Thursday, November 16, 2017

Vitebsk: The Fight and Destruction of Third Panzer Army by Otto Heidkämper and Linden Lyons

Otto Heidkämper, chief of staff of Third Panzer Army, wrote a report of the numerous offensives undertaken by the Red Army in and around Vitebsk in 1943 leading up to Operation Bagration in the summer of 1944.  Being written in the 1950s, those familiar with German accounts of the fighting on the Eastern Front will find the usual here.  That includes the many attempts by German commanders on the ground to make the best of the situation they found themselves in, only to be rebuffed by either Hitler's orders of those of the Army Group Commander.  German forces stand defiantly against the Red aggressor, protecting Europe from the Asiatic horde.  German resistance is always heroic as stoic Wehrmacht troops are outnumbered by Soviet forces but are always able to inflict countless times the damage they themselves sustain.

The most egregious example of exaggeration is one of the few times the author discusses figures for German combat capable personnel compared to that of the Soviet forces attacking the Third Panzer Army.  The author lists some 19,150 men, spread out through three German corps, facing off against six Soviet armies with an estimated strength of 152,500 men.  This sounds preposterous for the following reasons.  Initially the author discussed the Third Panzer Army's ration strength as listed around 200,000 and, earlier, at 230,000.  No additional ration strengths were provided for the army throughout the rest of the book.  Taking into account the fact that support personnel were regularly forced to take up combat duties when situations escalated beyond what German frontline forces could manage, there is no way that three German corps (that at the time contained some 14 or 15 divisions) could solely consist of 19,150 combat capable men.  Either the author is regularly avoiding the true casualties suffered by German forces throughout operations around Vitebsk, is over-estimating Soviet forces, or is simply downplaying the strength of an entire German Panzer Army.

Those interested in attempting to ascertain some type of 'truth' from this account will need to read between the lines.  There are numerous instances of German formations facing encirclement or the threat of encirclement, hinting that Red Army commanders were continually trying to do more than launch frontal attacks.  Additionally, the formations Heidkämper lists on the part of the Red Army point toward a better utilization of combined arms operations, with some coordination by artillery, tank, and infantry forces.  Nonetheless, continued references to horrid weather conditions during the winter months shows that much of the Red Army's activity would undoubtedly have been nullified by the elements.  The more interesting chapter is the last that discusses the opening phase of Operation Bagration.  German forces defending Vitebsk were devastated within the first few days of the Red Army's offensive as Vitebsk was encircled with an entire German Corps of some 35,000.  In general, within a week of fighting the Third Panzer Army went from a force of around a dozen divisions to two.

Much of the territory Heidkämper covers is hard to contextualize as readers only have his postwar account guiding them.  Those interested in a more balanced view of the fighting taking place around Vitebsk, and the numerous offensive operations undertaken by the Red Army throughout 1943 and 1944, would do well to invest in David Glantz's recent "The Battle for Belorussia: The Red Army's Forgotten Campaign of October 1943 - April 1944."  Here readers will be able to put into a greater context the Red Army's offensive plans, the obstacles they faced, their reported losses, etc.  Glantz's title gives away much of what happened here, these offensive operations were failures and mostly forgotten as attention was devoted by Soviet and Russian historians to more victorious events, operations, and locations.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class by Ron Formisano

Without a doubt this is one of the most informative if depressing books I've read on the state of the United States in recent history.  There's no surprise in the fact that corruption exists throughout every level of our society, starting from senators in Washington to our local representative and officials.  Nonetheless, the level of nepotism evident throughout our government defies imagination; from giving cushy jobs to family members and friends, to directing earmarks for local and state businesses who in turn donate to local and national campaigns in order to keep the gravy train going.

A real surprise was seeing that this blurred line between legal and illegal activities (forget ethics) has penetrated our supreme court (which today contains no one that has done public service, unlike previous justices, thus in part leading to the Citizens United ruling), not for profit charities and hospitals that have enriched their CEOs, the mass media (which partly explains why we keep seeing familiar surnames with little in the way of brains or talent who could never do justice to issues that the majority of Americans are facing day to day thanks to their privileged upbringing), the pharma industry that with lies and deception has saddled the United States with an opiates crisis taking tens of thousands of lives a year, and for-profit colleges that have taken advantage of tens of thousands of Americans by distorting information about job placement rates while readily forcing students to take on ridiculous levels of debt.  These seemingly unrelated institutions are brought together by the connections they create when seeking government protection, aid, loans, or by simply giving donations (it's frankly embarrassing how little it takes to buy favors from our government officials).

