Wednesday, July 19, 2017

For The Motherland! For Stalin!: A Red Army Officer's Memoir of the Eastern Front by Boris Bogachev

Boris Bogachev's memoirs give readers a glimpse of frontline life for a Red Army officer who went through the majority of the war serving as a platoon commander.  Bogachev might not have found luck in his desire and eagerness to earn medals/awards or promotions, but he survived being wounded three times and the war in general - going on to a career as a military lawyer.

Bogachev joined the Red Army when he turned seventeen, at the end of 1941.  After training, his unit was posted around Rzhev and participated in numerous offensive and defensive operations in the meat-grinder that took tens of thousands of lives for no real gains or success as the Germans eventually voluntarily gave up their positions and retreated to a more manageable defensive line.  Bogachev was trained in an artillery school but as his memoirs describe, throughout the war he assumed command of a mortar platoon as well as a sapper platoon that was attached to tank formations.  Although he wasn't initially trained for either mortars or being a sapper, he nonetheless made due with the decisions of those outranking him.  The fact that a trained artilleryman was not utilized to his full potential either points to an overabundance of artillery officers in the Red Army (hard to believe considering the rate at which lower level officers were killed and wounded throughout the war) or that lieutenants were treated almost as poorly as soldiers - sent to where men were needed regardless of their qualifications.

The author spent a lot of time at the front even if he spent a great deal of time in medical battalions and hospitals.  His impressions of what Red Army troops regularly experienced match what many others have written but he is much more forthcoming in a few areas.  He makes no excuses for the numerous atrocities and acts of wanton destruction that greeted German soldiers and civilians in the latter part of the war.  This is probably one of the few memoirs where readers will encounter numerous examples of Red Army troops (both male and female) executing enemy POWs (Germans and Soviet volunteers) but each situation the author covers also includes an attempted explanation for why such actions were taken (be it in the heat of battle, revenge for previous German atrocities, being in the enemy rear, etc.).  Additionally, the author is quite vocal when discussing the numerous times he was denied medals and awards because someone in the rear deemed his actions not meritorious enough for the recommended commendation(s).  He describes numerous cases of those who found themselves in the rear throughout the war receiving countless awards as frontline soldiers were denied an ability to exhibit their courageous acts.  Although both of these issues are raised by other Red Army veterans, here they are front and center throughout the memoirs and make for a compelling narrative.  This is especially the case as the author was able to work in the Ministry of Defense archives and present additional information he ran across to help readers in understanding his war experience(s).

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Confronting Case Blue: Briansk Front's Attempt To Derail The German Drive To The Caucasus, July 1942 by Igor' Sdvizhkov and Stuart Britton

Igor’ Sdvizhkov’s look at a minor Red Army offensive (Army size) that took place in the latter part of July 1942 is an important contribution to our understanding of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union.  This is definitely a narrative better suited for those familiar with the Eastern Front.  About two thirds of the text are made up of ‘thick descriptions’ that offer background information on many of the Soviet units taking part in this offensive, their weaknesses and strengths, and the obstacles they faced in attempting to fulfill orders that all too often were poorly developed, delivered late, and weakly implemented.   Many of the rifle formations (divisions and brigades), for instance, were recently recreated units and had not seen much combat previously.  Yet they were thrown into battle without adequate time for reconnaissance or an adequate understanding of German strengths and weaknesses.  Cooperation between infantry formations, tanks, artillery, and the air force was often non-existent with predictable results in that infantry units failed to support their tank counterparts while armored troops, when victorious, continued to advance without adequate means to hold onto the territory they now occupied.  The end results were often futile heroism in the face of predictable German defensive tactics that resulted in uneven Soviet casualties and an inevitable retreat of Red Army forces to their starting positions.  The author also tracks the German side of things with a few chapters that detail events from German primary archival documentation.  This study is highly effective and useful in helping readers understand how the Red Army failed in so many ways in 1942 when attempting to stop the German advance, and how close the Germans were to failure themselves.  Including casualty figures for both sides, when available, helps in understanding how costly these attacks and counterattacks were, including numbers of prisoners taken and trophies recovered from the field of battle. 

