Sunday, August 9, 2020

Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume II: Russia, Hungary, Lithuania, and the Battle for East Prussia: The Memoir of Dr. hans Heinz Rehfeldt

 This is the second half of the author's diary/memoirs, covering actions in the latter part of WWII as the Wehrmacht retreated from occupied Soviet territory, through Hungary, the Baltic states, and into Prussia.  Much of these entries follow the same pattern as those in the first volume, there's plenty of action, a lot of mundane information, and every now and then some insightful commentary on the Wehrmacht, the Eastern Front, and Nazi Germany.  

 True to form for a soldier serving in a vaunted German Army formation, the author consistently praises German actions on the field of battle and belittles his Red Army counterparts.  German troops inevitably outperform their Soviet counterparts on the field of battle but inevitably need to retreat.  Red Army troops are the usual 'faceless mass' and there is little discussion of atrocities or the ongoing holocaust, although at one point reference is made to the execution of prisoners of war.  As the diary unfolds, the chaos of the battlefield, unplanned retreats, and mentions of anticipated 'wonder' weapons are regularly described and discussed.  

Readers that pay particular attention to these entries will notice the constant attention to enemy mortar and artillery fire.  This is partly understandable as the author was a mortarman, but it also shows that many of the casualties his unit sustained came from the consistent pressure Soviet forces put on German troops with their artillery and mortars, something that's often left out of memoirs that deal with higher level officers/generals, but is front and center here.  Additionally, one of the more interesting aspects of this volume are the many photos of propaganda leaflets by both the Soviets and Germans, trying to entice the other to surrender.  Although they are not fully translated, those with images are worth studying for they do and don't say.

Overall, these aren't the 'best' memoirs I've read when it comes to the Eastern Front, but as with practically every other primary source account, there's always something interesting to be found in these pages that enhances our understanding of the war on the Eastern Front.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Night of the Bayonets: The Texel Uprising and Hitler's Revenge, April - May 1945 by Eric Lee

Eric Lee's "Night of the Bayonets" attempts to cover the uprising on Texel Island by a battalion from the Georgian Legion.  In April 1945 some 800 Georgians turned on the Germans, massacred several hundred in the night with knives and bayonets, and went on to continue resisting German attacks and searches until the end of May, by which time some 228 men were able to survive. 

The first time I came across any references to this incident was in Michael Jones's "After Hitler."  I was fascinated to learn that such an incident occurred and more so that many of these men were not punished like many others who were handed over by the Western Allies to the Soviet Union at the end of the war.  Why some or all of them were able to escape severe punishment that many others who served in the Wehrmacht suffered is still a question without an adequate answer.

"Night of the Bayonets" is a slim volume and most of it does not directly deal with the revolt.  Lee does a good job with the source material available to him, but it's limited.  He touches on the history of Georgia, its relations with Russia and the Soviet Union, the role of the Communist Party, Operation Barbarossa, treatment of Soviet POWs, the Georgian Battalion's relations with the Dutch on Texel, and numerous other topics to help set the stage for what would happen in April and May of 1945.  But he devotes limited space to each of these topics as is evidenced by the rather small source base.  The uprising itself is covered in about 40 pages.

One of the strengths, however, is that Lee correctly directs the reader's attention to the contested memories that resulted from this event.  German, Dutch, and Georgian memories all differ in terms of what happened, who was responsible for the many deaths of civilians that became inevitable once the Germans began to fight the Georgians, and why the uprising began in the first place.  Each participant has altered, for their own needs, what happened, how they want to represent themselves, their actions, and those of their comrades, complicating an already complex set of facts.  But, that's a perfect example of the continuing reverberations of the Second World War.

All in all, this is an interesting book but one that really serves as an introduction to a little-known event on a little Dutch Island.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Black Tulip: The Life and Myth of Erich Hartmann, the World's Top Fighter Ace by Erik Schmidt

