Friday, March 13, 2020

Normandy 1944: German Military Organization, Combat Power and Organizational Effectiveness by Niklas Zetterling

Niklas Zetterling has written a few volumes on the Second World War and most, if not all, of them rely on some type of combat effectiveness analysis.  Whether it's looking at the Battle of Kursk or the allies fighting in Normandy, the author consistently relies on the numbers to do the talking.  Such an analysis can be a very helpful companion to the other literature that is available on these popular and important topics.  In the case of "Normandy 1944," Zetterling makes it a point to address some of the myths that have been built up over time with respect to the allied war effort and the German performance in France.  Allied air superiority, while acknowledged by both sides as impactful on the war overall, Zetterling argues had a limited impact on German forces overall but did impede the movement of troops and materials due to damage inflicted on the French railways.  Similarly, allied manpower and material superiority was very much evident within a matter of weeks if not days compared to their German counterparts.  In fact, the allies overall enjoyed a better force ratio against German forces in France than the Soviets did against Army Group Center during Operation Bagration.  When tackling these topics, Zetterling relies on German archival documentation and makes a compelling case for a need to rely on primary source material rather than simply trust secondary source literature, even if written by acclaimed historians, scholars, or journalists.  However, a reliance on numbers, figures, and statistics, can also make one miss the forest for the trees.  In one instance, when discussing combat effectiveness, Zetterling asserts the Germans continually performed better than the allies, both on the defense and the offensive.  As one example, he uses the Battle of Kursk, where the Germans were on the offensive and sustained fewer casualties than the Soviets, who were on the defensive (thus invalidating the usual idea that the defender will take fewer casualties than the attacker).  What Zetterling fails to mention is that the Soviet defense consisted of numerous counterattacks throughout the 'defensive' phase of the battle, hence the meeting engagement at Prokhorovka.  While such a minor issue can be overlooked, it does point to the inherent limits of these type of studies, which rely on dry numbers and statistics and can at times fail to take into account extenuating circumstances or the greater context of the event(s) in question.  Consequently, as the author states, this is a starting point for a better understanding of the Normandy campaign and a worthwhile contribution to WWII literature.  However, while it's filled with interesting information that in some ways recasts our understanding of the allied invasion of France, more research remains to be done for a fuller understanding of the events in question.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The First Day on the Eastern Front: Germany Invades the Soviet Union, June 22, 1941 by Craig W.H. Luther

In numerous ways 1941 continues to remain an enigma for historians and World War II experts.  Authors like David Glantz and, more recently, David Stahel, have employed archival collections previously underutilized, or at times never consulted, to create a more nuanced narrative of Germany's plans and eventual invasion of the Soviet Union and Stalin and the Red Army's response, or lack thereof.  Both authors offer illuminating commentary and add something to the canon of literature on the conflict that engulfed the Eastern Front as two dictators poured all of their resources, sooner or later, onto the field of battle.  Glantz revolutionized how the Red Army has been portrayed over the past few decades, giving a face and name to a previously faceless mass that appeared as a cast of supporting characters in a German dominated narrative of the fighting on the Eastern Front, while Stahel has made readers question German planning and achievements, putting into a new light the numerous obstacles that existed for German forces before the first soldier even set foot on Soviet soil.  "The First Day on the Eastern Front," unlike the works of the previously mentioned historians, adds little to nothing to our understanding of the war on the Eastern Front.  Much of the territory covered has been previously written about and there are no new insights, ideas, or revelations about the German-Soviet conflict.  For those interested in a rehashing of already available information, including citations from David Irving and Paul Carell, a Holocaust denier and a German propagandist, you'll find it here.  The author has simply assembled a large collection of unit histories, memoirs/recollections that touch on the June 22, 1941, some biographical sketches of the main commanding officers from both sides, and added a minimum of context with no real exploration for why any of this information is important or how it alters our understanding of what happened during the invasion.  Sorry to say that those familiar with the Easter Front will find nothing new or original in these pages.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Stalingrad: City on Fire by Alexey Isaev and Richard W Harrison

Alexey Isaev is a well-known author/researcher among Russians and I'm glad to see that more of his work is being translated into English.  For those who might be asking the question, do we really need another book on Stalingrad?  The answer is a hesitant...yes.  Much of the information that readers will find here is not available anywhere else in Western literature.  For that reason alone, this is in many ways a needed addition to the history of one of the most consequential battles on the Eastern Front.