The author’s utilization of both Soviet/Russian and German sources helps to set a new standard in how operational-level histories of the Eastern Front need to be written (although this will undoubtedly prove impossible for 1941 when so many documents were lost or never written and eyewitnesses simply disappeared into the earth or prisoner of war camps).  Going over battle journals and reports not only helps guide readers through the various offensive and defensive actions but also allows the author to expose visible exaggerations, self-censorship, and omissions by both the Red Army and Wehrmacht.  Initial battle reports omitted self-criticism and often featured myopic views of the field of battle where your own unit did everything right while your neighbors consistently retreated or failed to carry out orders.  As such, the author shows how hard it is to figure out the greater truth of what happened when dealing with self-serving documents that try to hide as much as possible when it came to failure while exaggerating heroism and minor accomplishments.  Although the text is somewhat guided by the mystery of what happened to a tank corps commander, the real value and worth of this volume is the author’s descriptions of the battles.  Here weaknesses were found in both the Red Army and Wehrmacht.  An additional critique comes from what the Soviets themselves wrote in their after-action reports analyzing their previous performance on the field of battle (some officers were quite candid in their accusations).  


For all the strengths of this text, there are numerous weaknesses.  As with many other recently translated operational studies from Russian, this is far from an academic text.  There is no introduction and the analysis that one would expect at the end of chapters, to sum up and contextualize various points and conclusions, are riddled throughout the chapters themselves with little if any cohesion.  The result is an often-repetitive discourse that regularly takes on a discursive form.  Although the information presented is interesting in and of itself, it could have been placed in the footnotes to not detract from the reading experience.  One chapter, for instance, is a compilation of various after-action reports, prisoner interrogations, etc., without enough description and contextualization by the author himself to help guide readers and offers a missed opportunity.  Furthermore, the author has a somewhat annoying habit of throwing in numerous rhetorical questions, foreshadowing ‘dramatic’ events, and pontificating on various points and subjects that does little to help guide the reader through his narrative.  Take out all the superfluous text and this book becomes about a hundred pages shorter.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana Alexievich has a specific style that she replicates throughout her volumes.  She gives voice to women who have lived in “interesting” times.  Whether it is war or the breakup of the Soviet Union and the beginning of a “capitalist” and “democratic” Russia, the women Alexievich interviews offer a compelling, raw narrative that often forces readers to stop and contemplate a world they never experienced.  The general readers’ lack of familiarity with not only war but the genocidal and total war nature of the struggle on the Soviet-German front will force them to step out of their comfort zones and contemplate events and actions that all too often seem as if they belong outside the realm of the possible.  In this text, readers are exposed to the events of the Second World War through the eyes of female combatants and military personnel. 

The campaigns, battles, commanding officers, equipment, and often enough the patriotic and selfless spirit that moved many to run away to the front or volunteer for service did not differ from men to women.  Neither did the pain and trauma both sexes experienced at the front.  Women readily fulfilled frontline roles, such as snipers, tankers, of infantry(wo)men and participated in the partisan war in the enemy’s rear; the latter convey some of the most heartrending recollections offered by those who took part in the partisan struggle where rules of war too often ceased to exist.

However, what many women chose to remember, to concentrate on in order to define their wartime service offers an additional layer to our understanding of the Soviet war experience in general terms.  Additionally, many of the positions women fulfilled in the Red Army lack an equivalent male voice as women dominated them.  Nurses, who served both in hospitals in the rear and on the frontlines and were required to evacuate the wounded from the field of battle (even from burning or damaged tanks), make up a large portion of the reminiscences in this text.  They give voice to the many wounded, dying, and dead that made up the millions of casualties, male and female, sustained by the Red Army.  Additionally, bakers, postal workers, clerks, laundresses, construction workers, mechanics, supply personnel and numerous other positions that would hardly ever merit an anthology of recollections are included.  Although these women did not see the frontline as often as others might, they nonetheless provided both the Red Army and every soldier at the front with needed supplies and support.


These veterans of a genocidal conflict we hope the world will never experience again offer an emotionally laden representation of the sights and sounds of war.  From the roar of artillery to the anguished screams of the wounded and dying.  Readers will encounter recollections that will consistently challenge what they know about the Soviet-German war.  These women experienced lack of sleep, physical exertion, ill-fitting uniforms, heavy weapons, misogyny, tears, blood, iodine, chloroform, excrement, the raw emotions of love and hatred.  They struggled on a daily basis as they gambled with their lives to see what fate awaited them the next day, hour, minute, or heartbeat.  While war might not have a womanly face, women without a doubt helped achieve victory and suffered for their sacrifices both during the war and long after.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War by Thomas Weber

Thomas Weber's addition to literature on Hitler attempts to address numerous myths while simultaneously answering and posing new historically relevant questions.  Hitler's time in the German Army during the First World War is regularly referenced when historians or those with even a passing interest in history attempt to understand his motivations, experiences, and goals.  Was it the fires of the Great War that gave Hitler ideas for which direction Germany needed to head toward in the near and distant future?  Was his anti-Semitic attitude a result of his war experience?  Were there other veterans of Hitler's regiment who we can point to who followed in similar footsteps in their world outlook?  Or were Hitler's experiences removed from other veterans, and if so, what does that tell us about the impact the war had on not only Hitler but his comrades in arms?

