Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union, 1941-45 by Alexander Hill

Having paid a high price, and eagerly anticipating this volume, I had high hopes for what it would offer. I'm very torn as to how I want to rate and present this review. Whilst this book offers much to those who are not familiar with the Eastern Front, there are many other books that also do that and cost a fraction of the price that this tome is being sold for. Obviously it could not present the war in as much detail as I'd have liked in its close to 300 pages of text. What is exciting about this book is that it offers primary documents on the war from a wide variety of sources that have come out within the past few decades. While there is one other volume that offers such documentary information, a tome from David Glantz, this book goes through the entire war and presents information from different years/military operations which make for fascinating reading. The first two chapters concentrate on the political, economic, and at times military aspects of the Eastern Front, as the war begins we get into more detailed information about armies, divisions, brigades, etc and military matters take up the bulk of the documents being presented.. The problem one becomes aware of is that at times examples are made out of specific situations, for instance, sending out orders over open lines which could be intercepted by the Wehrmacht, and then extrapolated to other units/formations/commanders. In reality we cannot know how representative such a report really was without comparative evidence. Thus, a lot of the information offered here needs to be taken on a case by case basis, it's interesting in its own right but I would not generalize it.

Already with the chapter on the Icebreaker controversy, the second in the book, I thought the author could have done much more. The documents sprinkled throughout are at times interesting, and in other instances seem less important. This will remain the norm throughout the book. Granted, the problem here is subjective, what the author thought might be important or revealing is at times, in my view, a waste of space. Nothing is perfect, so in this case you'll be forced to take the proverbial good with the bad. To give you a sense of what documents are presented, through the icebreaker chapter we have tables of Soviet military equipment production for 1937-1940, practically the entire pre-emptive planned strike by Timoshenko and Zhukov of May 1941, an excerpt from Stalin's speech to graduating officers, the TASS communique from June of 1941, reports from border troops about German air incursions into Soviet air space, etc. A lot of it interesting, no doubt, but in the end it is just a preview of what the icebreaker controversy is all about. But the point of the book seems to be to offer students of the Soviet Union, WWII, and more specifically the Eastern Front a starting point to do their own research rather than presenting all the author knows about a specific topic. In that respect he has done his job, but you might already be asking yourselves, does that justify the cost of this book? We'll leave that question for the end of this review.

The third chapter on Barbarossa repeats most of what is already known by those familiar with the Eastern front. It was interesting to see order 270 in print, but some of the documents are not at all hard to find. The first three orders that went out on June 22nd, for example, are readily available, as is the list of meetings Stalin undertook during the first week of the war. On the other hand, the establishment of a 'council of evacuation' and the document for its creation isn't that imperative for students of WWII, in my opinion. Some of the documents detailing units of the 48th army were interesting, showing how depleted the divisions were. Also, the few maps that you'll find throughout the book are less than a quarter size of the page, making them pretty much useless.

Chapter four, on the battle for Moscow, gives more coverage to the army and the reader gets a chance to see some interesting reports going back and forth between the high command, the armies at their disposal, and Stalin. Again, the information/documents are limited to a few directions and lack in detail and depth, but are worth being aware of. There is where we come to a few problems. I was skeptical when I read a document detailing some lines of defense and the forces that were designed on them. "31 independent artillery division" and "2 divisions of 'RS' Katiushas." I was positive this was a mistake and apparently, as more than a few authors have done in the past, the confusion comes about with the words diviziya and divizion. The latter is used to designate artillery battalions, the former divisions. The author mixes the two up and instead of battalions of artillery and Katiushas we now have entire divisions. Secondly, the author chooses to quote verbatim from his previous articles on the effect of British Lend Lease tanks during the Moscow counter offensive. The problem is his math is off and he skews the percentages (see pg. 84 if you can get the book). He then seems to contradict himself when he quotes a British mission claiming that by December 9, 1941 some 90 British tanks had seem action with the Red Army and not a page later claims that by the beginning of December "it is reasonable to suggest" that British Lend Lease tanks made up "30-40 per cent of the heavy and medium tank strength of Soviet forces before Moscow at the beginning of December 1941..."

The chapter on Stalingrad covers the lead up to the German operations and through to the surrender of the 6th Army. Quite a bit of time is spent on Operation Mars, due to the controversy since David Glantz's book came out, with the author leaning on much of what Glantz has to say regarding the importance of Mars when compared to the encirclement of the 6th Army. Some very interesting documents are offered; the infamous order 227 "Not a step back" as well as reports by NKVD blocking detachments from the Stalingrad and Don fronts about how many men they stopped, arrested, shot, and sent back to the front. This chapter also features the creation of the first dedicated tank armies, how they were incorporated into the Red Army, the success and failures they underwent, and what the Red Army learned from the entire campaign in the south.

