Monday, 9 July 2018

Cheating at Statistics: Coverup at Kovyagi

If there's one trend with SS armour units, it's that their successes seem to be accompanied by sudden and unpredictable failures. Whenever a unit fails to take an objective or is pushed off their lines, it always seems to be accompanied by fantastical achievements that just happened to not have altered the course of battle at all. Let's examine one of these scenarios. As it happens, Forczyk has done all the hard work for me in Red Steamroller.
"On 11 August, Katukov fought his way across the Merchyk River despite desperate efforts by Totenkopf’s Panzergrenadiers to stop him. Then he sent the lead elements of 6 TC and 3 MC south to Kovyagi, which was a station on the Polatva-Kharkov rail line. Getman’s tankers, with some attached sapper squads, succeeded in blowing up several sections of rail track. Priess committed Edwin Meiderdress’ I.SS-Panzer-Regiment 3 to counter-attack Polkovnik Vladimir M. Gorelov’s 1st Guards Tank Brigade, which had just stormed its way into Kovyagi. The result was another vicious meeting engagement and this one went very badly for Totenkopf; one company commander was killed in his tank and two others were badly wounded. However, Meiderdress had better luck against the 22nd Tank Brigade, which only had seven tanks left and its commander, Major Aleksei A. Laptev, was killed in action. Altogether, Totenkopf knocked out 18 Soviet tanks in its counter-attack."
Seems believable, even a little humble for an SS unit to claim only 18 tanks in such a high profile engagement. However, even this is unlikely. August 11th was quite far into the offensive portion of the Battle of Kursk, and leading Soviet brigades were quite exhausted by that time. Let's see how many Soviet tanks were there to face the Germans.

"By 6:00 on August 11th, 1943, the 1st and 2nd tank battalions, consisting of 12 tanks joined by an independent AA battery and two AT batteries from the 35th IPTAP approached the railroad north of Kovyagi. Since the tanks made the ford across Sukhoi Merchic unusable for wheeled vehicles, and the road was poor due to the rain, the remainder of the brigade and its reinforcements remained on the north shore of Sukhoi Merchic."
The other brigade in the area, the 22nd Tank Brigade, was doing even more poorly.

"From the morning of August 9th, 1943, the enemy attacks... A prisoner indicates that the SS "Death's Head" division is coming into the brigade's operational area. When darkness falls, the enemy, having gathered infantry and submachinegunners at Kirasirskiy farm attempted to take the bridge at Aleksandrovka several times. The first tank battalion, with 4 T-34 tanks available, defeated all enemy attacks."
4 T-34 tanks isn't a lot, but at least there's a whole second tank battalion, right?

"August 11th, 1943. Until 14:30, the elements of the brigade were stationed in previously captured areas. At 14:30, the 2nd tank battalion was withdrawn into the brigade commander's reserve and concentrated in the northern face of the forest south of marker 199.8. Three T-34 tanks were left to cover Mirnoye." 
And so the active elements of the 22nd Tank Brigade were down to only 3 tanks. This brings the tanks available to fight at Kovyagi to only 15! If the Germans had really destroyed 18 tanks, they would have readily eliminated all opposition. Yet, somehow, the units remained. There was also the 49th TBr nearby, with a handful of T-34s and light tanks. They didn't participate in the attack on Kovyagi, but let's count them anyway, just in case.

"August 11th, 1943. Located in the forest near Aleksandrovka, the brigade command post was attacked by all sorts of weapons in the first half of the day. As a result of the assault, from the enemy located near Aleksandrovka, 6 men were killed, 14 wounded. 4 field kitchens and one T-60 tank burned up. The command post was moved back to Kieny."
Doesn't look like that's our unit. Let's go back to the 1st Guards and see how they were doing.