As Weber shows, much of what we know or assumed we knew about Hitler was based on select materials utilized by the Nazi regime to wrap the former corporal in a shiny veneer of courage, heroism, and forethought.  Hitler's regiment often occupied quiet sectors of the front and although casualties were plentiful, they were not enough to create a distinctly separate war experience.  As it turns out, Hitler's role as a regimental dispatch runner rarely put him in physical danger, unlike many of his comrades who fulfilled the role of regular infantrymen on the frontlines.  That he received the Iron Cross says more about his relationship with those working in regimental headquarters than any type of courageous and noteworthy behavior.  Iron Cross holders were few and it was mainly connections with those working in headquarters that resulted in receiving an Iron Cross than any type of bravery in the midst of battle.  Finally, the gas attack Hitler suffered through was wildly exaggerated, his temporary blindness was a psychological rather than physical ailment.  

Weber concludes that Hitler's war experience did not influence him to turn toward politics, turn against Jews, or lead Germany toward the Second World War.  His actions in the war were utilized and manipulated during his rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s as an example of heroism and courage endured in the defense of the Fatherland, but they were a tool to raise Hitler's popularity with little evidence showing that his time on the front resulted in a defining transformation.  What influenced Hitler's outlook occurred after the First World War, and still remains something of a mystery for historians.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Blitzkrieg: From the Ground Up by Niklas Zetterling

That the idea of “Blitzkrieg” – a term hardly ever employed by the Germans – continues to dominate thinking about the Second World War means the term and concept are still in need of a better grounding and contextualization.  Niklas Zetterling’s “Blitzkrieg: From the Ground Up” attempts to look at a few select German operations – the invasions of Poland, Norway, France, and the Soviet Union – through the eyes lower-level ground forces in order to understand how revolutionary the concept of “Blitzkrieg” really was.  While I appreciate the attempt, the final results are somewhat disappointing.

The initial chapter, which documents how the foundations of what became “Blitzkrieg” are visible in the First World War (stormtrooper tactics) and discusses the evolution of German thinking of warfare in the interwar period, contains some interesting ideas.  Specifically, the author discusses the novelty, or lack thereof, behind what we associate today with the idea of “Blitzkrieg,” and more importantly the role and influence of technology versus that of personnel initiative.  The individual chapters themselves also contain interesting discussions, when speaking in a general sense, about the various campaigns the author concentrates on.  For instance, when ending the chapter on the invasion of Poland, Zetterling concludes: “Poland had been conquered by a rather traditional mode of warfare…”  Hardly reminiscent of the exciting, lighting victory that the first German success on the field of battle is usually portrayed as.  

However, some of the other conclusions the author reaches are unoriginal and I am unsure why they would merit an entire volume.  Zetterling’s main arguments revolve around the fact that the way the Germans waged war in WWII was not “revolutionary.”  According to the author: German air power was limited during 1939-1940 and cooperation between ground and air forces was not ideal until perhaps 1942; combined arms operations as employed by the Wehrmacht were not a novel concept but rather the norm for contemporary military operations.  Germany’s “secret,” as it turns out, was the training and initiative that was stressed by its officer corps, which often enough in the field meant a disregard for orders and the solving of problems before superiors even knew they existed.  Less attention is devoted to how often subordinates ignored orders from commanding officers and how that influenced the commander/subordinate dynamic that existed in the Wehrmacht.  The author argues that new weapons that appeared on the eve of and during the Second World War were incorporated into an existing army framework; the army decided how best to utilize the weapons it received rather than the weapons defining future German operational abilities.  Thus German success against states like Poland, Norway and France was the culmination of intensive work done by the Reichswehr and the Wehrmacht in the interwar period.  Furthermore, no successful “Blitzkrieg” doctrine that relies on quick wars based around surprise and offensive actions explains the successful defensive operations that the Wehrmacht employed in the latter half of the Second World War.  That, once again, according to the author, was due to training and independent thinking.


