Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Viaz'ma Catastrophe, 1941: The Red Army's Disastrous Stand against Operation Typhoon by Lev Lopukhovsky

"The Viaz'ma Catastrophe" by Lev Lopukhovsky makes for an important contribution to our overall knowledge of the Eastern Front, specifically the operations that occurred in 1941, and helps to contextualize the dense amount of information that scholars and laymen need to keep in mind when referring to the victories the Germans achieved and the defeats the Soviets suffered through. Although the main concentration is on the Red Army, there are numerous reports and orders from the point of view of the Wehrmacht - thus the reader is presented with two points of view, not just one. Aiding in explaining the events of 1941, and more specifically Operation Typhoon, are the close to two dozen color maps, which go a long way in helping readers keep track of the numerous engagements that were simultaneously unfolding.

For those familiar with David Glantz's style and breadth of coverage, you can expect something similar here. But Glantz's limited ability to incorporate Russian archival research is what sets Lopukhovsky apart. Readers should be prepared for the recounting of numerous units, from both the German and Soviet side, as well as a dense narrative that tries to ascertain and explain how the initial lunge by the Germans during Operation Typhoon proved so successful against a Red Army that had been more or less stable in its positions opposite Army Group Center since the Smolensk encirclement.

Lopukhovsky, whose father, an officer in the 120th Howitzer Artillery Regiment, disappeared around Viaz'ma, set himself the task of finding out not only the circumstances of his father's disappearance but more so how the Germans achieved such a huge victory months after the surprise of their initial invasion had worn off. "Surprise" is often the catch-all term Soviet studies, and many current Russian accounts of the war, use to explain and justify German victories and Soviet defeats and retreats. While "surprise" works on many levels (tactical, operational, strategic, political, etc.) it does not last for months. Thus, in analyzing in minute detail the German beginning of Operation Typhoon and the Soviet reaction, Lopukhovsky offers a more detailed and nuanced explanation for the conditions through which the encirclement at Viaz'ma, and to an extent neighboring Briansk, was created than previous studies have offered. While a large obstacle still remains in the form of still classified Soviet-era files in the archives, which leads to Lopukhovsky having to entertain his own ideas from time to time, the final product in the form of "The Viaz'ma Catastrophe" goes a long way in helping to explain the numerous reasons why the Red Army continually failed to halt German offensives up through October of 1941.

Aside from pointing out the weaknesses of the Red Army on the eve of the war, some of which persisted through 1941 and set the stage for German advances, another aspect Lopukhovsky concentrates on is the constant attempts to break out of the encirclement made by Red Army forces. Whether breaking up into small groups and seeking to infiltrate through weaknesses in the German ring or coalescing into larger groups, made up of the remnants of numerous formations, Red Army forces continually attempted to fulfill their orders to the letter even if it meant desperate, headlong attacks against German forces who enjoyed air superiority and the ability to call on support from artillery and tanks. Although grievous losses were sustained, Soviet forces never missed a chance to undermine the German war effort from the rear by attacking targets of opportunity wherever they might encounter them - in one case, destroying communications equipment from a panzer group's signal regiment.

The last chapter is devoted to the losses sustained by the Red Army not only in 1941 but throughout the war in general. Lopukhovsky shows clear evidence that losses were undercounted or simply not reported at all, an understandable phenomenon when considering the situation many units found themselves in throughout 1941 - encircled and without communication to higher headquarters. Unfortunately, the true figures will never be known due to many reasons, such as double counting of casualties, soldiers and civilians that were counted as prisoners by the Germans who escaped and rejoined Red Army forces, etc. There is no doubt that keeping the number of casualties as they are today walks a fine line between representing Red Army sacrifice and courage while keeping a history of the Soviet war effort so many have become familiar with. To begin to round up those numbers will only raise questions about the competence and abilities of not only the Soviet government, but its commanders and soldiers themselves. This is something today's Russia wants to avoid as it continues to cling to the victory of the Great Patriotic War, with all the sacrifice offered by Soviet soldiers and civilians, as a, if not the, cornerstone of its history and memory today.

Finally, my biggest issue was the length of the main text (450 pages) within this volume. As factually rich as this study is, there were numerous instances when information could have been put into the endnotes so as not clog up the readability of the narrative; this includes both references to numbers of weapons, German and Soviet orders and reports that did not have to be cited in full, and various tangents the author goes off on. Although the aforementioned, and then some, all deserve to be discussed, they bog the reader down and take away from the flow of the overall narrative; being forced to acknowledge so many facts all at once makes for a more difficult than enjoyable reading experience, even for those who are intimately familiar with this time period and the events in question.

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