Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Lighthouse of Stalingrad by Iain MacGregor

Overall, this volume is an interesting mix of well-known information and some new, original research coming mainly from first person accounts from both the German and Soviet side. The first half of the volume is devoted to the larger history of the Eastern Front up through the German approach to Stalingrad and the beginning of the fighting for the city. Some of the fiercest fighting took place in mid-September for the center of Stalingrad and that included the German 71st Infantry Division and the Red Army's 13th Guards Rifle Division. The author has access to regimental commanders' memoirs from both units and offers an in-depth look at their thinking, planning, and experiences against each other's force. It's commendable that so much attention is being paid to the actions of the 13th Guards Rifle Division, but it does take away from the actions of other units. It's partly understandable as the focus is supposed to be on Pavlov's house, at the center of the city, which was controlled by men of the 13th Guards, but readers should keep in mind there were numerous other units operating in and around Stalingrad that are omitted from this narrative. While this volume is entitled "The Lighthouse of Stalingrad" there is really not enough attention on Pavlov's house, out of 19 chapters, perhaps 2-3 at most deal in some detail about what happened, but the majority of the book goes over well-known information.

Some odd errors are evident as when the author claims the Red Army possessed 'fewer than two thousand operated vehicles in the western theater' when speaking of 'Soviet armor in 1941.' Although there were fewer than 2,000 T-34s and KV tanks, there were over ten thousand tanks in the western military districts, from the border to Moscow. In fact, the author later mentions that 'twenty thousand tanks' were destroyed as the Germans approached the outskirts of Moscow. While most authors writing on the Soviet-German theater use 'rifle' to designate Red Army forces and 'infantry' for German, the author intermixed them at times and we end up reading about Paulus's 'rifle battalions.'

Having said the above, for those interested and unfamiliar with Stalingrad, this isn't a bad volume to start with. If you've read Michael Jones "Stalingrad: How the Red Army Triumphed" this is written in a similar style, a lot of first-person recollections along with some higher-level strategic and operational commentary. But does this volume change our understanding of the Battle of Stalingrad?  No. Does it offer some new and interesting information about Pavlov's house?  Sure, but that could have been done in a journal article rather than an entire volume.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Myths and Legends of the Eastern Front: Reassessing the Great Patriotic War by Boris Sokolov and Richard W. Harrison

 Sadly this book is a waste of time and effort. Undoubtedly there are myths and legends when it comes to the Eastern Front and any of them have been addressed and continue to be researched and discussed by academics and scholars (from Stalingrad to Kursk, from the Cult of Martyrs to the Stalin cult). Sokolov is a well-known name when it comes to the Soviet experience in WWII and, unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. He's light on sources and heavy on counterfactuals, tenuous extrapolations, and broad generalizations. Trying to not only take on the history of the Soviet experience in WWII but, more so, the myths and legends surrounding it, you will be unable to do them justice in the 300 or so pages of text Sokolov has produced. At best he's scratching the surface in some areas and, at worst, he's reinforcing and creating his own myths along the way. This volume is very much not recommended and to be avoided.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

The Tank Battles of Marshal Rokossovsky: 1943-1945 by Kamen Nevenkin

This is a good introduction to a variety of topics, ranging from Marshal of the Soviet Union Konstantin Rokossovsky's wartime career, to the evolution of the Red Army throughout the Second World War, and some of the key battles and clashes on the Eastern Front. The book features numerous photos of Rokossovsky and the battlefields he found himself on as well as useful maps to put the larger context of the campaigns being described in front of readers. However, that being said, this could have been an invaluable source if the author utilized citations throughout. As it stands, the bibliography is limited and the citations are too few to make this a useful resource for any scholar/historian/independent researcher. While first-hand accounts (both Soviet and German) are footnoted, any and all other information (battle statistics, breakdowns of unit strengths and/or losses, etc.) is not. This drastically reduces the utility of this volume and it's an absolute shame because some of the information is critically important if readers want to understand why Rokossovsky's forces enjoyed success and experienced failure at various points in the war. That being said, for those interested in the Eastern Front and Soviet commanders, this is a good starting point.

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Radio Operator on the Eastern Front: An Illustrated Memoir, 1940-1949 by Erhard Steiniger

I always like to think that every first-hand account is worth reading as there will inevitably be interesting scenes/scenarios/eye-witness accounts worth familiarizing oneself with. It's rare that memoirs are a hit or miss in that respect because if someone didn't have something worthwhile to say, they wouldn't sit down to write a book. In this case, readers are presented with the memoirs of a radio operator who found himself mostly confined to Army Group North's area of operations until the final year/months of the war. 

The text is interspersed by a plethora of photographs, which tell a story in and of themselves. The photographs are mostly centered on the first year or two of the war so there is some disconnect as readers move beyond 1941/1942 yet continue to see photos of that initial victorious advance by the Wehrmacht. Yet, if readers pay attention, they'll see a large number of photos dedicated to German graves and burial ceremonies, reinforcing the idea that while on the whole the invasion of the Soviet Union is viewed as an unmitigated success, it came with a heavy cost. 

