Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Guns Against the Reich by Petr Mikhin

"Guns against the Reich" is easily one of the more interesting, enlightening, forthright and revealing Red Army memoirs I've had the pleasure to read. Petr Mikhin was rushed through officer training and served in the artillery arm of the Red Army. Often we hear that artillery is the "God of War", and this memoir will show the power that artillery can exercise on the field of battle when wielded by an experienced observer, commander, and crew. Taking part in the fighting around Rzhev, Kharkov, Kursk, the Dnestr and numerous other rivers and cities throughout eastern Europe, Mikhin paints at times a rather bleak but moving portrait of the Red Army, his fellow soldiers, the war effort in general, and himself. How did Red Army officers deal with suicidal orders on the part of their commanders? How does one deal with an officer who cared more about getting drunk than directing heavy battery fire and saving the infantrymen he was responsible for? How did artillery observers execute operations they were never trained to undertake but were volunteered for by their superiors? All of these subjects are candidly discussed and Mikhin spares no words or judgments for either his own actions or those of his subordinates and superiors. At times Mikhin's reminiscences defy logic, but simultaneously exemplify that in wartime anything is possible. Some of the more revealing events in Mikhin's Red Army career were his encounter with SMERSH (death to spies) and the accusations that were leveled against him; more interesting was how he proved his innocence. The fighting around Rzhev, now made known/famous by David Glantz's "Operation Mars", is brought to life with Mikhin's reminiscences of the quagmire he and his battery operated around and the missions that he, as an artillery observer, was forced to undertake in order to find specific German artillery or mortar batteries and silence them. Along with the recently published memoirs of Boris Gorbachevsky, Mikhin brings to life the needless sacrifices asked of Soviet soldiers as they were continuously forced to an agonizing duty of attacking and counterattacking a deeply entrenched enemy with ever weaker Red Army forces.

Interestingly enough, Mikhin was ordered/forced to go on multiple scouting missions with the goal of capturing a German prisoner for interrogation. Usually this was done by trained scouts, but here we encounter multiple failed operations by scouts and a commander's decision to send out artillery observers in their place! Their eventual success is telling of Mikhin's ingenuity, as well as that of the men he operated with. An operation I have yet to encounter from the point of view of a Red Army soldier was that of Popov's Mobile Group in 1943. This was the scratch unit ordered to exploit Soviet success post-Stalingrad and eventually it set the stage for Manstein's famous 'backhand blow' outside Kharkov. Mikhin was part of that unit. For all the talk of Manstein's genius, seeing the position Popov's group was in, their difficulties and what was expected of them, it is evident that their eventual failure was sown in Red Army hubris, thinking that the Germans could not rebuke them as easily as before. Another revealing encounter with the enemy featured the author accompanying a battalion commander and his unit into an attack through dense fog. During their silent advance the entire battalion, some seventy men, were accidentally pivoted and walked parallel to the German trenches instead of toward them. The battalion commander stubbornly refused to acknowledge what happened and only with the dissipation of the fog by rain did he realize his mistake. Unfortunately, the end result was a decimation of the battalion by the Germans as they were caught in the open and subjected to deadly flanking fire. Finally, without a doubt the most interesting episode in the memoir was the author's destruction and ensuing capture of almost 1,000 Germans and Soviet Hiwis in Moldavia. A lone battery of four howitzers with 26 men was sent to cut off a German force, at least over a thousand strong, escaping the Iasi-Kishinev encirclement. The ensuing action by the author and his men cost them 24 lives and almost all of their ammunition; one by one they were wounded, again and again, and eventually killed by enemy mortar fire. Nevertheless, the Germans, without knowing the true condition of their Red Army opponents, began to surrender. As the sole unharmed Soviet soldier ran to gather up the prisoners, the author even while wounded moved from one howitzer to the next, zeroing it in on the Germans, to keep up the ruse that the battery was still operational as they waited for reinforcements. Overall, a very descriptive, sincere account of an artilleryman at war. Highly recommended for those interested in WWII, the Eastern Front, and/or the Red Army.

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