In part this book treats Democrats and Republicans similarly, especially when it comes to the revolving door of the Senate and House with 'K street.'  Lobbyists and Think Tanks (conservative Think Tanks seemingly overwhelm their progressive counterparts) create platforms, positions, proposals, and justify actions and activities undertaken by our representatives and government officials.  Those who decide to leave their government positions, for one reason or another (taking their hefty pensions with them), readily joined lobbying firms and take in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as they helped shape future decisions and policies.  In fact, promises of such high paying jobs mean they are in debt to lobbyists even before they leave their government positions; no reason to rock the boat and actually serve as a representative of your constituents if it's going to cost you a cushy job in the future.

Suffice it to say that this is a must read, if only to make it clear that the system that is supposedly serving us is continually subverted and perverted by special interest groups.  Those with means and money continually alter the playing field as they reinforce old and create new obstacles for those hoping to escape poverty and deprivation.  That we are continuously presented with criminal cases against large corporations and government officials means this is something that happens daily.  There is no ready answer for the multitude of problems we face as a nation, but knowing they exist is at least a start to thinking about how we can identify and overcome them.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943 by Robert M. Citino

For what it's worth, "Death of the Wehrmacht" I found an enjoyable read that helped put German operations on various fronts into a greater context and offered an analysis that at the time seemed original and insightful.  "The Wehrmacht Retreats," covering the better part of 1943, is a resounding dud with little in the way of original research, analysis, or conclusions.  Additionally, the author's 'vignettes' (having the reader put themselves into the mind of a variety of personalities from the time) is pointless and an exercise in futility.  This is a historical monograph and should be treated as such - not prone to flights of fancy.  Moreover, the author seems to have one horse that he's decided to beat to death again and again.  That the "German way of War" has resulted in this many books makes me think anything the author touches that deals with Germany and war in a general sense will continually be reduced to the idea of a "German way of War" with no other insights to be found.  Finally, the author's analysis when it comes to the Eastern Front is banal, at best.  Having to cover so much territory (some three theaters of operations) in a single volume means the author sacrificed a detailed study into the Wehrmacht's actions in 1943 and rehashed well-known ideas with a minor sprinkling of "well, the German way of war explains it all."  Having invested in two of the author's volumes, I'll be sure to avoid the rest.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Dubno 1941: The Greatest Tank Battle of the Second World War by Aleksei Isaev

This rather slim volume - even though it is an oversized hardcover - was written by Aleksei Isaev.  I can only imagine that he based the majority of this work on his previously published "Ot Dubno do Rostova" (From Dubno to Rostov), but that volume (at some 600+ pages) takes readers through to December 1st of the action involving Germany's Army Group South.  This present "Dubno 1941" volume seems to be mainly based around one of the chapters from Isaev's larger work (originally published around 2004) and ends on July 1.

The biggest issue with the current text is the lack of context for both the introduction (which can hardly be called an introduction) and the conclusion.  Isaev has written numerous volumes on the history of the Eastern Front but he's not the greatest writer and often enough the reading experience is lacking, either because he goes off on tangents, misses an opportunity to contextualize information, or offers too much detail that would be better served in footnotes/endnotes or an appendix.  Additionally, this translation is one of the worst I've read to date from Helion.  Stuart Britton usually does an admirable job but the present translator seems like he gave up trying to make sense when it came to dozens of sentences.   Translating Russian can be a time-consuming occupation, I do it regularly, but doing a poor job means you make yourself look bad, as well as the original author and the publisher that commissioned the translation.  Some mistakes are unavoidable, we are all human, but the number of errors or poor choices for translations I came across was simply unacceptable.

With that out of the way, the volume itself has much to offer readers who are already familiar with the Eastern Front.  Isaev covers what are called the 'border battles' that took place around the Dubno-Lutsk-Brody triangle, which featured the participation of hundreds of tanks - it is called the largest tank clash even though many of the tanks never made it to the battlefield(s) for numerous reasons.  Aside from covering the movements and maneuvers of the half-dozen Mechanized Corps that participated in these battles, Isaev also covers the air-war taking place against German troops in the south.  Unlike the Soviet Air Force positioned against Army Group Center, those formations in the south of the country survived the initial German invasion on June 22nd in relatively good order (some airfields were never even bombed).  Isaev covers the unfolding battles day-by-day as Soviet forces continuously tried to figure out German plans, orient their own forces to counter what they believed the Germans were attempting to accomplish, and from time to time carried out their own counter-attacks and ambushes taking a toll not only on German casualties but also on their timetable - delaying their advances and the commitment of further forces.