"During the entire day, elements of the brigade fought attacking enemy tank stubbornly. The enemy, having no ability to restore the railroad, was forced to offload trains coming from Kharkov east of Kovyagi and continue movement along the highway through Valki.
Our losses for the day: three T-34 tanks burned up, 4 knocked out. Therefore, the brigade had 5 battle-ready T-34 tanks at the end of the day. Five T-6 tanks and three armoured cars were destroyed. Many trophies were captured, but due to the impossibility of evacuating them the latter were partially destroyed and partially abandoned."
That looks like our Death's Head attack. Looks like it wasn't quite as effective as the Germans claimed. Let's check in on the 22nd Tank Brigade, which was in far worse shape.

"In the night from August 10th to August 11th the railroad near Kovyagi was destroyed by a group that penetrated the enemy rear under the command of Senior Lieutenant Trofimov. The group returned with no losses. The enemy trains between Kharkov and Poltava were stopped. The enemy tried to capture the southern edge of the Sharobskiy sanatorium forest with groups of submachinegunners supported by artillery fire and tanks, which approached the river crossing and opened fire at our units. The enemy's attacks were deflected by the 1st tank battalion (three T-34 tanks) and and the motorized machinegun battalion (40 men)."
Another attack here, but this too has failed. The three defending T-34 tanks remain. Therefore, the German counterattack could be, at most, responsible for the 7 T-34s that were lost by the 1st Guards Tank Brigade. Quite a far cry from the alleged 18. Forczyk writes that Death's Head had 36 tanks at the time, 3 of which were Tigers, so this performance against only 15 T-34s is quite sad.
Nipe's Decision in the Ukraine credits the SS with five anti-tank guns in this attack. Let's see if the 35th IPTAP will corroborate these losses.

"11.08.1943 The unit is at its previous positions. 1st, 2nd, and 4th battery took up defensive positions according to diagram #2. 3rd battery is surrounded around [illegible] village. A direct hit from enemy fire destroyed one GAZ AA truck, one Willys, and one cannon."
The one battery was in a tough spot, just as Nipe tells, but the actual losses were also nowhere as high as the Germans claimed. Instead of five guns, the battery lost only one.


  1. I wonder if this trend (for more kills than there were in reality) is a post war thing or it was happening during the war. I know everyone wants to look like hero and looks more effective but something bother me. For example, if one unit reports that it has destroyed 15 of 20 tanks and its commander knows (by reconnaissance) that the enemy has only 20 tanks in the area then he starts an attack and realize that the enemy still has 18 perfectly working tanks what would happen? Did the commanders have any way to check the claims of their own units? Otherwise the commanders would have to work with some very wrong information about the enemy which would lead to bad decisions. As a whole i think that every army is working with an accurate information so if some private claims that he has destroyed 2 tanks this is not an official information and should not be presented as the real history. In a larger scale - it would be a disaster to think that your army destroyed 2 times more tanks than it actually did. So my questions are: 1. The claims are done during the war or post war; 2. Did the commanders have any way to check the claims of their own units; 3. Are there any punishment for the soldiers if they exaggerate their success

  2. The overclaiming happened during the war and was common in all armies and indeed in the air forces. Commanders can sometimes check claims but often not. In instances when claims can be checked, it's very instructive.

    The best example I'm aware of is the Falaise pocket towards the end of the Normandy campaign. In that case a large battle area was captured by the allies after an attempted (and very nearly completed) encirclement. A huge number of German wrecks were available for inspection, and both the ground and air forces inspected them. I don't recall the exact numbers, but, the air forces overclaimed by many, many times the actual number of tanks they knocked out. They claimed dozens of tanks destroyed (appraoching 100 tanks) but actually knocked out less than a dozen or so.

    This is not atypical. Soldiers often cannot see much of what's going on and do not always know the effect of their fire. Or, overclaiming can also occur when multiple individuals/units engage the same target. Imagine, for example, that an enemy tank platoon is engaged by a friendly tank platoon, a few friendly infantrymen with bazookas, and a friendly towed AT gun unit. Let's say one tank blows up. That one kill might be claimed by all three friendly units in good faith, each thinking they were responsible.

    There is one thing to add, which is that the germans alone tended to make a big deal in their propaganda about individual 'kills'. So these wartime and postwar stories of this or that German tank 'ace' killing dozens or hundreds of enemy tanks must be treated with extreme skepticism. At best, the raw data are unclear; at worst they were deliberately made up.