Isaev's work is a dense operational history akin to what David Glantz usually puts out, except Isaev relies more heavily on Soviet/Russian archival information which means he's able to give more detail at a lower level (regiments and battalions) than what Glantz usually covers (divisions and corps).  Having as much detailed information as is presented here continually helps put the various phases of the Sixth Army's advance on and into Stalingrad, and Soviet attempts to stem the German offensive, into a better and more critical context.  This is in part a result of Isaev utilizing German and Western source material as well as Russian.  The pictures he paints on the approaches to Stalingrad is that of Soviet forces operating at a consistent disadvantage due to a lack in artillery, experience in combined arms operations, and relatively newly created units and trained formations and recruits who could not match up to their German counterparts.  The end result featured Wehrmacht forces constantly encountering new Soviet formations (in part a rehashing of 1941) that slowly bleed German divisions.  Continued operations in urban combat only worsened German positions in and around the city.

While Isaev tries to address some of the 'myths' and 'legends' that have accumulated over time, that information is less interesting than the overall narrative of how this battle unfolded and the desperation of the engagements that continuously took place.  Regiments that were to number over a thousand men were regularly reduced to a few hundred or dozen within a matter of days.  Unfortunately, there is not much eye-witness testimony about the fighting, which would have added a lot of value to this volume, but what Isaev has done is showcase the chaotic and complicated nature not just of the fighting that happened in the city, but on its approaches and on its flanks as well. 

Minor weaknesses in the volume include typos and at times a lack of citations.  Overall though, compared to many other Russian volumes, Isaev does cite his sources, which is a tremendous help for researchers and academics.  A very much recommended volume if you can deal with dense operational histories from the Eastern Front.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Air Battles over the Baltic 1941: The Air War on 22 June 1941 - The Battle for Stalin's Baltic Region by Mikhail Timin (Author), Kevin Bridge (Editor)

This volume is a perfect example of how you should not write a book.  The author is not a trained historian and, like many other Russians that have taken an interest in the Second World War, he's happy to go digging through memoirs, secondary literature, and published primary source collections (sometimes even visiting the archives themselves) and put everything he has discovered on paper.  The end result is page after page of reference material, tables, charts, photos, and limited biographies of mentioned officers/commanders that should have been put into an appendix or two.  Not doing so takes away from the reading experience and bogs down readers in needless details which the author should be synthesizing and contextualizing into a cohesive narrative. 

This volume that should have taken up no more than 100 pages of text to describe the condition of the Soviet Air Force located in the Baltics followed by another 200 or so pages of reports, observations, combat accounts, biographies, and photographs/maps.  Readers will have to do a lot of hunting to find the various gems that this text contains and, to be honest, it isn't always worth it.  This is, at best, a missed opportunity, and, at worst, a waste of time for those without a solid background on the Soviet Union and the Second World War.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Panzer Ace: The Memoirs of an Iron Cross Panzer Commander from Barbarossa to Normandy by Richard Freiherr von Rosen

Although there are many memoirs detailing the German experience in the Second World War, few are written by tankers who served in Tiger Battalions.  Tiger I and II tanks were produced in limited numbers but they consistently made their presence felt on the battlefield and memoir literature from both the Eastern and Western Fronts attest to that fact.  Thus, 'Panzer Ace' is a welcome addition to German memoir literature, although it comes with a few caveats (as most memoirs do).  Richard Freiherr von Rosen began his service on a Pz III and was wounded soon after the German invasion of the Soviet Union.  After recovering, he joined the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion, which initially fielded Tiger tanks and by the end of the war included King Tigers as well.  He participated in the Battle of Kursk, a few Western Front operations after D-Day, and finished the war once again on the Eastern Front, fighting in and around Hungary with Tiger and King Tiger tanks as a company commander.

The strengths of these memoirs are in the day-to-day actions the author describes.  Fighting as a tanker meant daily actions needed to be taken to keep the tanks running by the crew and that involved a lot of effort, especially on the Eastern Front.  For example, Pz III air-cooled engines meant the dust from Soviet roads were a regular problem and tanks required constant repairs and maintenance, while heavy German tanks were constantly becoming stuck in mud, breaking bridges, and needed to be loaded onto trains so as to conserve their engines and fuel on a regular basis.  Additionally, as a company commander the author was in charge of dozens of men and his platoons and company was regularly detached from and attached to various units serving in the role of a fire brigade to put our fires at various parts of the frontline.  Finally, while the author has much praise for his tankers, he is not above criticizing poor German command decisions, especially in the latter part of the war, or praising Red Army forces, also in the latter part of the war.  While Tiger tanks were a fearsome opponent, by the close of the war they were facing formidable Soviet tanks and self-propelled artillery that regularly took a toll on the author's unit and German tanks in general.

