Sunday, January 19, 2014

Red Army Tank Commander: At War in a T-34 on the Eastern Front by Vasiliy Bryukhov

I was somewhat surprised by the candor and openness that the author divulged of his experiences on the front during the Great Patriotic War. The majority of the text takes place from the Battle of Kursk until the war's end. The author was almost always on the frontlines and the amount of engagements he describes can be counted in the dozens. The writing style can be bland and tedious at times, and more than once I found myself having to reread passages numerous times to understand what was happening. This book will not always keep your attention, but nonetheless there are various stories, anecdotes, and events that are worth reading about every so often throughout the entirety of the text.

The author mainly served in T-34 tanks and in a command capacity, first a platoon and then a company, throughout the war. Unlike many accounts from 1941 and 1942, the author's tank brigade regularly inflicted major damage to the enemy, be they German, Romanian, or Hungarian units, as Red Army forces found themselves outside Soviet territory and liberating parts of Eastern Europe from the Wehrmacht. While some of the events recounted would look suspicious if superimposed on the initial period of the war, by 1943 the Red Army was no longer mainly launching head-on attacks but regularly looking to the flanks and rear to dislodge the enemy, encircle, and annihilate him. Although there are instances of officers issuing ignorant orders that cost many men their lives, they are nowhere comparable to the scale of destruction and devastation that 1941 and 1942 witnessed.

I was somewhat surprised by the candor and openness that the author divulged of his experiences on the front during the Great Patriotic War. The majority of the text takes place from the Battle of Kursk until the war's end. The author was almost always on the frontlines and the amount of engagements he describes can be counted in the dozens. The writing style can be bland and tedious at times, and more than once I found myself having to reread passages numerous times to understand what was happening. This book will not always keep your attention, but nonetheless there are various stories, anecdotes, and events that are worth reading about every so often throughout the entirety of the text.

The author mainly served in T-34 tanks and in a command capacity, first a platoon and then a company, throughout the war. Unlike many accounts from 1941 and 1942, the author's tank brigade regularly inflicted major damage to the enemy, be they German, Romanian, or Hungarian units, as Red Army forces found themselves outside Soviet territory and liberating parts of Eastern Europe from the Wehrmacht. While some of the events recounted would look suspicious if superimposed on the initial period of the war, by 1943 the Red Army was no longer mainly launching head-on attacks but regularly looking to the flanks and rear to dislodge the enemy, encircle, and annihilate him. Although there are instances of officers issuing ignorant orders that cost many men their lives, they are nowhere comparable to the scale of destruction and devastation that 1941 and 1942 witnessed.

Some of the more interesting events discussed are an attempted rape and the repercussions for the Red Army men involved (a penal battalion for one and an execution for the other), the creation of blocking detachments in 1944 from soldiers of the author's brigade and how they were able to stop unauthorized retreats, how enemy firing positions were flushed out, atrocities committed against Red Army nurses, and the consistent demands made of tank units in the latter part of the war (constant days of advances and combat with units taking casualties that reduce them from hundreds to mere dozens). While the writing style does detract from the readability of these recollections, as with every memoir, there are stories recounted that make the book a worthwhile investment..

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Rzhev Slaughterhouse: The Red Army's Forgotten 15-month Campaign against Army Group Center, 1942-1943 by Svetlana Gerasimova and Stuart Britton

Svetlana Gerasimova's work on the battles in and around Rzhev is not a typical military history text.  For those interested in detailed accounts involving commanders and the multiple battles and engagements that involved fronts, armies, corps, divisions, etc., I would recommend David Glantz's "Zhukov's Greatest Defeat".  Gerasimova, however, has produced a slim volume that goes over many of the operations undertaken by the Red Army in and around the Rzhev salient, which also highlights the numerous issues Soviet/Russian and western historians face when attempting to research and write about certain battles/campaigns of the Great Patriotic War.

