poland, the Italian diplomatic and intelligence communities managed to miss what should have been obvious to them. This ignorance of Germany’s planned April 1941 invasion of the USSR, was instrumental to Mussolini’s decision to invade Greece.

It was an intelligence failure that sank Mussolini’s military into dire trouble.

Hitler was furious. He refused to see that he had helped Mussolini stumble into this terrible mistake by not informing him of his Operation Barbarossa. Italy plunged head first into an ill-timed operation in Greece instead of concentrating on the far more crucial campaign in North Africa.

Hitler considered leaving the Italians to suffer their growing disaster in Greece on their own. However, as the Italian debacle dragged on towards the spring of 1941, Hitler decided that he had to save his Italian ally from complete defeat – not because Italy was his ally, but because Greece was no longer neutral and was now accepting aid from the UK. This meant that Greece had to be defeated, because if the British RAF was allowed to operate air bases in that country, their bombers would be within range of the oilfields of Romania. Without Romanian oil, the German Army would have ground to a halt in the USSR.


Royal Air Force Operations Over Albania and Greece, 1940 Image from Imperial War Museums public domain

Royal Air Force Operations Over Albania and Greece, 1940
Image from Imperial War Museums
public domain


In April of 1941, Germany and Bulgaria invaded Greece. By early June, Greece was defeated. So, all well that ends well? No. It ended well, but it ended too late.

By June, the German Army should have been halfway to Moscow with trucks of supplies following it on mostly dry, passable roads. The Russian road network was primitive, and the Germans could not afford to have their Army’s logistics further strangled by nearly impassable muddy roads.

By the time Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, it was two months behind schedule, thanks to Mussolini’s decision to invade Greece. It was also without valuable troops and equipment that now had to occupy the previously neutral Greece. Before the German Army got close to Moscow and Stalingrad, supply problems on bad roads were limiting their armored operations. When it did get to the gates of Moscow, snow began to fall, and the German Army was without winter clothing and equipment.

In the end, the vastly numerically superior Soviet Army and Soviet production defeated Hitler on the Eastern Front. However, if Operation Barbarossa had started on time, Stalin might have lost Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. He could conceivably have decided to conclude a peace treaty with Germany, and an early departure by the USSR would have been disastrous for the Western Allies.

The great intelligence lesson to be learned from Italy’s failure to anticipate Operation Barbarossa: No nation should take for granted their ally’s intentions. Even friends need to watch each other.

In our next installment, we will consider a great American intelligence failure in WWII.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Related Articles in the Intelligence Fail Series:

Hitler and a Most Important Intelligence Lesson

Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet View


Intelligence Fail–Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet View

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

In our last post, we discussed the intelligence lesson to be learned by Hitler’s choice to invade the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. On the other side, the Soviet Union’s reaction to that invasion provides us with one of history’s most glaring examples of bad intelligence assessments.

Intelligence professionals that read this series should be aware that I use the term “assessment” in the generic English sense rather than in the technical professional sense. All intelligence agencies have their own requirements and rules for what an “intelligence assessment” should look like. We are not following any of those requirements other than the ones that coincide with the researching and writing of history.

To understand the Soviet Union’s failure to adequately prepare for the German invasion of June 22, 1941, it’s important to consider the decision making process of the Soviet Union.


Josef Stalin in Berlin, 1945 Image from US Library of Congress,  public domain.

Josef Stalin in Berlin, 1945
Image from US Library of Congress,
public domain.


Josef Stalin was a dictator that only nominally reported to the Communist Party of the USSR. In reality, the Communist Party lacked the will or practical authority to oppose any decisions taken by Stalin.

By 1941, everyone in the USSR understood that disagreeing with Stalin about anything was likely to lead to arrest, torture, and possible execution. Not surprisingly, Stalin had grown accustomed to people agreeing with him. While he may have enjoyed his success in bending the entire USSR to his will, it had an isolating effect that would prove disastrous.

Even though Hitler vastly underestimated the war fighting capability of the USSR, he understood that the USSR had a much larger military than did Poland or France. Accordingly, he instructed the German military to move approximately 3.8 million troops into position to invade the USSR. Some of those troops were not for employment in the spearheads of the invasion, and, therefore, did not need to be kept close to the Soviet borders. Still, even in the pre-satellite age, it was difficult to disguise German troop buildups.


The six lines of attack comprising Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. From The Battle of Russia, the fifth film in the Why We Fight series by US Govt. public domain

The six lines of attack comprising Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941.
From The Battle of Russia, the fifth film in the Why We Fight series by US Govt.
public domain


So how did Stalin manage to ignore the massive German buildup leading to Operation Barbarossa?

There are various opinions about the details of how and why Stalin failed to anticipate a German invasion, but some aspects are nearly universally accepted. One might assume that the Soviet NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) and military intelligence forces were inadequate or perhaps nearly blind to all evidence. This was clearly not the case.

