Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Blood in the Forest: The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket by Vincent Hunt

I'm always interested in diving into historic accounts that try their best to tell a story few are familiar with or will ever discover without having in-depth knowledge of specific events, people, places, etc.  "Blood in the Forest" is one such account but, unfortunately, it is too often marred by a weak narrative that reads as if it was written by someone with a passing interest and knowledge of the subject at hand.  More often than not the author is interested in tugging at heartstrings rather than letting the historical record and eye witnesses speak for themselves.

This is not a straight forward chronology of events but rather the author's trips from town to town that he intersperses with historical details and discussions about the history of Latvia, the Eastern Front, the Courland Pocket, the Soviet Union, the Holocaust, collaboration, etc. As such, there is much repetition throughout.  Nevertheless, all these topics have entire libraries devoted to research done by academics, journalists, and amateurs which could have readily helped create a historical record of this period/events but on more than one occasion the source material mentioned came from various websites rather than research trips to libraries or archives.  No matter how helpful, insightful, or emotionally draining eye-witness accounts are (and some of them are quite emotional and deserve to be told and better known) there is no excuse for not contextualizing better the various events these veterans and survivors went through with at least some additional primary or even secondary research.

With that being said, this text makes a good starting point for looking at the latter period of the war and the difficult decisions Latvians had to make as brother fought against brother because of poor luck or a fate no longer theirs to dictate.  Red Army offensives launched against the Courland pocket were bloody affairs that never achieved their set objective, only resulting in countless casualties on both sides.  Yet blame needs to be placed on those soldiers fighting on the other side as well who knew there was no hope left but still continued to take a devastating toll on their Red Army attackers, who often included Latvians in their ranks.  This is a chapter of the Second World War and the Eastern Front that defies the black and white view so many have of the war as 'good' versus 'evil.'  Here, among these pages, the reader will encounter multiple shades of gray surrounded by blood and tragedy.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

From Warsaw to Rome: General Anders' Exiled Polish Army in the Second World War by Martin Williams

The Polish struggle in the Second World War was one of the first and the failure of the Western Allies to support Poland resulted in another partition and the fracturing of Polish efforts to continue the struggle against Nazi Germany.  Eventually, on the Eastern Front, the Red Army finished the war with two Polish Armies in its order of battle while Polish forces would participate in the RAF as well as part of the allied campaign in Italy, which this text partly covers.

With the partition of Poland between the Soviet Union and Germany, Polish citizens on Soviet territory suffered under Stalin's rule.  Prisoners of war were executed at Katyn, others deported to the Far East, and after the German invasion of the Soviet Union some began to voluntarily join a new formation made up of Poles and led by Poles to help in the war effort.  The first half of this text covers that short history of Polish resistance to Germany's initial invasion and the creation of what became the first divisions that would make up Anders' Polish Army (although it is mainly referred to as a corps).  The author, unfortunately, is limited in the sources at his disposal and due to lack of academic training there is a wealth of context missing.  Those interested in the minutia of ever-changing orders of battle, logistical details, etc., which in many cases should have been moved to an appendix, will find plenty of such information throughout this text.  Personally, it took a lot away from the reading experience.

Eventually, after a great deal of struggle, the Soviets allowed Anders to take his army out of the Soviet Union through the Middle East.  Here the British took over as Polish units began to undergo training and suffered from the horrid weather as their ranks were continuously reduced by the siphoning off of troops to help the British war effort at home and through disease and desertion (hundreds of Polish Jews eventually deserted when the units were stationed in then Palestine).  With a chance to finally put his troops on the frontline, the biggest hurdle for Anders was facing the reality that once his corps engaged in battle casualties would be unavoidable but a ready reserve of replacement was missing.  This issue was never truly solved and the battles in mountainous Italian terrain produced thousands of casualties in a very limited space and time.  The few chapters that deal with the battles Anders forces engaged in are somewhat lacking in analysis as the author only deems it necessary to say something about the quality of British and Polish leadership in the final chapter rather than helping guide readers along with the action as it unfolds.  Thus, for all the good this text does in introducing readers to this minor episode in the Second World War it is consistently marred by limited research, source material, and analysis.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Operation Bagration, 23 June-29 August 1944: The Rout Of The German Forces In Belorussia Edited by Richard W. Harrison

The Soviet General Staff Study on Operation Bagration is divided into two parts, preparation and conduct.  Similar to the other titles in this General Staff series, this is a text best suited for those intimately familiar with the Eastern Front of the Second World War and those who can often read between the lines of Soviet historical studies.  Perhaps a reflection of the time this study was prepared and written in, there is no mention of Stalin but similarly commanders names, be they front, army, corps, or division, are also avoided.  The same holds true for the enemy.  This makes for a rather faceless exploration of Operation Bagration as readers will mainly be presented with descriptions of unit movements, attacks, counterattacks, defensive operations, etc.

However, those interested in understanding some of the intricacies associated with the planning and implementation of one of the most successful Red Army operations in the Second World War will find this volume quite useful.  Specifically the details the author(s) go into when describing initial preparations, tactics utilized by units in the beginning of the offensive, the continuous attempts to adapt to the ever-changing situation as the offensive took shape and commanders soon realized that initial expectations were surpassed by the victories achieved in the field, etc., make for compelling reading.  Because of the success of Operation Bagration there is much praise for Soviet forces within the volume but the author(s) were not above pointing out difficulties encountered in the field and inadequacies in tactics, operational art, strategy and supply services in the rear (logistics, medical, etc.).

The "international" implications of Bagration are also alluded to within this volume.  There is regular reference to the German movement of forces from other theaters of operation to the Eastern Front to recreate a front where Army Group Center used to exist, making it that much easier for the allies to continue their offensive in the west after the initial D-Day victories had stalled.  The tail-end of Operation Bagration is tied up with the Warsaw Uprising.  There is a minor mention made of the uprising with some time spent discussing the numerous difficulties Soviet forces encountered attempting to reach the suburbs of Warsaw (specifically, Praga) but too context and too many details are left out.  Undoubtedly this was for political reasons and to hide the losses Red Army units sustained as Operation Bagration was running out of steam.  While there are numerous tables and mentions of losses sustained by both sides, they are best taken with a grain of salt.  But there can be no mistaking the pride that's evident each time the author(s) were able to say Red Army losses were only a fraction of those lost by the enemy.  So, for those interested in the details of Bagration, this volume is definitely recommended.

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.
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