Igor’ Sdvizhkov’s look at a minor Red Army offensive (Army size) that took place in the latter part of July 1942 is an important contribution to our understanding of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union. This is definitely a narrative better suited for those familiar with the Eastern Front. About two thirds of the text are made up of ‘thick descriptions’ that offer background information on many of the Soviet units taking part in this offensive, their weaknesses and strengths, and the obstacles they faced in attempting to fulfill orders that all too often were poorly developed, delivered late, and weakly implemented. Many of the rifle formations (divisions and brigades), for instance, were recently recreated units and had not seen much combat previously. Yet they were thrown into battle without adequate time for reconnaissance or an adequate understanding of German strengths and weaknesses. Cooperation between infantry formations, tanks, artillery, and the air force was often non-existent with predictable results in that infantry units failed to support their tank counterparts while armored troops, when victorious, continued to advance without adequate means to hold onto the territory they now occupied. The end results were often futile heroism in the face of predictable German defensive tactics that resulted in uneven Soviet casualties and an inevitable retreat of Red Army forces to their starting positions. The author also tracks the German side of things with a few chapters that detail events from German primary archival documentation. This study is highly effective and useful in helping readers understand how the Red Army failed in so many ways in 1942 when attempting to stop the German advance, and how close the Germans were to failure themselves. Including casualty figures for both sides, when available, helps in understanding how costly these attacks and counterattacks were, including numbers of prisoners taken and trophies recovered from the field of battle.
The author’s utilization of both Soviet/Russian and German sources helps to set a new standard in how operational-level histories of the Eastern Front need to be written (although this will undoubtedly prove impossible for 1941 when so many documents were lost or never written and eyewitnesses simply disappeared into the earth or prisoner of war camps). Going over battle journals and reports not only helps guide readers through the various offensive and defensive actions but also allows the author to expose visible exaggerations, self-censorship, and omissions by both the Red Army and Wehrmacht. Initial battle reports omitted self-criticism and often featured myopic views of the field of battle where your own unit did everything right while your neighbors consistently retreated or failed to carry out orders. As such, the author shows how hard it is to figure out the greater truth of what happened when dealing with self-serving documents that try to hide as much as possible when it came to failure while exaggerating heroism and minor accomplishments. Although the text is somewhat guided by the mystery of what happened to a tank corps commander, the real value and worth of this volume is the author’s descriptions of the battles. Here weaknesses were found in both the Red Army and Wehrmacht. An additional critique comes from what the Soviets themselves wrote in their after-action reports analyzing their previous performance on the field of battle (some officers were quite candid in their accusations).
For all the strengths of this text, there are numerous weaknesses. As with many other recently translated operational studies from Russian, this is far from an academic text. There is no introduction and the analysis that one would expect at the end of chapters, to sum up and contextualize various points and conclusions, are riddled throughout the chapters themselves with little if any cohesion. The result is an often-repetitive discourse that regularly takes on a discursive form. Although the information presented is interesting in and of itself, it could have been placed in the footnotes to not detract from the reading experience. One chapter, for instance, is a compilation of various after-action reports, prisoner interrogations, etc., without enough description and contextualization by the author himself to help guide readers and offers a missed opportunity. Furthermore, the author has a somewhat annoying habit of throwing in numerous rhetorical questions, foreshadowing ‘dramatic’ events, and pontificating on various points and subjects that does little to help guide the reader through his narrative. Take out all the superfluous text and this book becomes about a hundred pages shorter.