While, as mentioned, there are a few interesting scenarios recounted, the life of this radio operator mostly took place away from the frontline, thus recollections centered on frontline action are limited. This becomes a minor issue in that the author is mostly concerned (and to some extent rightfully so) about writing what he experienced and what he saw immediately in front of him. This translates into some questionable thinking when it comes to his recounting of the treatment Sudeten Germans received before the Munich Conference and in the last months of the war. He views them and himself as victims, again, to some extent rightfully so, but there is little to no self-reflection on the fact that he is an accomplice to one of the largest crimes in recorded history - that merits practically no mention aside from a tangential sentence or two to say what the Wehrmacht and Nazi Germany were accused of he did not see or participate in. Thus, while there are some thought-provoking scenarios recalled here, I think in the end it's a mediocre memoir, due to the aforementioned limitations, and a minor addition to our knowledge of the Eastern Front and the war as a whole.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Girl With A Sniper Rifle: An Eastern Front Memoir by Yulia Zhukova

Like most first-hand accounts of the war on the Eastern Front, readers will usually find something worthwhile in a memoir about the Second World War. "Girl with a Sniper Rifle" is no different in that regard. This slim 200 page volume contains about 50 pages dedicated to 'action' on the frontline, about 100 pages of background information from Zhukova's life at home and training at a sniper school, and the final 50 pages tackle her life after her return from the front with a fair amount of space dedicated to her reunion after thirty years with her comrades.

Overall, the story is typical for those familiar with eastern front memoirs. Zhukova was trained as a sniper and joined a rifle division toward the end of the war, participating in actions throughout Prussia and ending the war around Königsberg. She has eight confirmed kills but participated in numerous actions, including defensive fighting when her unit was encircled. So her total count is undoubtedly higher but due to the chaos of war we'll never know the true figure and in this case it's secondary to the story she sets out to tell. In general readers should take these memoirs, as with all others, with a grain of salt. Zhukova destroyed much of her letters, and with them her memories, of the war immediately after it ended and undoubtedly places, events, dates, names, etc., can become difficult to recall, which the author readily admits. Nonetheless, when put in desperate situations where life and death are on the line, those memories will make an impact on combatants and will be difficult if not impossible to forget, including their lasting effects on a person's senses (smells, sights, touch, taste, etc.). As such, while Zhukova might not have experienced years on the frontline, her few months left her with memories and experiences that help us better understand what Red Army forces experienced, survived, and what many Soviet women had to contend with in addition to the enemy during their time at the front.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Death March Through Russia: The Memoir of Lothar Herrmann by Klaus Willmann

In most memoirs I am usually able to find something of value and worth. There are usually little details or facts that many might overlook but which can supplement better known popular histories and give readers or specialists a better understanding of the larger themes or topics being covered. In "Death March Through Russia" readers will be presented with a text that contains a plethora of mundane details about everyday life in the prewar period and in the postwar period. The Second World War passes by like a ghost and I found myself on more than one occasion wondering what the author actually did during the war. The real value here is in his POW experience in the Soviet Union in the postwar period and thanks to his talents and resourcefulness, he was able to find jobs that were in high demand and which often resulted in him receiving extra rations. There is something to gaining a better understanding of the POW experience but I would be hard pressed to say this text enhanced my understanding of either Germany in the prewar period, the Second World War, or what POWs went through in the postwar period in the Soviet Union.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Air Battle for Moscow 1941–1942 by Dmitry Degtev and Dmitry Zubov

 In many ways this volume is a missed opportunity. The authors are certainly knowledgeable and have access to numerous archives to help with understanding the dynamics of the air war for Moscow, but they do not necessarily wield that knowledge in a reader-friendly way. In truth, this book could have been a third as long (216 pages of text with numerous photos, tables, and charts) and presented the same arguments with the same information with all the superfluous fluff cut out.

Basically, what readers should expect to find in these pages is a list of bombing raids against Moscow and its environs as well as cities and settlements in the Moscow region. Moreover, the authors present information on the main Soviet defensive formations and their German counterparts. Instead of offering insight into the strengths and weaknesses of both sides (including equipment, training, logistics, etc.) the authors are more interested in listing claims by both sides and then immediately follow up by writing what the archives support and what they are silent about. Thus, the Soviets make numerous claims about downing a variety of German planes and the authors then discuss what German archives support in terms of planes lost for that day and in that specific region of the front. It's interesting information but can readily be confined to a few tables/charts instead of being spelled out for dozens of pages. Additionally, the authors take their time describing the numerous bombing raids made by single or a few bombers against Moscow and the resulting killed and wounded as well as damage inflicted to Moscow buildings, factories, and infrastructure. Readers will have to dig for more interesting information that discusses Soviet weaknesses (the amount of time fighters could spend in the air before having to return to base, for instance) or better understanding the impact of Lend Lease airplanes, etc. Some of that information is there but it should be more readily highlighted and better contextualized rather than offered as side commentary. Finally, the biggest weakness of this volume is a lack of footnotes/endnotes. Researchers, scholars, and historians will be hard pressed to find this volume of benefit as they will never know where specific information is coming from. This very much undermines any lasting value of this volume.