While it is hard to disagree with the above, my biggest complaint is that the way this volume was put together does not allow for enough emphasis or analysis of the above.  Zetterling might have wanted to present various diaries from soldiers and weave them into a seamless narrative, but the end result is a general commentary by the author about major operations/campaigns and then something of a “zoom-in” feature that takes the reader to the ground level, almost disconnected from the previous narrative, as the author paraphrases each and every primary source with needless details.  Instead, the author should have either included the diary/journal entries as they were (written in the first person) or taken out all the superfluous context and concentrated on the information that would support his argument(s).  Moreover, there is not enough supporting original material when Zetterling does present his argument(s).  For instance, there was no mention of the fact that planning for Germany’s campaign against France was initially planned to last some six months – hardly a “Blitzkrieg” campaign.  Additionally, there is no attempt to offer an explanation for why Germany’s opponents either lost the discussed campaigns or were decisively defeated in various engagements.  This really is a missed opportunity as deconstructing what “Blitzkrieg” is and is not will go a long way in helping to understand not only how and why Germany was successful in the Second World War but how the myth of “Blitzkrieg” has continued to dominate our understanding of this time period.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Panzer Killers: Anti-tank Warfare on the Eastern Front by Artem Drabkin and Stuart Britton

Similar to the other volumes published by Artem Drabkin and translated by Stuart Britton, 'Panzer Killers' offers readers a glimpse into the everyday life of Soviet combat veterans that served in the artillery arm of the Red Army.  Mainly you'll encounter soldiers who served with 45mm and 76mm artillery units and self-propelled guns, SU-76s and ISU-152s.  For those familiar with the Second World War and the Eastern Front, you'll find much that rings true and many fascinating anecdotes and reminiscences of time spent in combat, in retreat, in hospitals, and on the offensive.  The high casualty rates that these units suffered are regularly mentioned and discussed.  These men saw death on a regular basis, losing best friends in the blink of an eye.  One of the more interesting aspects of these interviews is keeping track of how many of these veterans and their comrades sustained wounds at the front.  Random and sometimes not so random artillery fire was often the culprit, which might explain why they survived.  Many were wounded multiple times and often they would not wait to be discharged from hospitals but take their chances hitching rides to the front to return to their former units and gun crews (otherwise it was anyone's guess where they might end up).  Aside from discussions of frontline actions (some of which are accompanied by diagrams to better situate readers with the engagements they're reading about), the interviewees also go over their daily routines, from meals to maintenance, and share their thoughts about ignorant officers who wasted men's lives and brave and courageous officers and NCOs who helped many survive the war.  All in all this is a highly recommended volume for those interested in first-hand accounts from Eastern Front veterans.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Soviet Conquest: Berlin 1945 by Tony Le Tissier

"Soviet Conquest" features excerpts from six Red Army memoirs that detail their experiences in the Soviet offensive against Berlin.  The most interesting, personally, turned out to be the reminiscences of Katukov, commander of the 1st Guards Tank Army, and Dragunski, who at the time commanded the 55th Guards Tank Brigade, part of the 3rd Guards Tank Army under Rybalko, a formation of the 1st Ukrainian Front under Koniev.  Other figures include engineers, self-propelled artillery forces, and a commander from one of the two Polish armies that fought with the Red Army in Berlin.  The translation(s) overall were good but they were done by someone who was more inclined to follow German standards than English, so many first and last names will sound odd to those who are familiar with the Library of Congress transliteration guidelines that most American/English scholars adhere to.  The text itself is interesting but it is a product of its time.  The reader should be prepared to encounter a lot of praise when it comes to Soviet valor, heroism, self-sacrifice, the importance of the Party and Komsomol, etc.  No doubt much of it is authentic, at least in terms of contemporary beliefs, but it says much about the authors.  As does what they leave out from their accounts.  Also interesting to note is the repetition of some themes, like the idea that the Red Army needed to get to Berlin before the Western Allies, even though it was agreed that the Soviets would get Berlin.  Most surprising in some ways in this account is that the battle for Berlin lasted only some two weeks; yet the casualties sustained by Soviet forces were in the tens of thousands.  Since many of the accounts discuss tank/self-propelled artillery forces, which in house-to-house fighting consistently needed support from infantry units, that such a large number of forces was concentrated in so limited an area yet was consistently short of infantry when it came to their advances just reinforces the fact that this operation was being conducted as quickly as possible without forethought about how to limit casualties.  Rather, it appears everyone was eager to finish the war as quickly as possible and in so doing were prepared to suffer grievous losses even though the authors constantly lament the loss of dear friends for avoidable reasons.  For those interested in Soviet, Cold War era, accounts of the battle for Berlin, this is a good starting point.
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