Saturday, December 31, 2022

Blood, Dust and Snow: Diaries of a Panzer Commander in Germany and on the Eastern Front by Friedrich Sander

While I'm always of the opinion that every primary source account has in it something of value, it's rare that a memoir or diary leaves a lasting impression on me after having read so many. There are still those that I recall more so than others and "Blood, Dust and Snow" will now join their ranks. Coming in at over 400 pages (including a few dozen photos) and mostly concentrating on the initial German invasion of the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa, as well as Operation Typhoon, the ensuing Soviet counterattack, and the 1942 Stalingrad relief attempt, Friedrich Sander's diaries are a window into the personal thoughts and emotions of a German tanker caught up in the war on the Eastern Front.

Although there is undoubtedly some self-censorship, the author is readily candid with himself on a wide variety of topics. There is quite a bit of front line action and with the author having so recently lived through the events in question there is less risk of him misremembering his personal experiences. At times the nature of a soldier in the midst of battle produces a rather myopic take on events and they become somewhat hard to follow, but that is, after all, rather reflective of the battlefield and the chaos of war. There are also numerous mundane entries where little to nothing happens but the author is attune to his surroundings and constantly has something to say or recall or complain about. Each is another little window into the everyday life of a German soldier in a panzer division on the Eastern Front in the midst of a genocidal campaign. 

What is telling in its omission is a lack of commentary on the evolution of the Holocaust, whether in Germany, Europe, or the East. There is mention of Jews (usually in a derogatory way), the author also has some harsh words for the Russian/Soviet population (although that is somewhat fluid depending on the time period and at times the person in question), and there is undoubtedly an evolution to his thinking about these topics/themes and others that readers can witness themselves, which in effect is why although this is a lengthy volume it is worth the time investment. Personally, I think the author simply did not much care about Jews and what did not concern his immediate needs/desires rarely received mention. Furthermore, being on the front lines with limited time in the rear meant what was happening there, whether atrocities against Jews or local partisans, was rarely witnessed - and when it was merited limited mention/commentary. 

The diary entries end in 1943 and that's unfortunate. We know the author survived the war, but it would have been interesting to know the rest of his wartime and even postwar experiences and how his thoughts about the war and his time at the front might have changed. Nonetheless, this is without a doubt one of the more raw and honest accounts of the war on the Eastern Front and definitely highly recommended.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Voices of Russian Snipers: Eyewitness Red Army Accounts From World War II by Artem Drabkin and John Walter

There are quite a few sniper accounts from the Second World War when it comes to the Eastern Front. From the Red Army we have both men and women who served as snipers during the war and both have been interviewed or have left behind memoirs of their time on the frontlines. From Lyudmila Pavlichenko to Vasily Zaitsev, Soviet snipers had a significant impact on how the war was fought and its legacy as their exploits have become the basis for numerous war films. "Voice of Russian Snipers" consists of over a dozen accounts, ranging from half a dozen pages to about 50 in one instance, from both men and women about their actions on the front as snipers. 

Having read numerous accounts/memoirs by snipers, this volume will stand out as one of the most memorable and forthcoming in its descriptions of what these men and women experienced in the midst of battle. A few things to note is that very few of these veterans began the war in 1941, most joined later in 1943 or 1944. Most were wounded on multiple occasions and returned to their units or joined reserve formations. The training some underwent lasted for months while others were fast-tracked and sent to the front. Often snipers were not correctly utilized by their units or commanders because of a lack of bodies, and at times they served as mortar-men, riflemen, scouts, or sub-machine gunners. The chaos of the front is readily visible in these accounts and many of the episodes related are quite telling of the situations soldiers found themselves regularly facing. This volume is well worth your time and deserves a place in any eastern front library.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

How the West Brought War to Ukraine by Benjamin Abelow

This is a slim volume that tries to offer some nuance and additional perspective with respect to Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine. The author doesn't necessarily break new ground but he highlights some of the most important issues that Putin continuously referred to and brought up in international gatherings and discussions that were seemingly ignored or not taken seriously. In this respect, there is not much new or original material as discussions revolve around the expansion of NATO, promises supposedly made and never kept by the West, the US unilaterally leaving various treaties revolving around anti-ballistic missiles, medium range surface-to-surface missiles, conducting training experiences on Russia's borders, and continually arming Ukraine to the tune of billions in the post-Maidan period. A lot of agency is taken away from Putin which is not necessarily a bad thing as it shows how NATO and the US are not without fault for the invasion of Ukraine, but this is a primer at best and needs to be read with a wide variety of literature that not only focuses on the international/security issues Putin and Russia have been dealing with but also internal issues that undoubtedly have had an impact on both, and vice versa. It's important to keep in mind that Putin's actions were not made in a vacuum and by better understanding his positions and thoughts, we will better understand how this war began and, just maybe, what needs to happen for it to end.

Friday, September 16, 2022

The Soviet Army's High Commands in War and Peace, 1941–1992 by Richard W. Harrison

I was very much looking forward to this volume but the approach is somewhat limited and the end result leaves something to be desired. Richard Harrison has produced some excellent monographs in the form of 'The Russian Way of War' and 'Architect of Soviet Victory in World War II.' The former included a well-researched and in-depth exploration of the evolution of Russian/Soviet strategy and the latter focused in on one of the more important Soviet military theorists from the 1920s and 1930s. This present volume, which purports to look at the 'High Commands' created during and after the Second World War is simply not in the same league. 