There continue to be numerous 'white' or 'blank' spots in the history of the Great Patriotic war even half a century after its end.  Myths and legends have taken the place of objective studies.  Soviet historians were the mercy of the administration they served, under Stalin producing little to nothing, under Khrushchev endorsing his anti-Stalinist cult of personality narrative, and under Brezhnev cementing what came to be known as the 'Cult of the Great Patriotic War'.  Throughout those administrations the history of the war served a purpose and it continues to serve one today under Putin's regime.  With limited access to archives for Russian researchers, not to speak of the limits placed on foreign academics, the best Gerasimova could produce is a narrative that relies on numerous sources, many of which continue to draw on Soviet era productions that are suspect by many.

Even so, while the accounts of the battles and engagements themselves offer less detail than many familiar with the Eastern Front might be comfortable with, there are numerous passages that offer new, original, and a somewhat objective look at how the Red Army performed throughout 1942 and 1943, and what Soviet commanders considered their weaknesses and strengths.  One of the more interesting discussions had to do with the variable of weather and how it affected operations in the summer of 1942.  As one example, the initial success of the 30th army, a breakthrough on a front of 9 kilometers to a depth of 6-7, came to naught when the army's formations became bogged down in the mud in the area of Polunino, north of Rzhev.  The offensive ground to a halt, showcasing that the Red Army suffered from the elements just as much as the Germans.

Surprisingly, many of the errors committed by troops during the summer of 1942, including lack of forces to develop tactical success, lack of signals equipment, lack of communication between infantry, tank, artillery, and air units, lack of reconnaissance, and a host of other issues continued into 1943.  This lack of communication forced Red Army commanders to keep their units in densely-packed formations, which made German artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire that much more effective and deadly.  Follow-up units were also kept close to the first echelon for fear they would miss their chance to exploit a breakthrough.  Units were also continually sent into head-on attacks against German positions by commanders too afraid to risk any type of initiative; at one point a unit spent 20 days attacking Polunino, attempting to capture it from the north, and when a new commander was appointed, the village was captured after a fierce three hour engagement that featured an attack from the north and south.

The fighting in the Rzhev area featured some of the most intense and deadly engagements that bleed the Wehrmacht's Army Group Center and cost lives of hundreds of thousands of Red Army men.  German divisions were constantly redirected or sent from all over Europe to help shore up the frontline before Moscow.  Operations were cancelled and others weakened due to the losses the Germans sustained.  One example presented is the poor performance of Model's 9th Army during the Kursk offensive.  The fighting around Rzhev had numerous repercussions but the debate about whether the real aim of the offensives the Red Army undertook was to keep Army Group Center occupied while operations like Uranus unfolded around Stalingrad or whether in fact Zhukov and Stalin's first and foremost aim was the encirclement and destruction of the Rzhev bulge remains a contested issue.  Gerasimova doesn't offer a definitive answer but the information presented makes it obvious that there are still many questions that historians cannot adequately answer without relevant access to Soviet era archives.



Sunday, January 12, 2014

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World without World War I Hardcover by Richard Ned Lebow

I'm usually very wary of counterfactuals. Often they're done by amateurs with little understanding of how variables can and cannot be altered. But if an academic can change a few minor events and keep in mind the actions of all participants, while simultaneously offering alternatives, at the very least a new, richer context can be created for understanding why what did happen was allowed to occur. In this case, Richard Ned Lebow's second chapter, 'Preventing World War I', is full of interesting ideas on why, contrary to many historians and specialists, without the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, war might in fact have been avoided rather than begun over any number of other incidents that were sure to push the heads of empires into doing something irreversible and calamitous.

One of Lebow's cornerstone arguments is that 1914 was a year where an event like the assassination of the Archduke could and did begin a conflagration of events that led all he powers to eventually enter a World War. There were events leading up to 1914 that also brought either two or more of Europe's great powers into conflict, but they were continually resolved. Yet 1914 proved an important year because German generals were wary of Russian rearmament and railway construction, which meant that any advance into France would mean a quicker Russian response and perhaps the loss of Prussia. Thus 1914 was argued as Germany's best and, at the time, only real opportunity to make good on her threats/promises rather than back-down, as Russia had to do a few years previously with a Balkan Crisis.