The Soviet Union leadership considered itself to be in a perpetual state of war with the rest of the world. From their point of view, the character and intensity of that war varied, but there was no such thing as real “peace” with Western nations. The Soviet State also operated on the assumption that it was and would always be in a state of war with a significant portion of its own citizens.

These two fundamental assumptions caused the USSR to invest heavily in intelligence efforts. Both the NKVD and Soviet military intelligence accurately assessed that Hitler was planning an invasion of the USSR. They had done an excellent job of penetrating Hitler’s Foreign Office, intelligence services, military staffs, and industry. They were receiving more than enough information from a variety of independent sources to be certain that Operation Barbarossa was imminent.

In addition to its direct sources in Germany, Stalin’s intelligence community was aware of US and UK assessments of Hitler’s intentions.

When diplomats from the US and the UK informed Stalin of German plans to invade the USSR, Stalin had already heard this from his spies in the UK and the US. He assumed that all the warnings coming from the Western nations were part of a Western conspiracy to force him to go to war with Hitler prematurely. Stalin preferred to let the West demolish itself, and he planned to step into a convenient power vacuum of a destroyed Western Europe.

Opinions vary about precisely how, in the face of so much corroborative information, Stalin failed to anticipate the German invasion. In one sense, he didn’t.

Just as Hitler understood that carving up Poland with the USSR would in no way appease Stalin’s long term goal of annihilating Western nations and governments, Stalin clearly understood that Germany would try to attack the USSR. Stalin’s basic reaction to that reality was to attempt to outsmart the Western nations.

Remember, from Stalin’s point of view, the UK, France, and other Western enemies were as much a threat to the Soviet system and Soviet ambitions as was Germany. All Westerners were Stalin’s enemies, and all of them needed to be accounted for in the Soviet geopolitical calculus of the day.

In addition to considering the threat from his Western neighbors, Stalin had to consider the very real threat of invasion by the Japanese military to the east. Japan had already conquered vast swaths of China, and it could not be completely ignored.

Stalin responded to the threats that surrounded him by using his vast NKVD resources to try to maneuver Western countries into war with themselves and by counting on the Japanese to continue being strategically diverted with their slaughter of the Chinese. From Stalin’s point of view, Hitler’s invasion of his Western neighbors perfectly fit into his plans.


Wehrmacht troops cross the USSR borders in Operation Barbarossa, June 22, 1941. public domain

Wehrmacht troops cross the USSR borders in Operation Barbarossa,
June 22, 1941.
public domain


Stalin never doubted that Hitler would invade the USSR, but since Germany was still busy dealing with the undefeated UK, he was certain that Hitler would not make the mistake of throwing Germany into the same sort of two-front war that brought that country to ruin in 1918.

When Stalin’s magnificent intelligence services explained to him that Hitler was not going to wait for the fall of the UK to invade the USSR, his megalomaniacal personality enabled him to ignore them. When anyone in his intelligence, diplomatic, or military organizations foolishly attempted to argue the point with him, he accused them of being enemy agents and had them murdered or banished to labor camps.

Since June 22, 1941, Stalin’s miserable intelligence assessment of German intentions has been a popular topic of study. As more files have been obtained from the now defunct USSR, more explanations are offered as to precisely how Stalin managed to deceive himself.


German soldiers in Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, June 1941. Image from German Federal Archives, wikimedia commons.

German soldiers in Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa,
June 1941.
Image from German Federal Archives, wikimedia commons.


Thus far, the various theories and occasional new evidence have not changed the essential facts of the case.

Stalin failed to prepare for Operation Barbarossa because he refused to acknowledge that anyone might understand the strategic situation as well as or better than he could. The results of his grand miscalculation were devastating for the USSR. We cannot assume that the best possible preparations by the USSR would have completely and bloodlessly defeated the German invasion, but it is reasonable to assume that the USSR would have suffered far fewer casualties in halting the German advances.

There is one other “what if” that we usually ignore when examining Stalin’s grotesque mismanagement of the Soviet military machine. If indeed Stalin had been able to defeat Hitler’s invasion more efficiently, then Soviet forces likely would have advanced further west before the Allied Forces reached the same positions. Then the post-war division of European nations might have left even more European nations enslaved by Soviet occupation.

Stalin’s horrendous failure to anticipate Operation Barbarossa reinforces the lesson that even the best intelligence is only useful when leaders use it effectively. Stalin’s failure in 1941 also demonstrates another important lesson from Intelligence history . . .

Nations and their leaders should be aware that their own plans and ambitions can blind them to their enemies’ intentions.

In our next segment we will consider an oft-ignored intelligence wild card in Operation Barbarossa.