    1. "Imagine, for example, that an enemy tank platoon is engaged by a friendly tank platoon, a few friendly infantrymen with bazookas, and a friendly towed AT gun unit. Let's say one tank blows up. That one kill might be claimed by all three friendly units in good faith, each thinking they were responsible."

      This happened in Normandy with that weird "trophy" panzer unit (Abteilung 100???). The engagement where the platoon/company-sized unit was destroyed has been examined in micro-detail by enthusiasts, aided by the existence many, many photos after the battle. One tank was claimed by at least 3 different weapons.

      One of the most common reasons for overclaiming is moving forward, seeing an enemy tank, firing immediately, and hitting and penetrating. A kill! Except the enemy tank was killed from the other side before you got there, which is why it was an easy-ish target.

      You're not going to get out an examine the wreck to make sure that your kill was "real," you're going to keep moving forward, or at least find cover!

      Overclaiming from the air is almost unavoidable. When you're closing at 200 mph, you never get a good look at the target. Naturally, every pilot re-spots the tank that was abandoned or killed in the open.

    2. I didn't mean to imply that combat units themselves check wrecks - they don't. But ordnance units do, and operational research teams do.

      The RAF and USAAF overclaiming on tank kills was really ridiculous, yet so many people today still believe that allied tactical aviation was good at tank killing. It wasn't.

    3. Exactly, and the Americans never tried to hide it, either.

      Whereas a certain other military just high fived each other over how many sick frags they got all the way back to Beriln ;)

    4. Troops of all countries made honest mistakes not knowing how many of the enemy they really killed, or proper description of the equipment. But it's safe to say German commanders and to a smaller degree Soviet commanders were fearful of not sending back positive combat reviews. The worst that could happen to a British or American commander for losing a battle is getting demoted.

    5. Part of the problem for the Germans was the battle of France.

      Something we don't appreciate as much now is just how unexpected the victory was (in terms of losses and time) to the German high command, and how fundamentally it seemed to shake the conventional strategic calculus. It seemed to be proof that the German army was just better in every way than the raw numbers should allow it to be, and formed the basis for a lot of subsequent optimistic assumptions (principally Barbarossa) that underpinned later German planning.

      And the propaganda of the time reflects this: the battle of France was portrayed by Goebbels as a victory of German quality (most specifically: the quality of German soldiers) over superior quantity.

      Fast forward a few years and you have a situation where the superiority of German soldiers is axiomic (and has been for years), and the narrative has additionally shifted to include the qualitative superiority of the German equipment (as a way to offset the widely-acknowledge disparity in quantity). The SS, as a political organisation, is one of the leading exponents of this worldview. So of course SS officers wouldn't be too surprised that their superior troops, with superior equipment, keep racking up these unrealistically high numbers of kills. That's literally how things are supposed to work.

      In other words; it wasn't fear of punishment that made German commanders accept inflated reports. It was because they themselves believed them wholeheartedly, and saw no reason to dispute them. If you know that the numbers aren't on your side, but truly believe that your side does it better beyond what the numbers should tell, then it just isn't that surprising when your boys seem to be smacking the enemy around but still retreating.

  3. >The worst that could happen to a British or American commander for losing a battle is getting demoted.

    It is also true for Soviets. You need to fuck up really hard to be more than demoted/reassigned in the Red Army. There was simply not enough trained officers to shoot them for stupid reasons.

    1. Yeah, now embellishing your successes, now that got your superiors pissed off at you pretty fast.

  4. Bear in mind Germany was losing the war. Being demoted and sent to a sector of the front soon to be overrun by the Russian's was almost the same as death.

    1. High-profile elite units were likely to get sent to those anyway to try and stabilize the situation, though...

  5. As years pass it's nice to see how we have gone from "all German documents are absolutely correct, Anglosaxon something in between and all Soviet is propaganda" to "all contenders overclaimed"
    Well done Peter, part of merit is yours 👍