After the first few chapters the author goes on a series of predictions about a future world that are really little more than fantasies made up of whimsical day dreams and nightmares. The amount of variables that one would need to keep in mind and control to move even a few years past 1914, keeping in mind that WWI has not broken out, is simply impossible. The only other real utility that I can see within the pages of this text, aside from the above mentioned ideas on the beginning and eve of WWI, are how much WWI and WWII influenced society and how radically different society was and could have been if not for these gigantic conflagrations.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Siege of Brest 1941: A Legend of Red Army Resistance on the Eastern Front by Rostislav Aliev and Stuart Britton

The fighting for Brest Fortress has acquired a legendary status within the history of the Eastern Front in World War II. Knowledge of the resistance various Red Army units put up was not readily known about until 1942 when a German report was discovered and published in the newspapers. With the victory in 1945 Stalin's demigod status was cemented with the caveat that few to no histories or recollections of the war were allowed to be published, especially discussing 1941. Thus the history of the defense of Brest fortress was put off until after Stalin's death and even then it was filled with what the author of this work calls myths.

'The Siege of Brest 1941' gives a brief but very revealing account of the first minutes, hours, and days of the war from both the Soviet and German point of view, relying on German and Soviet recollections, documents, and unit histories (the last mainly for the German side). The majority of the work concentrates on the German 45th division with limited discussion of surrounding or higher up units, and the Soviet concentration is, comparably, on the units specifically located within the confines of the fortress.

Aliev lays out a very dense and detailed history of the numerous engagements within the fortress by Soviet NKVD border guards, rifle regiments, anti-tank units, and a host of other formations that were caught by surprise on June 22, 1941, as the Germans crossed the Soviet border and unleashed Operation Barbarossa. Considering the surprise the Germans achieved, the amount of resistance offered by the Soviets is quite astonishing, even though the majority lasted only for the first three days, as they inflicted hundreds of casualties on the German 45th infantry division and held up their advance into the Soviet interior. Red Army and border forces were often left without any adequate leadership as many officers were outside the fortress either taking the Sunday (June 22) off to relax, were on training exercises or participating in any number of other activities.

Soviet resistance was thus diluted and disorganized. Within hours of the invasion Aliev describes how resistance stiffened in some sectors, while in others men and women ran to escape the confines of the fortress as they were overcome by shock and panic. German advances into the fortress were met with success until Soviet resistance was able to overcome the initial chaos. What followed was a German retreat with a few German units even becoming encircled by the Red Army within the fortress. As hours turned to days, German artillery took a toll on the defenders, as did a lack of water. Many units began to contemplate breaking out and often it was painful to read about the numerous escape attempts. On the night of June 22, many were able to get away as the Germans were only just setting up a cordon. As more time passed, especially by the second and third day, practically all breakout attempts resulted in death or prisoner of war status. The last large group of defenders (several hundred men) surrendered at the end of June but isolated incidents of sabotage, shootings, and escapes from the fortress continued into August.

Overall, Aliev has produced a very interesting and detailed account of the siege of Brest Fortress and Stuart Britton has done an excellent job with this translation. Maps offered in the first pages are very well done with a lot of highlighted locations and points of interest laid out for the reader. My biggest complaint is the minute number of endnotes, and the complete lack of a bibliography and an index. This greatly takes away from the reading experience for me and limits the usefulness of this text in terms of reference.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Drive on Moscow, 1941: Operation Taifun and Germany's First Great Crisis of World War II by Niklas Zetterling

