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.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Fur Volk und Fuhrer: The Memoir of a Veteran of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler by Erwin Bartmann

There are a few different ways one can approach "Fur Volk und Fuhrer."  Memoirs are usually self-serving and self-censored.  Moreover, when written decades after the events in question, memories can change or be altered by encounters with others and by the influence of literature/media and contemporary events.  Thus readers should take what's written on these pages with a grain of salt.  However, having read dozens if not hundreds of memoirs on the Second World War, especially the Eastern Front, there's much here that I found fascinating, including Bartmann's interactions with locals (French, Soviet, and German), the animosity that existed between the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS, as well as some of his descriptions of combat operations.  However, there are also episodes that I would question in terms of authenticity.

Having said the above, Erwin Bartmann's memoirs read more like a number of separate and loosely connected vignettes of his time in the 1st Panzer SS Division Leibstandarte.  He discusses his childhood in Berlin, the street brawls he witnessed between Communists and Nazi Brown Shirts, and Hitler's eventual seizure of power.  After volunteering to serve in Hitler's Bodyguard unit, he is initially denied the chance and then receives an opportunity thanks to the timely intervention of Heinrich Himmler.  After undergoing training he is deployed to the Eastern Front where he experiences most of his time in combat.  The descriptions of combat against the Red Army resemble many other available German Army memoirs.  The Red Army is viewed as a faceless mass full of soldiers who torture and mutilate any German (including the wounded) they can get their hands on, while the author and his comrades fight a clean war as they attempt to save Europe from the Bolshevik hordes.  After an initial stint on the Eastern Front Bartmann's division is relocated to France for rest and eventually find themselves once more on the Eastern Front, first fighting in Kharkov after the encirclement of the Sixth Army in Stalingrad, and then at Kursk, where the author is wounded fighting around Prokhorovka.  That wound pretty much puts him out of action for the duration of the war as he attempts to heal and then is put in charge of training machine gunners.  By April 1945, Bartmann finds himself stationed close to Berlin and undertakes a meandering trip to escape the advancing Red Army with some of the recruits he's been training.  He eventually finds his way over the Elbe and is caught by Western Allied forces. 

In general, this is an author who looks back on the Second World War as a nostalgic time that he spent having sex with numerous women (which he discusses on multiple occasions) and forging close bonds of comradeship while fighting in the ranks of what eventually became the 1st SS Panzer Division, an elite unit with a rich history of battles throughout the Second World War.  He readily believed in Hitler's cause and by the end of the book admits that if given a second chance at life he would not change any of his actions.  While he acknowledges the genocidal regime that was Nazi Germany, to then admit that he would once more fight for a nation that started a World War and went on to kill millions of men, women, and children sounds like someone who has yet to learn from history or his own actions. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The First Soldier: Hitler as Military Leader by Stephen G. Fritz

Germany's initial victories, both diplomatic and military, during the late 1930s and early 1940s have given rise to a few myths about how they were accomplished.  Hitler is usually given credit for his ability to persuade and cajole Western leaders into stepping back from promises made in the immediate aftermath of the First World War as Germany's borders once more expanded to the detriment of her neighbors.  However, when it comes to discussions about military achievements, it's usually the commanding generals and Field Marshals that receive the laurels of victory while Hitler suffers in the corner as the lowly corporal who couldn't keep his mouth shut and listen to his generals when they told him exactly what he should do.  

In 'The First Soldier," Stephen G. Fritz revisits the many key decisions made by both Hitler and his commanders and attempts to contextualize how much influence each had on the other and on the final decision-making process that was visible on the ground.  For Fritz, Hitler's victories have to be accepted alongside his failures.  That is, Hitler's numerous diplomatic triumphs that many of his commanders often opposed were accomplished in spite of his generals.  The decision to invade Poland and France was also made in the face of many nay-sayers and it was in many respects Hitler who pushed Manstein's plan for the invasion of France to the forefront, which ended in utter humiliation for the French and a victory no German general, or Hitler himself, could have predicted.  The victory over France reinforced and reenergized Germany's commanders so that by the time Hitler wanted plans for an invasion of the Soviet Union there were no longer voices of disagreement to be heard.  The final major accomplishment Fritz sees fit to assign to Hitler is the decision to issue the "stand fast" order of the winter of 1941/1942, which many German commanders themselves agreed was the correct choice of action.

Fritz shows that for the majority of the war Hitler leaned on and listened to his generals or was able to convince them of his ideas.  In truth, both played off each other and used each other to accomplish their respective goals.  To what extent were German victories a reflection of Hitler's genius is a question that's still too difficult to answer.  The decision to invade Poland was based on the idea that at worst this would be a localized conflict with a partner in the form of the Soviet Union.  That plan quickly came undone and the Western Allies declared war on Germany, which Hitler was not expecting or prepared for.  France's quick defeat/surrender was as much a surprise to Hitler as it was to the Allies.  The outcome was a combination of numerous factors, part of which was the decision to employ Manstein's plan - another example of Hitler and his commanders working together.  The invasion of the Soviet Union, however, saw both Hitler and Halder interfere in numerous decisions that eventually resulted in defeat.  But, as Fritz correctly points out, the invasion was doomed to failure from the very beginning because of flawed planning and intelligence.  The decisions that followed the invasion of the Soviet Union only compounded the many inherent flaws of Operation Barbarossa.  There was no way to achieve victory militarily, only politically, but any attempt to reach out to Stalin or the Western Allies to ask for peace was out of the question for Hitler.  

As the war progressed Hitler's generals often worried about the obstacles before them and gave little thought to the greater geo-political landscape Hitler inhabited.  Fritz argues convincingly that many of Hitler's decisions, up until the last days of the war, were made with political, diplomatic, military, and economic ideas in mind, whereas his generals had only need of more men, tanks, planes, and supplies to finish off the enemy standing before them.  Both Hitler and his generals failed to take into account how the war they had unleashed on Europe and the world would play out strategically.  Compounding their flaws on top of each other, Hitler and his commanders found themselves in a situation that few thought manageable toward victory as early as 1941.  By contextualizing Hitler's decision making process, Fritz has shown first and foremost the flaws of the German commanders that surrounded Hitler.  It wasn't that Hitler was unable to wage war successfully, it was that German commanders have left a legacy of memoirs that claimed that only they could.  Their postwar accounts portrayed Hitler as a temperamental dilettante who refused to listen to reason, whereas in reality their flawed ideas revolving around military strategy, combined with Hitler's racist worldview, meant the Second World War was lost before it began.
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