Friday, January 1, 2010

The Retreat: Hitler's First Defeat by Michael Jones

When writing on the German advance toward Moscow, too often it appears authors/historians take it for granted that the Germans achieved as much as they did. The campaign of 1941 was far from a walk in the park, even counting all the success the Wehrmacht enjoyed. What has yet to be shown and emphasized is the state of the Wehrmacht in those critical weeks and months leading up to and through operation Typhoon. Further, the ensuing Soviet counter-offensive is known in a general sense to have been a defeat for the Wehrmacht, but the reality of what the Soviets accomplished and, more so, had the ability to accomplish, has long been omitted from the historical record. While this book does not present an operational, or strategic, picture as well as it presents the tactical view of the soldiers and lower level officers, it nonetheless serves as an exceptionally well documented narrative of the lead up to the Moscow counter-offensive and the counter-offensive itself. Reading what soldiers and civilians were thinking, seeing, and doing does much to create a rich contextual portrait, for both sides, of what these men and women were able to overcome, or at times succumbed to, in those winter months of 1941/1942.

Jones makes interesting observations as to how both German soldiers and officers began to believe in their own propaganda. Having been driven into their heads that "Blitzkrieg" was a winnable strategy, and seeing for themselves the achievements of their armed forces during the past two years, the evidence of a false sense of superiority is readily evident in the diaries and documents the author quotes from. Within a matter of months the reader can see the change in the Werhmacht's attitude. No longer are they seeing themselves in Moscow within a few days time, or picturing a Soviet defeat within a matter of weeks; now they are simply struggling to survive and continuously question the now ridiculous notion that the war is soon coming to an end, and in Germany, according to the newspapers, has already come to an end. Poignant are Jones's observations of how the Soviet and German high command viewed the situation on the ground. As Stalin gave way to his commander's and their decisions, putting Zhukov in charge of Moscow's defense, Hitler, to the contrary, roused and exhorted his commanders to push toward Moscow. While many field commanders were aware of the condition their forces were in, to those in Berlin/Moscow, unrealistic orders were regularly issued and all too often obeyed. By the end of the counter-offensive we see a switch again, with Model being given room to operate by Hitler and Stalin now exhorting his generals to continue offensive operations when Red Army troops were spent and well past their supply lines.

Thus one of the main strength's of this narrative is the ease with which the reader can track the changing mentalities on both sides. The taste of defeat on the lips of Soviet soldiers and commanders as the are forced to an agonizing duty of retreat after retreat (for all intents and purposes, if the title of this text was simply "The Retreat" it would serve the dual purpose of applying to both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht) to the dramatic shift as Soviet forces begin to make their stand on the outskirts of Moscow in November and early December, slowly grinding down the German Blitzkrieg machine. On the other side, we see the enthusiastic German soldier marching toward another assured, it seems, victory in the East. Soon this mood of triumphalism turns to depression and exhaustion as the Soviet countryside continues to swallow German units into its expanses and spit out new Red Army formations to oppose a tiring Wehrmacht. This is followed by the initial shock of a Soviet counter-offensive and surprise on side of the Soviets at their initial success. The eventual German deterioration is epitomized by General Heinrici, "Now the Grim Reaper mercilessly raises his sickle over our battle lines. Each day he cuts down more and more of our men. Soon it will all be over." (246) And, as fate would have it, on the same day Stalin gave orders to take the 1st Shock Army off the line and transferred it to the army reserve. Simultaneously, with Model being put in charge of the 9th Army, two Soviet armies found themselves encircled. While initial German achievements gave them a false sense of superiority, the Soviets were experiencing something quite similar. As they witnessed German forces retreating along the entire front, they were urged on by Stalin and their generals to an ever increasing speed, all the while forgetting to give them adequate preparation, support, and supplies. Thus a perfect storm for the Germans was avoided, instead, the Red Army began to suffer a series of defeats anew. Defeats which eventually set the stage for the catastrophe at Kharkov before German operation Blau took the Sixth Army to the gates of Stalingrad.

Understandably, there are a few weaknesses within this book. A lack of maps makes tracking unit movements very hard, unless you have an atlas handy. Jones discusses the German campaigns against France and Poland as utilizing Blitzkrieg. Personally, I am in agreement with authors like Karl-heinz Frieser, who believe that the only real Blitzkrieg used by the Wehrmacht was against the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa. Quite a bit of emphasis is placed on "Siberian divisions" saving the day outside Moscow, in reality those divisions were ordered to the west in September and October, long before Moscow was in danger. Lastly, I noticed one specific editing mistake, Stepan Mikoyan is spelled as "Stephan" throughout the text. Aside from the aforementioned, this book was hard to put down, another excellent addition to Eastern Front literature by Michael Jones.


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