The next two chapters deal with Kursk and Leningrad. The Kursk section includes documents dealing with the Central, Voronezh, and Steppe fronts. Their strengths, tank forces, artillery, and eventually their casualties after the operations around Kursk were over (this includes operations Kutuzov and Rumiantsev). The author also includes the forcing of the Dnepr and includes a few documents detailing how certain Red Army units were able to cross the river and establish some of the first bridgeheads on the other side. The chapter on Leningrad discusses the siege from 1941 to the beginning of 1943. Some of the more interesting documents include those who were evacuated including where they came from (Leningrad or refugees from the Baltics). The amount of food being brought into Leningrad through air transports and of course the Road of Life. As well a diary from a teacher is included from the archives of the FSB, sadly the writer was arrested during the war and charged with 'counterrevolutionary anti-Soviet agitation.' Another document discusses the arrests made by the NKVD throughout the war in Leningrad and for what crimes.

Lend Lease comes next and begins with a discussion of which position England the US took vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. Some in the US wanted nothing to do with the Soviet Union and would not extend Lend Lease to the USSR while Churchill was willing to extend help to Stalin and support the Red Army's struggle. The chapter is divided into three phases, the first of which has England playing the larger role as US deliveries were not yet up to the levels they would eventually reach. Some of the documents prove very interesting, for instance: a report from the People's Commissar for Foreign Trade which discusses the amount of aircraft that the US was supposed to delivery from October through December, 600. In fact, these numbers were decreased to 395 by the Americans and in total only 204 were shipped out of which only 95 arrived in the Soviet Union as of January 9, 1942, with another 106 en route. The same information is supplied for tanks along with an interesting list of supplies received via PQ 12 in March of 1942 and where those supplies went. Overall this is one of the more interesting chapters, at least for me.

The ninth chapter discusses the partisan movement, something the author is quite familiar with having earlier released a book about partisans in North-West Russia. As with the chapter on Lend Lease it seems that these two chapters have a lot more depth to them than some of those previously mentioned. No doubt a reflection on the fact that the author did quite a bit of research for them, but at times some of the military narrative that is employed could use more depth and analysis. One of the documents attached to this chapter is a list of claims for each year from the Leningrad are partisans which details what they destroyed/killed, I immediately noticed one error in the first line, that is rails destroyed, listed for 1943 is 65,363 and for 1944 85,541, the total is then given as 58,563. Nothing major but something that could easily have been caught. When putting down this much money for a book it should be perfect.

The "Ten Stalin blows" are discussed next, specifically this refers to the 10 major offensives taking place throughout 1944 which forced Romania and Finland out of the war against the Soviet Union, took the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw, liberated the Crimea, freed some of the Baltic territory, forced German troop evacuations through the Black Sea and the Baltic, etc. Some operations are described in more detail than others, but that may simply be due to the fact that some were more complex than others. Losses for each operation are provided as well as a few documents about practically each offensive operation. A few more interesting than the rest.

The next chapter captures the actions of the Red Army from the Vistula to Berlin. I found particularly interesting the documents which came out of the fighting for Konigsberg on how combined arms operations are to take place within city walls and in the reduction of fortresses. What problems were encountered and which solutions proposed as a result. Although a mistake is made in one of the translation, specifically: "If one tank advances along the left side of the street, firing upon houses on the right side of the street, then the other advances along the left side." The original document has "right" instead of the first mentioned "left", although in all honesty a mistake might have been made in the original as well. One would figure that tanks operating on the right side of the street should fire to the houses on the left, better to see the threat, and those on the left should fire on houses to their right. In either case, a mistake is still made.

The last chapter deals with the Soviet offensive in Manchuria against the Japanese Kwantung Army. A nice breakdown is given of forces from both sides as well as the advantages enjoyed by the Soviets over that of the Japanese. The victory of the Red Army here was practically the least costly of any Soviet offensive undertaken throughout the Second World War, it was also one of the quickest operations.

Overall this is an interesting book. I hope to see future works come out focusing on the Eastern Front and making use of many of the primary source material that the author was able to incorporate into this narrative. There are a lot of interesting starting points for students to begin thinking subjects they themselves might be interested in exploring. Now that this volume has come out in paperback, I can fully endorse its merits for those interested in a primary documentary reader on the Eastern Front.


Anonymous said...


Did you read: The War Behind the Eastern Front: Soviet Partisans in North-West Russia, 1941-1944 ?

Is it primarily Army Group North? What did you think of it?


T. Kunikov said...


I'm literally looking at the book right now, but sadly have not yet had a chance to read through it. From what I understand, it does mainly deal with partisan activities in the area of Army Group North.

Anonymous said...

Yes, thats what Amazon said. The index looks a little "lite."