That the Wehrmacht faced a formidable adversary is without question.  As Isaev well proves, even in the chaotic conditions of June 1941, Soviet forces were able to continuously take a toll on advancing German troops but Red Army forces continually suffered from a lack of mobile artillery while the numerous marches undertaken by tank forces before even entering battle caused dozens of tanks to fall out of line as they were left by the roadside never having fired a single shot.  Furthermore, regularly detaching formations (large and small) from numerous mechanized corps meant their strength was diluted, combine that with a lack of artillery and infantry forces in tank divisions that continuously went up against the much better equipped (in terms of infantry and artillery) German motorized, panzer, and infantry divisions resulted in Soviet forces continuously suffering devastating tank losses and lacking the ability to hold any gains they might have made.  All these elements combined meant an eventual Red Army defeat was inevitable as Soviet forces retreated to the Stalin line and beyond.  Soon enough all mechanized corps (over two dozen) were done away with as more mobile tank battalions and brigades took their place for the rest of 1941. Large mechanized/tank formations would only be evident again in 1942 on the approaches to Stalingrad.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Price of Victory: The Red Army’s Casualties in the Great Patriotic War by Lev Lopukhovsky and Boris Kavalerchik

As with so many recent volumes published in Russia/by Russians, ‘The Price of Victory’ offers a mixed bag for readers.  Those familiar with western academic studies might come away perplexed by this narrative.  Lopukhovsky and Kavalerchik are not professional demographers or statisticians, but they are attempting to add to the discourse around the topic of casualties and combat losses in both the Red Army and their opponents (Wehrmacht and allies).  Thus, one of the major weaknesses of this work is that its authors are not experts on the subject they have set out to discuss and analyze.  Additionally, readers unfamiliar with Russian histories might find it somewhat off-putting that the authors regularly focus on a few studies and continually attack the authors and their research.  These polemical attacks, rarely found in western academic research, are too often the norm among Russian researchers (both academic and nonprofessional).  Instead of presenting their findings, the authors stress what they believe to be sloppy or ideologically influenced conclusions, offer hypotheticals about how and why specific conclusions were reached, and continually ask rhetorical questions that do not add anything to their argument(s). 

For those able to overlook the above, the strengths of this work become quickly apparent.  That there are problems with how Red Army military casualties were previously calculated should come as no surprise to those familiar with the Second World War’s Eastern Front.  Only one text has regularly served as a reference for those interested in the various campaigns Soviet forces participated in and the losses they sustained.  However, recently numerous authors, researchers, and historians have pointed out the many inconsistencies in Krivosheev’s “Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century” and its second edition, available only in Russian to date.  The majority of the examples provided by Lopukhovsky and Kavalerchik focus on 1941 encirclements and the Battle of Kursk.  Those with a passing interest in this subject might become bogged down in the many figures, exclusions, extrapolations, etc., and the included tables with figure breakdowns are essential in helping to pinpoint inconsistencies.  The authors rely on not only Russian archival and secondary sources, but also German, English, and Finnish literature on the subject.  As just one example of the necessity of this type of study, with the authors bringing to light recent research they show the dangers of underestimation and overestimation when it comes to casualties for political or ideological reasons.  Just one inconsistency found by the authors in Krivosheev’s work meant that either there were close to half a million German deaths in Soviet POW camps or close to two million, if the latter were proven true that would mean a reorientation of our understanding of both the German and Soviet experience in the Second World War. 


