Thursday, October 11, 2012

Barbarossa Derailed: The Battle for Smolensk 10 July-10 September 1941: Volume 2 by David M. Glantz

Volume 2 of 'Barbarossa Derailed' picks up pretty much where the first volume left off.  Throughout both volumes Glantz's goals have been the following: to show that the Wehrmacht was suffering before the beginning of Operation Typhoon and the defeat it experienced at the gates of Moscow could be seen written on the wall throughout the Smolensk engagement Army Group Center found itself suffering through; the Red Army, while taking grievous losses throughout its multiple counteroffensives against Army Group Center, performed better than previously thought and consistently bloodied numerous German infantry, motorized, and panzer divisions; finally, the German (more so Hitler's) decision to continue battling Soviet forces on the flanks of Army Group Center - eventually leading to the encirclement at Kiev - was consistent with Hitler's initial orders for Operation Barbarossa and eliminated close to 1 million Red Army men from Army Group Center's front and flanks that might have done a great deal more damage if left in place with an early German offensive toward Moscow.

The book itself contains dozens of maps and battle orders and reports, same as the first volume.  And just as in the first volume, while many of the documentation is dry and repetitive there are always some interesting facts that come out.  For instance, every now and then there are reported losses from various units, yet more interesting is what these reports don't say - a lot of the time the 'missing' are themselves missing.  The majority of reports only mention dead and wounded.  The numbers themselves are interestingly but offer only a glimpse into Soviet losses, which Glantz details himself quite well throughout the book and in the concluding chapter.  In truth Glantz's commentary is often the most interesting as many will have a hard time following the action on the maps included or through the orders and reports as the numerous locations mentioned (from groves, to hills, rivers, villages, towns, cities, etc.) will make little sense even if you are familiar with Soviet geography. 

Overall, Glantz's mission with these two volumes is readily accomplished.  Repeatedly it is evident that the Red Army was put in an unenviable position as Stalin and STAVKA sent out orders that most of the units in the field could not fully accomplish.  The cream of the pre-war Red Army facing Army Group Center was lost during the first two weeks of the war in the Minsk encirclement and follow-up operation(s) and the armies that took the field in their wake were made up mainly of reservists and/or conscripts with little training compared to the soldiers they faced in Army Group Center.  Thus, the stop-gap measures consistently employed by Stalin and his commanders became part of an attrition strategy that bloodied dozens of German divisions and forestalled another complete encirclement at Smolensk.  With Panzer troops leaving behind their infantry counterparts, the encirclement at Smolensk was weakened by Red Army troops attempting to break out and in simultaneously.  Some 50,000 escaped to fight another day and Army Group Center's panzer forces needed time for rest and refit, yet were continually denied it as Soviet counteroffensives against Army Group Center grew in intensity.  Here is where volume 2 continues the story with offensives launched by three fronts under the command of Timoshenko, Zhukov, and Eremenko.  The majority of readers familiar with the Eastern Front will have heard of Yelnia (El'nia) and the success Zhukov's troops enjoyed.  But as Glantz shows, this was less of a victory than Timoshenko's troops experienced.  The latter inflicted greater casualties on the Germans and captured more territory than Zhukov's Yelnia operation, yet it has been overshadowed by the moral victory that was the Yelnia offensive (most likely because of Zhukov's presence and the propaganda that the victory generated).  Today even Russian historians can see that Yelnia, while a moral victory, did little to hinder future German action in Operation Typhoon.  It seems the worst performance was that of Eremenko's front.  In part it was the fault of the commanding officer, but it seems more so that STAVKA and Stalin continually pushed Eremenko who in turn pushed his army commanders to needlessly waste lives in operations that were doomed from the start because of numerous reasons (including lack of logistics, tanks, artillery, aircraft, surprise, etc.).  

The concluding chapter is in many ways the most interesting as Glantz ties up various loose ends.  It's true that there are still many 'white spots' in the history of the Eastern Front, and unlike the latter years of the war, 1941 was riddled with chaos, defeat, retreat, and propagandized heroism.  That propagandized heroism all too often has eclipsed the actual history of 1941 and more so the tangible victories that Red Army forces achieved, although too often by paying a high price in blood.  Thus Glantz has shown how the encirclement of Smolensk, which is usually seem as a 'bump in the road' to the encirclements at Kiev and Operation Typhoon, was in fact a prelude to Germany's defeat at the gates of Moscow.  The casualties sustained by the Wehrmacht were not made good by the time Operation Typhoon was launched and while the Red Army suffered more than their German counterparts, and in some ways allowed for a weakening of the forces that would face Army Group Center in October, the end result was the buying of time for more forces and material to make it to the west to face the Germans.  The victory that awaited the Soviets outside Moscow, that much, at least, the Red Army was able to achieve in part thanks to the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands around Smolensk in July, August, and September.

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