Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Defense of Moscow 1941: The Northern Flank by Jack Radey and Charles Sharp

The title is somewhat of a misnomer, the book covers the fight over the town of Kalinin during the beginning of Operation Typhoon.  The fighting that went on in the 'northern flank' of Moscow would have a direct impact on future German operations when they decided on a last lunge toward the capital, but the events covered in this book would have been better described as part of Operation Typhoon rather than a part of the Defense of Moscow.  In either case, the authors have done a service for those interested in the Eastern Front and the Second World War in general.  1941 is too often presented as a series of successful German victories that flawlessly took them to the Gates of Moscow until the weather, logistics, and the Red Army interfered with their victorious march.  A balanced account of 1941 has yet to be written (not to speak of the entirety of the Eastern Front) but books by professional historians like David Glantz and David Stahel have been a tremendous help in giving readers a more nuanced and contextualized understanding of both the Wehrmacht and Red Army throughout the opening phases of Operation Barbarossa.

Jack Radey and Charles Sharp build on what has already been written with their study of the defense of Kalinin in October 1941.  The book contains some 177 pages of text, some of which could have readily been put into an appendix (I don't really see a huge need for an order of battle or to go through the table of organization and equipment in the main text, that type of information could just has easily have been placed in a footnote/endnote or an appendix).  Taking almost two hundred pages to write about a few days in October only reenforces the complexity of the Eastern Front and what it takes to create a balanced account.  The authors use both Soviet/Russian and German sources, making for a comprehensive retelling of the battles around and within Kalinin.  For those familiar with works by David Glantz, expect the same amount of information and detail here, with relevant end of chapter/book summaries, but on a smaller level (whereas Glantz usually deals with divisions, corps, armies, and fronts/army groups, this book includes accounts from the brigade and regimental level as well).

The main focus of 'The Defense of Moscow' is the immediate aftermath of the beginning of Operation Typhoon.  Initial German plans were never to take Moscow off the march, but to encircle the city.  Once Red Army forces were encircled at Viazma and Briansk, the Wehrmacht did not face much opposition directly opposite Moscow.  German commanders were thus more concerned about their flanks and dealing with the numerous armies that remained there.  Radey and Sharp point out that the initial plans for German forces attacking toward Kalinin were not to simply take the city and create favorable conditions for future operations, but to encircle numerous Soviet armies in another grand offensive.  Once again, German hopes were not based on the reality their forces found themselves in but on visions of further encirclements for which the necessary troops and logistics would somehow materialize in due time.  Their Soviet counterparts, at least in this case, understood the meeting engagement that their forces were initially involved with and developed further offensive actions as circumstances allowed.  Too often bad communications and scratch units put together from newly arriving recruits and recently scrounged up forces from previously encircled and decimated units led to failures, but these numerous 'small cuts' would lead to eventual German exhaustion and collapse when the Moscow Counter-Offensive began in early December.

Although Radey and Sharp point out that the details of this battle are often overlooked or are overshadowed by what was going on in Rostov, Tikhvin, and on the road to Moscow, the truth is that one can only deduce so much from the fight for Kalinin.  I would say they overestimate how much of an impact this had on the Wehrmacht, especially since they themselves realize that the previously contested Smolensk Encirclement took a large toll on the Wehrmacht.  There is no doubt that constant offensive actions ordered by Zhukov and other like-minded commanders (in this case, Konev), be they in front of Leningrad, Smolensk, or Kalinin, slowly bled the Germans on their way to Moscow.  But a more important task remains.  All of these actions need to be put into a greater context and allow for the ability to analyze the actions of the Werhmacht and Red Army from June through December of 1941.  Thus far historians have mainly presented us with generalized studies or detailed case studies of battles.  Taking all that information and crafting a new, original, and updated narrative of 1941 is still a task unfulfilled.

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