The author readily admits the source base is limited and as a result so is his analysis and the larger ideas he can extrapolate from the primary and secondary sources at his disposal. As a result, much of the attention when it is focused on the Second World War is a rehashing of activities from 1941 and 1942 often based on Soviet era sources. Although there are some worthwhile insights, it's next to impossible to tell what the importance of these 'high commands' was and if they weren't that important, then why devote an entire volume to them? Those familiar with the Eastern Front or the Soviet war experience might find some interesting commentary but be prepared to slog through a lot of pages for those golden nuggets. Whereas the author's previous volumes I would argue are valuable contributions to the larger discussion of Soviet military theory and the Soviet Second World War experience, this volume, unfortunately, falls short.

Monday, August 15, 2022

On the Eastern Front at Seventeen: The Memoirs of a Red Army Soldier, 1942-1944


Sergey Drobyazko's 'On the Eastern Front at Seventeen' is a memoir that does well in presenting its title literally. The original memoirs were simply entitled "A Soldier's Path: In Battle from the Kuban to the Dnepr." Having read and listened through hundreds of oral histories and memoirs from the Eastern Front, Drobyazko's account covers a lot of territory that readers will rarely encounter in accounts about the Eastern Front. Specifically, this is someone who survived German captivity and was able to escape and fight again until 1944. He was taken prisoner in 1942, so the horrendous German treatment experienced by soldiers in the initial months of the war seems to have been somewhat reduced but his insights and experiences still paint a rather tragic picture and his survival was in no small part thanks to friends he makes in the camp and those who surprisingly he runs into from his pre-war days, who eventually help him escape. 

This initial part of the memoir is followed by his time on the frontlines as both a mortarman and a rifleman, depending on the situation at the front he was forced to play both roles. The action(s) described are not always easy to follow and this is in part a reflection of the fact that the author did not utilize archival information or divisional/army histories and relied on his memories, so readers are presented with various memorable events and experiences that have remained a part of the author's recollections of the war period. The actions he describes are often ad hoc as his division seems to be the tip of the spear and encounters German rearguard forces during their retreats. This regularly results in significant losses for Soviet forces even though at this point in the war they utilize flanking maneuvers and reconnaissance forces. In some ways the chaos of the front and the inability for a frontline soldier to know what is going on beyond his field of vision is what much of this memoir resembles, readers will only experience what the author sees, hears, and feels. Finally, Drobyazko is wounded, more than once, and also reflects on his time in various medical facilities and wards. For all of the above reasons, and more, this is definitely a worthwhile read and addition to any library on the Eastern Front or WWII.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Kursk 1943: The Greatest Battle of the Second World War by Roman Toeppel

Numerous volumes have been published on the Battle of Kursk and yet there are still numerous myths and legends associated with this clash of men, armor, and planes in the summer of 1943 on the Eastern Front. In this slim volume (less than 200 pages) German historian Roman Toeppel has tried to demolish some of those myths and offer a more nuanced understanding of this battle. My guess is that this is an updated Master's Thesis that the author worked on two decades ago. In either case, it's a welcome addition to any library devoted to the Eastern Front.

Toeppel utilizes sources from the German and Soviet side although undoubtedly most of the attention is on the German side. Readers should keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive history of the Battle of Kursk, rather, it is a selective study of the lead up to the various battles in the summer of 1943 which include the defensive and offensive phases of the Kursk battle from the Soviet side and Operation Citadel and the follow up defensive operations for the Germans. Going through the planning phase, the author goes to some lengths to show that it was less so Adolf Hitler making all the decisions but rather he was working on concert with his commanders and high command to figure out what the possibilities for the spring/summer season might be on the Eastern Front. Due to various circumstances the decision was eventually taken to delay any type of serious action until early July. 

There are numerous chapters devoted to the actual battles and operations that took place in the summer and although the author tries to address some of the most contested subjects (tank/material and human losses) he is not always successful, at least in my opinion. I have yet to see, in any work devoted to the Battle of Kursk, a worthwhile breakdown of German tanks that were knocked out and destroyed, including how many were repaired and reentered service, etc. Most likely these type of details are impossible to ascertain today with the amount of lost files and documents, but without those details a full understanding of what happened during the summer months of 1943 will be impossible.

I was somewhat surprised to see limited mention of Valeriy Zamulin's work but later in the volume Toeppel discusses why he distrusts some of the information/claims that he encountered in Zamulin's work and he might very well have a point. This only increases our need for additional studies of these summer 1943 campaigns. However, at the same time, Toeppel gives a lot of credence to another Russian author, Boris Sokolov, who has often made questionable claims when it comes to Soviet losses and has corrected himself on numerous occasions. Having read both Zamulin and Sokolov, I would approach the latter with a lot more caution than the former. 

Nonetheless, this is a worthwhile supplement to the various in-depth studies of the Battle of Kursk that are available today and the author raises important questions about how we should evaluate and collectively remember the series of offensive and defensive operations that took place in the summer of 1943, which undoubtedly set the stage for what happened throughout the rest of the war.

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.