Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Battle for Moscow by David Stahel

David Stahel's latest work, 'The Battle for Moscow', is somewhat removed from his previous volumes on this topic.  This is his fourth book and it becomes evident that what was clearly visible on a majority of pages in his first three texts is missing from much of this latest effort.  That is, there is a significant lack of tactical and operational descriptions of battles.  At least one amazon reviewer has already commented on how disappointed they were to discover this.  Yet, in this supposed 'weakness' lies the strength of Stahel's argument(s).  The Wehrmacht on June 22, 1941 was a vaunted fighting force that managed to defeat and conquer most of Europe.  The ensuing invasion of the Soviet Union showcased, on the surface, the Wehrmacht's military prowess operationally and on a tactical level as numerous encirclements and victories were achieved.  Stahel outlines them all quite well (mainly in regards to Army Groups Center and South) in his previous volumes.  That is, the Red Army lost hundreds of thousands in the encirclements at Minsk, Smolensk, Kiev, and finally at Viazma/Briansk.  Yet, the narrative that concentrates on the victorious outcomes of those encirclements misses the forest for the trees.

Thus, 'The Battle for Moscow' is a somewhat different creature than Stahel's previous works because it highlights again and again the slow progress of the German Army in the latter half of Operation Typhoon throughout November and early December of 1941.  There are no major battles, encirclements, or defeats of the Red Army because German forces were incapable of launching significant operations to achieve such feats, and when a major city was taken, Rostov by Army Group South, it eventually had to be evacuated due to Red Army pressure and German inability to hold it.  Stahel thus forces the reader to assume the physical and psychological state of the German Army through the numerous diaries, letters, memoirs, and battle reports that he quotes from.  The exhaustion of German troops was palpable on very page as they became bogged down in the mud of early November while hoping for a sudden freeze to create conditions for an eventual lunge toward Moscow.  And when that freeze did come it brought with it new obstacles that while facilitating one last push toward the Soviet capital also meant a whole new level of exhaustion, misery, disease and madness for countless soldiers.

Additionally, on more than one occasion Stahel draws the reader's attention to the genocidal nature of the war that Hitler unleashed against the Soviet Union and the complicity of the Wehrmacht in the numerous stages of the Holocaust and the deaths of millions of Soviet prisoners of war.  One simply cannot discuss Operation Barbarossa or Typhoon without highlighting the numerous difficulties the Germans faced in the rear from Soviet partisans and how they treated the civilian population as the cold set in and they needed both clothing and dwellings to keep warm, which often meant stealing from the local population and displacing it to fend for themselves while appropriating their living quarters.

Finally, much of Stahel's concentration rests on the German commanders and their actions throughout November.  Unlike many self-serving post-war memoirs, archival documentation from this period shows that generals like Bock, Guderian, Kluge, etc., had a choice in how they handled their troops and assignments.  None were forced to go on the offensive, the majority of those decisions they took for themselves based on a variety of factors until their forces were simply beyond the means of, in some cases, even picking up their weapons.  No German general was dismissed at this point (dismissals would come after the Soviet counter-offensive commenced) and yet being on the frontline, knowing the situation their soldiers were facing, they continued to ignore the exhaustion of their troops, the limits of their mobility (lack of trucks, tanks, planes, etc.) and forced their depleted formations onto the offensive again and again.  What was the end goal?  Moscow was never supposed to be captured, but encirclement was no longer an option as the targets were far too distant for what the Wehrmacht could hope to accomplish in November or December.  Thus, Stahel emphasizes the disconnect that existed between the goals of German commanders and the reality of what their forces could accomplish, with the final result being a situation that soon found exhausted and depleted German troops retreating in the face of a well-developed and planned Soviet counter-offensive.

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