Friday, June 20, 2014

Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1941-1942: Schwerpunkt by Robert Forczyk

In general I have mixed feelings about "Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1941-1942".  I welcome any new or original look at the Eastern Front, either from the perspective of an academic or non-academic, but both contain their fair share of weaknesses and strengths and the same is true for this volume.  Here, Robert Forczyk attempts to show and explain how Germany's armored forces achieved success on the Eastern Front throughout the campaigns of 1941 and 1942.  Simultaneously there is also a concentration on the 'evolution' of the Red Army's use of their tank park and the mistakes made in 1942, lessons learned, and eventual achievements in 1942.  This is a useful way of looking at the Eastern Front as it concentrates on a foundational tool that both sides relied on when planning the majority of their operations.  The weakness here, however, is that much of the rest of the narrative of the Eastern Front is left out.  This means that any operation that doesn't heavily rely on the use of tanks and assault guns is left out, which omits an inordinate amount of context, even if the concentration is solely on the first two years of the war.

In terms of original research, the majority of the information presented is readily available in other volumes (much of it in English).  There are numerous examples showcased that bring to light the inadequacies, weaknesses and strengths of both sides (the author doesn't have an issue with highlighting the successes or failures of either Red Army or German units).  One has to give credit to the author for attempting to 'level the playing field' in terms of myths that have been built up around Germany's armored forces and her commanders.  Be it Manstein or Raus, and even Zhukov or Rokossovsky, alternative opinions are presented that put their actions in a more critical light and help bring context to a time period and series of events that have usually been presented on the basis of self-serving memoirs or recollections.  But that's really where the strengths of this volume end.

The weaknesses are many and range from the trivial/detailed to more analytical. In terms of the information presented,  I was a bit surprised that there was no mention of Nikolai Popel's raid in 1941, which exhibited quite well what some Red Army units were able to achieve when a capable officer was put in charge.  There is also an omission of addressing Zhukov's claim of how much more could have been done if Stalin did not take away critically needed forces from his front during the Moscow Counter-Offensive and instead decided to launch an offensive along the entire Eastern Front.  German forces were in a desperate position, and additional units concentrated against Army Group Center could have made a tremendous difference in the short and long-run.  Additionally, in discussing Operation Mars, the author seems unaware of Geoffrey Jukes's work ("Stalingrad to Kursk: Triumph of the Red Army"), which puts what happened there in asomewhat new perspective. 

There is a consistent attempt to highlight the various losses on both sides in terms of tank forces and, to a lesser extent, troop casualties.  Although such information is valuable, the problem is that every so often the ratios the author presents are meaningless without adequate analysis, which at times is missing.  For instance, on pg. 54 there is a comparison between Army Group Center's tank losses compared to those of Pavlov, commander of the Western Front, during the first few weeks after the invasion of the Soviet Union.  The ratio given is a '16-1 exchange ratio of 130 German tanks for well over 2,000 Soviet tanks...'  For an author who does acknowledge the numerous reasons for why Red Army tanks were lost (malfunction, lost in swamps, in need of repair, abandoned due to fuel/ammunition shortages, etc.), presenting such a generalized figure becomes meaningless. 

This leads to one of the major weaknesses of this volume: a lack of both endnotes and a weak bibliography.  For the amount of information presented, there is a great dearth of available sources and source material.  Sources in Russian are very much limited.  Often, whole paragraphs of useful and interesting information might be presented but without a single endnote.  Furthermore, some endnotes feature links to websites; when I tried myself to visit said links I was only able to get error messages.  This greatly weakens the usefulness of this study. 

There is also something of a 'fetish' when it comes to German ranks, unit names, and weapons.  Everything has to be in its original German, but for the Soviet side only the ranks remain in their 'original', and even that doesn't always follow as at times 'polkovnik' is replaced with 'colonel'.  I found this extremely pointless and a waste of space and time for the reader.  This, combined with a few instances of the author pontificating on what either the Soviet or German side should have done, instead of concentrating on what was done, reminds me in general of German war memoirs (Manstein being the best example), where more time is spent on saying what could have been done if only Hitler didn't interfere.  This also speaks to the vocabulary utilized for both sides.  Whereas the German side is regularly lauded for their abilities and awash in superlatives ("The German operational handling of their armour during the Second Battle of Kharkov was superb..", pg. 188), when the Red Army achieves some success in 1941 it's either 'amazing' to see said success or 'surprising'. 

Finally, there are two authors that Forczyk takes issue with, specifically, David Glantz and David Stahel.  Unfortunately, when the author attempts to contradict either Glantz or Stahel he never truly presents enough evidence to support his position.  And considering the research someone like Glantz or Stahel has undertaken (the former with Soviet sources and archival material and the latter with German archival material), a volume that mainly relies on secondary literature is somewhat suspect when so easily opposing the views/research/conclusions of established figures such as Glantz or Stahel.  I'd only recommend it to those with something of an intimate knowledge of the Eastern Front.

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