As I'm reading through 'The Drive on Moscow' I'm somewhat confused as to where this volume actually fits into the history of the Eastern Front. More so, I'm confused about why it was written in the first place. The title speaks for itself; Zetterling and Frankson have decided to put together a volume detailing Germany's first 'great crisis of World War II'. But what separates this volume from a host of others that detail the exact same operations, highlight the same types of memoirs and reminiscences, and reach similar if not altogether the same conclusions? If a reader wants a journalistic account of the battle for Moscow, they can turn to Nagorski's 'The Greatest Battle' (although riddled with weaknesses, mistakes, and omissions, it's an easy enough read). If you're interested in the Soviet point of view, and a more academic work, see Rodric Braithwaite's "Moscow 1941" or 'The Retreat: Hitler's First Defeat' by Michael Jones. And if perhaps the German point of view is more interesting, you can consult the various monographs put out by David Stahel in the last few years.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in this text that separates it from other studies. There is the usual reliance on German general memoirs, sprinkled with a few diaries to give the reader an impression of what the frontline soldiers themselves overcame to reach Moscow. The text contains the same rehashing of the terrible weather the Wehrmacht had to overcome (both mud and then snow), the same logistical difficulties and mediocre Soviet resistance that really did little to nothing until somehow the Germans exhausted themselves with their long distance advances against the rains and snows of the east. Some Cold War era memoirs from the Soviet side make an appearance, with the usual reliance on Konev, Rokossovsky, Zhukov, Shtemenko, and a few others that provide absolutely no new or original information on the battle. The Soviet side, for all intents and purposes, still remains a mystery compared to the German side of things (even though some newer Russian studies are utilized). If you've read about the German advance on Moscow (Operation Typhoon), then you've read the majority of this book already. If you're new to the topic, you won't want to start here as the amount of information provided is there for those already familiar with the Eastern Front. For those who are acquainted with the Eastern Front, you'll find little analysis, and no new or original research, but the appendices might prove useful if you're eager for detailed orders of battle and information on losses. So in the end, I'm back to where I started this review; I'm simply confused as to why this volume was written and for whom.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Punishment Imperative by Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost

As someone with a growing interesting in the state of prisons and jails in the United States I was happy to get a chance to read through 'The Punishment Imperative.'  Unfortunately, as someone accustomed to reading historical monographs, a study written by criminal justice professionals just did not read as well or as coherently as I hoped.  The majority of the book was repetitive and while based on a high volume of sources it did not follow any real chronology or set of themes but rather intertwined subjects and ideas on a regular basis, which at times could be and was confusing to the layman (as I consider myself within this subject matter).  For those with a passing interest, I cannot say I'd recommend this monograph on 'The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America' since I did not find a clear, comprehensive study on such a rise or failure.  The reader will have to have a foundation in the laws, policies, personalities, ideas, and events that the authors discuss and go over for the arguments made to resonate, unfortunately I am just not at that level of intimacy with the subject at present.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk: The Turning Point of World War II by Dennis Showalter

The book description claims 'Armor and Blood' is 'the definitive account of the greatest tank battle of World War II', unfortunately that's far from accurate. The author himself admits this book offers nothing new or original but is a 'synthesis' of recent literature. As someone who's read their share of literature on the Second World War in general and the Eastern Front in particular, I'm always interested in new analysis and discussions that feature the Eastern Front. Yet 'Armor and Blood' seems a somewhat pointless text to me. A synthesis already assumes that there is no original research or new evidence to present the reading audience. But a synthesis in itself can be a useful tool if crafted from the newest research and offering original analysis. But having read close to a dozen books on the battle of Kursk I simply do not see where that original analysis is, nor did I see much of a narrative crafted from the newest literature available. Instead, what I encountered among the pages of 'Armor and Blood' is another German point-of-view text about the battle of Kursk with some minor mention of the Red Army every few pages. Once more the vaunted SS panzer force loses 3 or so tanks 'written-off' while the Red Army leaves on the field of battle hundreds of T-34s and T-70s and tens of thousands of men, which are readily replaced with the next batch of cannon fodder eager to die for the motherland. Unlike Zamulin's recently translated study of Prokhorovka that provided an enormous amount of new material for the western reader to digest, 'Armor and Blood' is another quickly forgotten regurgitation of all that is already pretty well known by those who've previously read about this battle. In addition, the lack of endnotes and bibliography (as with his previous 'Hitler's Panzers') makes for a less interesting reading experience for those interested to find out where the information presented is coming from.

 
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