Regrettably, the inaccessibility of many archival collections in today’s Russia automatically place limits on the conclusions the authors are able to reach.  Until Russian authorities raise the seal of secrecy from numerous collections and files, we only have bits and pieces of the greater whole to consult in order to access some type of greater truth when it comes to Soviet casualties.  Therefore, as the authors themselves point out, this text is a starting point for future research.   Only after opening all formerly classified Soviet/Russian archives will historians have a chance to review the actions of both the Red Army and Wehrmacht in more detail.  With this information, they will undoubtedly reach a better understanding of how successful German operations were in 1941, why the Red Army consistently retreated and left behind hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war, and to what extent could Soviet forces have avoided the numerous sacrifices so many were forced to make.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Blood in the Forest: The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket by Vincent Hunt

I'm always interested in diving into historic accounts that try their best to tell a story few are familiar with or will ever discover without having in-depth knowledge of specific events, people, places, etc.  "Blood in the Forest" is one such account but, unfortunately, it is too often marred by a weak narrative that reads as if it was written by someone with a passing interest and knowledge of the subject at hand.  More often than not the author is interested in tugging at heartstrings rather than letting the historical record and eye witnesses speak for themselves.

This is not a straight forward chronology of events but rather the author's trips from town to town that he intersperses with historical details and discussions about the history of Latvia, the Eastern Front, the Courland Pocket, the Soviet Union, the Holocaust, collaboration, etc. As such, there is much repetition throughout.  Nevertheless, all these topics have entire libraries devoted to research done by academics, journalists, and amateurs which could have readily helped create a historical record of this period/events but on more than one occasion the source material mentioned came from various websites rather than research trips to libraries or archives.  No matter how helpful, insightful, or emotionally draining eye-witness accounts are (and some of them are quite emotional and deserve to be told and better known) there is no excuse for not contextualizing better the various events these veterans and survivors went through with at least some additional primary or even secondary research.

With that being said, this text makes a good starting point for looking at the latter period of the war and the difficult decisions Latvians had to make as brother fought against brother because of poor luck or a fate no longer theirs to dictate.  Red Army offensives launched against the Courland pocket were bloody affairs that never achieved their set objective, only resulting in countless casualties on both sides.  Yet blame needs to be placed on those soldiers fighting on the other side as well who knew there was no hope left but still continued to take a devastating toll on their Red Army attackers, who often included Latvians in their ranks.  This is a chapter of the Second World War and the Eastern Front that defies the black and white view so many have of the war as 'good' versus 'evil.'  Here, among these pages, the reader will encounter multiple shades of gray surrounded by blood and tragedy.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

From Warsaw to Rome: General Anders' Exiled Polish Army in the Second World War by Martin Williams

The Polish struggle in the Second World War was one of the first and the failure of the Western Allies to support Poland resulted in another partition and the fracturing of Polish efforts to continue the struggle against Nazi Germany.  Eventually, on the Eastern Front, the Red Army finished the war with two Polish Armies in its order of battle while Polish forces would participate in the RAF as well as part of the allied campaign in Italy, which this text partly covers.

With the partition of Poland between the Soviet Union and Germany, Polish citizens on Soviet territory suffered under Stalin's rule.  Prisoners of war were executed at Katyn, others deported to the Far East, and after the German invasion of the Soviet Union some began to voluntarily join a new formation made up of Poles and led by Poles to help in the war effort.  The first half of this text covers that short history of Polish resistance to Germany's initial invasion and the creation of what became the first divisions that would make up Anders' Polish Army (although it is mainly referred to as a corps).  The author, unfortunately, is limited in the sources at his disposal and due to lack of academic training there is a wealth of context missing.  Those interested in the minutia of ever-changing orders of battle, logistical details, etc., which in many cases should have been moved to an appendix, will find plenty of such information throughout this text.  Personally, it took a lot away from the reading experience.

Eventually, after a great deal of struggle, the Soviets allowed Anders to take his army out of the Soviet Union through the Middle East.  Here the British took over as Polish units began to undergo training and suffered from the horrid weather as their ranks were continuously reduced by the siphoning off of troops to help the British war effort at home and through disease and desertion (hundreds of Polish Jews eventually deserted when the units were stationed in then Palestine).  With a chance to finally put his troops on the frontline, the biggest hurdle for Anders was facing the reality that once his corps engaged in battle casualties would be unavoidable but a ready reserve of replacement was missing.  This issue was never truly solved and the battles in mountainous Italian terrain produced thousands of casualties in a very limited space and time.  The few chapters that deal with the battles Anders forces engaged in are somewhat lacking in analysis as the author only deems it necessary to say something about the quality of British and Polish leadership in the final chapter rather than helping guide readers along with the action as it unfolds.  Thus, for all the good this text does in introducing readers to this minor episode in the Second World War it is consistently marred by limited research, source material, and analysis.
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