While the strengths are many, there are also quite a few weaknesses.  The author saw some fighting but he was wounded five times and that means he missed a large portion of the fighting on both fronts.  The volume is large but about half the pages consist of photos of tanks and the author's comrades from the various units he served in.  They are all interesting, especially those made as part of a propaganda reel, but the size of the volume is somewhat deceptive.  Finally, although the author claims he was unaware of the genocidal nature of Hitler's war on the Eastern Front, or the evolution of the Holocaust in general throughout Europe, he has few qualms about participating in the Second World War, killing allied troops, or helping German forces wage war in general.  Overall, the author comes across as someone proud of his service in the name of the Third Reich but regrets that Hitler's name is attached to that time period.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Soviet Cavalry Operations During the Second World War: and the Genesis of the Operational Manoeuvre Group by John S. Harrel

"Soviet Cavalry Operations During the Second World War" is self-explanatory in terms of what this volume offers readers.  Without a doubt the Red Army employed cavalry formations to a larger degree than any other combatant throughout the Second World War.  Considering the size and geography of the Eastern Front, the Soviets were presented with a variety of favorable opportunities to utilize their cavalry formations since the first days of the war.  John Harrel has done a commendable job in putting together a readable synthesis of many of these operations, showing both the reasons for their successes and failures, and providing a brief analysis of their impact on Germany's ability to wage war and how the Red Army was able to utilize the forces and strengths at their disposal after suffering horrendous losses throughout the first few years of the war.  From initially using cavalry divisions and corps as raiding forces in German rear areas, to the creation of cavalry-mechanized groups that became essential in breakthrough and exploitation operations, the Red Army's cavalry arm deserves our attention and respect considering how much they were able to accomplish under the circumstances they found themselves facing. 

While there is much to laud about this effort, there are numerous weaknesses present throughout the volume as well.  This is partly understandable as the author does not speak Russian, is unfamiliar with Soviet/Russian sources, and had to consistently rely on older literature or recently translated volumes.  As a result, much of the material here is rehashed from other secondary sources.  Furthermore, because the author is not an historian, there is a lack of context offered with respect to some of the literature (author bias, readily evident when it comes to Soviet/German memoirs) and battles/engagements.  As well, there is at times not enough analysis provided at the end of chapters about what the larger take-away from the events just described should be for the reader.  Finally, the greatest weakness of the volume are the numerous spelling errors throughout, the publisher should have proofread this volume as constant mistakes and misspellings take much away from the reading experience.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front: The Memoir of Dr. Hans Rehfeldt. Volume 1: From Moscow Winter Offensive to Operation Zitadelle by Hans Heinz Rehfeldt

Hans Rehfeldt, a mortarman in the Grossdeutschland Regiment, then division, uses his wartime diaries as a foundation for this 'memoir.'  Most of the text reads like diary entries but there are a few instances of foreshadowing that make it evident the author has made additions to the text.  Having read quite a few WWII memoirs (mainly German and Soviet) this volume is best for those with an intimate knowledge of the Eastern Front.  Many of the entries focus on mundane activities but there are also more than enough examples of the type of fighting the Wehrmacht encountered on the Eastern Front. 

Rehfeldt participated in some of the most well-known and bloodiest engagements that occurred during the Soviet-German encounter.  He first found himself fighting outside Tula in the winter of 1941, the city was Guderian's target and one step too far for his Panzer Group.  Rehfeldt documents the fighting he experienced in the lead up to the Soviet counteroffensive in December of 1941 and the ensuing retreat in terrible winter conditions.  By early 1942, the author is continually suffering from wounds sustained from frostbite and his battalion is eventually disbanded due to the heavy casualties it sustained.  After recovering, Rehfeldt participates in battles on the Don and outside Rzhev as well as in the retaking of Kharkov and then the Kursk offensive. 

There is no lack of action, and some of the included maps created by Rehfeldt himself will help readers understand some of the situations he found himself in.  The photos (dozens of them) included are also a nice addition.  Where the book suffers is from a lack of maps that would help track the progress and movements of the author's battalion/regiment/division.  Without these maps much of the actions the author is involved in become hard to track or contextualize.  An additional weakness is a lack of self-reflection, something many memoirs contain but which authors undoubtedly don't have time for when keeping a diary at the front and when they constantly find themselves in the midst of battle.  Otherwise, this is a fairly detailed and informative account of a soldier who found himself on the Eastern Front.
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