Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Rzhev Slaughterhouse: The Red Army's Forgotten 15-month Campaign against Army Group Center, 1942-1943 by Svetlana Gerasimova and Stuart Britton

Svetlana Gerasimova's work on the battles in and around Rzhev is not a typical military history text.  For those interested in detailed accounts involving commanders and the multiple battles and engagements that involved fronts, armies, corps, divisions, etc., I would recommend David Glantz's "Zhukov's Greatest Defeat".  Gerasimova, however, has produced a slim volume that goes over many of the operations undertaken by the Red Army in and around the Rzhev salient, which also highlights the numerous issues Soviet/Russian and western historians face when attempting to research and write about certain battles/campaigns of the Great Patriotic War.

There continue to be numerous 'white' or 'blank' spots in the history of the Great Patriotic war even half a century after its end.  Myths and legends have taken the place of objective studies.  Soviet historians were the mercy of the administration they served, under Stalin producing little to nothing, under Khrushchev endorsing his anti-Stalinist cult of personality narrative, and under Brezhnev cementing what came to be known as the 'Cult of the Great Patriotic War'.  Throughout those administrations the history of the war served a purpose and it continues to serve one today under Putin's regime.  With limited access to archives for Russian researchers, not to speak of the limits placed on foreign academics, the best Gerasimova could produce is a narrative that relies on numerous sources, many of which continue to draw on Soviet era productions that are suspect by many.

Even so, while the accounts of the battles and engagements themselves offer less detail than many familiar with the Eastern Front might be comfortable with, there are numerous passages that offer new, original, and a somewhat objective look at how the Red Army performed throughout 1942 and 1943, and what Soviet commanders considered their weaknesses and strengths.  One of the more interesting discussions had to do with the variable of weather and how it affected operations in the summer of 1942.  As one example, the initial success of the 30th army, a breakthrough on a front of 9 kilometers to a depth of 6-7, came to naught when the army's formations became bogged down in the mud in the area of Polunino, north of Rzhev.  The offensive ground to a halt, showcasing that the Red Army suffered from the elements just as much as the Germans.

Surprisingly, many of the errors committed by troops during the summer of 1942, including lack of forces to develop tactical success, lack of signals equipment, lack of communication between infantry, tank, artillery, and air units, lack of reconnaissance, and a host of other issues continued into 1943.  This lack of communication forced Red Army commanders to keep their units in densely-packed formations, which made German artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire that much more effective and deadly.  Follow-up units were also kept close to the first echelon for fear they would miss their chance to exploit a breakthrough.  Units were also continually sent into head-on attacks against German positions by commanders too afraid to risk any type of initiative; at one point a unit spent 20 days attacking Polunino, attempting to capture it from the north, and when a new commander was appointed, the village was captured after a fierce three hour engagement that featured an attack from the north and south.

The fighting in the Rzhev area featured some of the most intense and deadly engagements that bleed the Wehrmacht's Army Group Center and cost lives of hundreds of thousands of Red Army men.  German divisions were constantly redirected or sent from all over Europe to help shore up the frontline before Moscow.  Operations were cancelled and others weakened due to the losses the Germans sustained.  One example presented is the poor performance of Model's 9th Army during the Kursk offensive.  The fighting around Rzhev had numerous repercussions but the debate about whether the real aim of the offensives the Red Army undertook was to keep Army Group Center occupied while operations like Uranus unfolded around Stalingrad or whether in fact Zhukov and Stalin's first and foremost aim was the encirclement and destruction of the Rzhev bulge remains a contested issue.  Gerasimova doesn't offer a definitive answer but the information presented makes it obvious that there are still many questions that historians cannot adequately answer without relevant access to Soviet era archives.

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