Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Barbarossa Derailed: The Battle for Smolensk 10 July-10 September 1941 (volume 1) by David Glantz

David Glantz has been the foremost expert on the Eastern Front of the Second World War for years. While his books are not always free of controversy, there is no doubt that he has single-handedly propelled Eastern Front studies to the stage they occupy today. That is not to say that there is no room for future studies, on the contrary, the fact that this tome is volume 1 speaks volumes (excuse the pun) about the amount of research that still needs to be done, not to mention the academic field, which consistently circles around the war years or uses it as a tool to study other aspects of Soviet/European history.

With 'Barbarossa Derailed' Glantz gives credence to what many Soviet era authors/historians attempted to argue, that Barbarossa was a lost cause as early as the battle of Smolensk. While this might have been propaganda, there is enough evidence today to see that some of these arguments while to some extent exaggerations, were at times correct in their analysis of the situation the Wehrmacht found itself in. Similar to the recently released book by David Stahel, which argues that Smolensk was the end of Germany's blitzkrieg campaign in the East, Glantz provides an enormous amount of information and evidence to back up the argument that while Minsk was a success, Smolensk was at best a failed opportunity. Starting with the border battles Glantz lays out the narrative of what occurred in the initial days and weeks after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Soviet deficiencies are quite evident, with the end result being the majority of the best trained troops being put out of action early in the war. Taking their places were hastily trained reservists who were continually utilized as a stop-gap, with the end result being thousands of casualties for minor tactical victories that regularly halted the Germans and bought time for new defensive lines and new units to be brought up to the front. As a result, German forces continually attacked and defeated recently trained and equipped troops that had little time to practice with their weapons or participate in coordinated actions with various branches of the armed services. The predictable results were continued large scale defeats (Minsk, Smolensk, etc.), although with a surprising amount of minor tactical, and even operational, victories, even from novice forces.

Thus, one of the major contributions of this volume, and the entire Smolensk battle, was that the Red Army was not simply defeated again and again on the field of battle, but rather proved itself a worthwhile opponent that continually bled German forces on their way to Moscow with Soviet soldiers and commanders learning their craft anew through bloody engagements. Many of Soviet commanders participating in these battles, Zhukov, Timoshenko, Konev, Rokossovsky, Eremenko, etc., are well known to those familiar with the Eastern Front. Konev and Rokossovsky often stand out for their roles in delaying and bloodying German forces before and after the encirclement around Smolensk is closed. Red Army military prowess is also evident in the defeat administered to the 7th Panzer Division by Soviet forces and the numerous infantry divisions reduced in strength throughout late July and August. Much of 1941 remains mired in myths and legends and this volume goes a long way in showcasing just how difficult the invasion of the Soviet Union, in the early summer of 1941, was for the Germans and to what extent the defense the Red Army put up affected the overall time table of Operation Barbarossa and the ensuing operations the Wehrmacht would undertake following the Smolensk encirclement.

Throughout this volume Glantz utilized an enormous number of divisional/army/front reports. Many of them can be skipped over unless you have an excellent map of the region circa 1941 (the maps throughout the book are lacking, unfortunately), but often enough they are worth reading through as some contain revealing information about casualties and attitudes. For instance, something that Glantz himself points out, in one of Zhukov's orders there is a reference to the fact that Zhukov would rather a unit attack and take casualties than remain motionless and sustain casualties without any effort on the part of the unit's commander or men. Thus, as is often mentioned, Zhukov was very much an offensive/attack oriented commander and had no problem demoting divisional commanders on the spot if they did not take the initiative (as is also shown in various orders with divisional commanders being reduced to commanding regiments). There are minor grammatical problems (wrong letters or two periods where there should be one) and in at least one instance the same telephone conversation is recreated twice (pg. 175 and 195). Those deficiencies aside, this is a very much needed addition to the literature on the Eastern Front, especially the initial period of the war, but in many ways this is just a beginning. Glantz has given future historians and authors of the Eastern Front food for thought and I look forwarding to reading the second volume in the near future.

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