This is a volume that doesn't necessarily fit any particular category.  It isn't a biography, it isn't a traditional historical monograph, nor is it a scholarly treatment of any one subject/topic/theme.  Rather, this appears to be an author interested in the Second World War, Germany, aviation, and the Luftwaffe.  Mix those topics together, insert some 'popular history,' and you get 'Black Tulip.'  The author touches on subjects ranging from the Hitler Youth, the Luftwaffe, the place of aviation in 1930s society (mainly Germany and the Soviet Union), German POWs in the Soviet Union, reintegration into German society for POWs in the postwar period, and some of the myths that have developed over time when it comes to German victim-hood and the Wehrmacht.  Placing Hartmann in the midst of all these events/developments, interspersed with the author's proclivity for relying on literary flair, leaves the reader with little in the way of contextual analysis or anything beyond a superficial reading of any of the aforementioned topics.  Moreover, the bibliography is limited as is the space each of these rather significant topics have devoted to them, not to mention a total lack of original research and in a few instances references to works by John Moiser, an English professor with an inability to grasp how to research or write history.  The bottom line is that if you're interested in any of the above mentioned topics, including Hartmann, there are numerous books devoted to each that will provide much more value for your time and money than this volume.  If you want a limited and 'popular' look at something that has to do with the Second World War, German fighter pilots, and Germany, then this is the book for you.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Marching from Defeat: Surviving the Collapse of the German Army in the Soviet Union by Claus Neuber

Operation Bagration was one of the Red Army's most successful offensive operations during the Second World War.  Germany's Army Group Center was devastated as Red Army forces created one encirclement after another and advanced as far as the gates of Warsaw from the beginning of the offensive on June 22 through late July, in many ways this advance matched Germany's initial invasion of the Soviet Union. 

Claus Neuber, part of Army Group Center, was caught up in the Minsk encirclement and managed to escape.  He initially made his way to the west with a group of soldiers until they were surrounded and taken prisoner.  After escaping with a comrade, Neuber eventually made it to German lines and served out the rest of the war on the Western Front, where he was taken prisoner by US forces.

Those who expect a look at the military aspects of Operation Bagration from the German point of view will not find much here.  The vast majority of these reminiscences discuss the author's travels behind enemy lines as he tries to find the new frontline, which continues to move forward as Soviet forces speed their way as far west as possible.  In many ways this travelogue is reduced to a day-by-day account of how the author hid in the forest or, if lucky, barns, and asked for food from random farms/locals he encountered along the way.  The fact that so many were able to help him impressed him but hardly made him rethink the reason he was located on the Eastern Front fighting a losing war.  There is no introspection or discussion of the German war experience, the genocidal nature of the war on the Eastern Front, the abilities of the Red Army of 1944, which is making rather large strides and taking tens of thousands of prisoners, or a discussion of the German Army's complicity in the holocaust, etc.  Rather, what we have here is a soldier caught in an encirclement trying to make his way to his comrades.  The biggest value this volume has is showing what kind of obstacles stood in the way of those who tried to get back to their own frontlines in the wake of Operation Bagration, and how much help locals were able to offer random Wehrmacht soldiers, which raises additional questions, but that's about it.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Moscow Tram Stop: A Doctor's Experiences with the German Spearhead in Russia by Heinrich Haape

I'm glad to see this book being reprinted as it's probably one of the better memoirs written about the German invasion of the Soviet Union.  Having read hundreds of histories about the war on the Eastern Front and dozens of memoirs from both sides, Dr. Heinrich Haape offers an original look at the German advance into the Soviet Union through the eyes of a medical doctor - one who was not above taking up a weapon and engaging the enemy in combat.  This memoir was written in the 1950s, which means the author was not far removed from the events he's describing.  Some of the exchanges and descriptions are quite detailed, so I'm sure there's some literary flair, but the majority of the text reads true enough to the events on the ground as we've come to know them. 

The strength of the volume is undoubtedly some of the candidate conversations the author has with his comrades and reflections on German leadership and generalship.  The battles the author participated in are also well described and really bring to life the hardships suffered by soldiers on a regular basis, especially since you're hearing about it from a doctor who has insights into the various ailments that we rarely hear about. 

However, readers should also approach these memoirs understanding the time they were written in as well as the context.  As with most German memoirs about actions on the Eastern Front, there is limited, if any, mention of the genocidal campaign that was being waged at the same time in the rear against the local population.  There are some hints about what was happening but the author does not explore those issues in any type of meaningful way, as if what happened in the rear had no impact on the frontlines.  Similarly, Soviet forces are too often faceless hordes.  Although Haape does discuss the various prisoners of war he took under his direction to help with both German and Soviet wounded and some of the interactions he had with the locals, the focus, understandably, is on the German war experience.  This is an understandable deficiency and one that many memoirs share, but it's important to keep in mind when understanding the value of these memoirs.

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.
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