Operation Barbarossa – David Stahel

The full title of this book is “Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East”.  This would not fit in the post title box.

The thesis of this book is that the German Invasion of Russia had already ‘failed’ by August 1941, at the battles at Smolensk. Despite the fact that grand encirclements at Kiev and during Typhoon still were in the future, the seeds of failure were already apparent at this early date.

One difficulty was a lack of means – the German Army was just too small.  As they moved deeper into Russia, they could no longer support offensives on all three fronts, North, South, and Center.  At this stage, Center was stripped to support North and South.  In 1942 and later only one front could advance, and after that the retreat began.

Another difficulty was lack of support – the deep penetration required massive logistical support to get supplies to the front and replace lost equipment.  This support was overpromised and underdelivered universally.  In August the spearheads were severely weakened due to losses from fighting and just from use.

The final problem was lack of direction.  The aims of the Germans changed from week to week, from a drive to Moscow, to a drive to Leningrad, to a drive to acquire resources in the Ukraine.  Much of the time the Germans worked at cross purposes. And they utterly failed to correctly judge the capacity and will to resist of the USSR, and their own limited ability to overcome this resistance.

While the war was not over after just six weeks, I think the assertion that the glib assumption that the Germans would roll over Russia was exploded, and that a long war was assured.


Notable Historical Trials II – Captain Kidd

This was a short chapter in the Folio Society’s book on Historical Trials.  It was the trial for Piracy of Captain William Kidd. In the late 1600s he was given permission by the English government to sail as a privateer to take ships allied to France, which they were at war with, and to hunt pirates. He was to avoid taking allied ships and neutrals.

Apparently these were too tempting, and he went Pirate himself, taking ships illegally and selling the proceeds himself.  Eventually word got out and he was arrested when he showed up at Boston harbor.

This trial seems open and shut enough, although there are the usual cries whenever someone who became famous is tried for a crime.  He was convicted and hung.  Rumors still fly about where the ‘missing’ part of his loot might be buried.  A more prosaic explanation might be that running a pirate ship can be expensive.

Binge Thinking History Podcasts


A week or so I did a search for more historical podcasts (audio recordings of historical lectures) to go with the History of Rome podcasts that I have caught up with.  Binge Thinking History is a very good set dedicated to English history.

Unlike History of Rome, it is not chronological, but thematic – the first set were on the roots of much of the thinking of the Founding Fathers from on from English historical roots, the second was a very detailed recounting of the Battle of Britain, and I’m now in the midst of a history of the Royal Navy.

Like the HoR, I’ll be cycling through these ‘casts again when I hear them all once.

Notable Historical Trials II – The Salem Witch Trials

The text of this chapter is pulled from Cotton Mather’s history and is kind of sad.  The theory of the court is that the evidence of the ‘innocents’ could be relied on to convict, and any contradictory evidence that they might be faking was ignored.  Apparently the judges had forgotten how nasty they had been at the same age.

Like usual in these matters, the convictions come fast and furious and then seem to sputter out when someone influential or important, like the Governor’s wife is named.

Desert War Trilogy II – A Year of Battle

Finally finished this second book in Alan Moorehead’s Desert War Trilogy. The set was published by the Folio Society.  Moorehead was a reporter in the war, and so was involved in a lot of the events of the Desert War as an observer.  The book itself is less of a history of the campaign than of his travels, many of which shed a light on some of the odd corners of World War II.

For example, while the campaign in Egypt was in a lull, he observes the Russian/English partition of Persia.  He comes back to watch the Crusader offensive that relieves Tobruk, and then follows the Anglo-French invasion of Vichy Syria.  Moving off then to India, he views the negotiations beween Gandhi and the English to increase Indian participation in the war, before heading back for the climactic battles at Gazala, Tobruk and the retreat to Alamein.  The book ends with the line firming up, and Moorehead wanting to take a break from Africa by visiting America.

If you want a true history of the Desert War, this isn’t it. But if you want a ‘you are there’ view of this part of the Allied campaign in the Mideast, it is an excellent set of books.


Progress Update


I haven’t been reading as much in recent weeks, and thus haven’t finished any books.  I am working through Frank’s Guadalcanal book and have just passed the battle of Cape Esparance, a payback battle for Savo Island.  I have taken up the Desert War trilogy, although at this period the author is off reporting on the failed negotiations to get India to take more of an interest in the war.  The Desert Generals book has moved on from O’Connor’s offensive to the drawdown to defend Greece. This would have bad results for Africa, and Greece.  I’ve started a new book “Eager for Glory”, a life of the Roman General Drusus, father of Germanicus and the Emperor Claudius.  The maps are nice, and I’m just getting into the text itself. He is just entering his twenties.

Review of ‘If Rome Hadn’t Fallen’ – Timothy Venning

I wanted to like this book more than I did – I have been reading about the Fall of the Western Empire and listening to Roman History podcasts on a more or less continual basis. It isn’t a bad book, but I would have liked more detail in some places and less in others.

The first part of the book is a listing of various ‘turning points’ during the history of the Empire where things could have gone better.  These include avoiding the disaster at Teutoberger Wald in 9 AD, which led Augustus to back a fixed Imperial Border, or a more determined counterattack by Tiberius and Germanicus to restore the situation, or if Caracalla was killed before becoming Emperor, or ….

By not picking a single point of departure, the ‘Non Fallen Rome’ is a very vague concept. Is the ‘surviving’ Empire a rump state on the Mediterranean, or a stronger ‘Classic’ Western Empire, or a Rome that conquered Germany and the Balkans entirely and never split, or a world spanning SuperRome that includes Persia and the Americas? All these cases are set up as possible outcomes, but how the change actually happens is left unsaid.

After picking a point of departure, the author usually leaves unsaid how the change is implemented. For example, to avoid the decades of Crisis in the third century, he posits a ‘stronger line of succession’ that somehow magically avoids the decades of the army killing reigning Emperors, naming usurpers, and being more or less helpless in fighting off the Goths and Persians.  There were strong Emperors in the period that came to grief – like Aurelian.  What did these new emperors do differently than the actual emperors did?  This question is more or less evaded.

The latter part of the book explores how a strong Imperial state might change the history of the Middle Ages, including the Vikings, Muslim and Mongol invasions.  It gives a good overview of some vital events that the new state would have to face, but since the idea of this state is so diffuse the text is at one point speaking of limited defenses against Muslims and in other places describing annexing Persia and counterattacking into the Ukraine against the Mongols.

I think the book would have been better organized by selecting one to three departure points and following them forward to 476 AD, and then trying to flesh out the changes needed for each to avoid the fall.  From there, you could follow these states on through the post Fall events to show how the world would be different, and how long each might last. This book is more or less a partial outline for any such book.

Operation Barbarossa – Update

I’m about 2/3 finished with this book, a review of the initial stages of the Barbarossa invasion of Russia in World War II.  The author, David Stahel, is showing that there were serious problems with the operation almost from the first days, despite the dramatic initial haul in prisoners and in ground taken.

The first issue is that the planning for the operation was almost comically bad.  The estimates of the force opposing the invasion apparently missed about half the Russian Army, as well as their tanks like the T-34 and KV-1, both of which so outclassed many of the German tanks and anti-tank guns as to render them useless going forward.  The logistic planning was equally poor, ignoring the fact that it would be very difficult to supply the spearheads of the invasion over the poor roads and with the rails being unusable until the gauge had been changed to German standards.

The goals of the offensive were confused. The three levels of command – Hitler, the General Staff, the Army Group leaders, and the Panzer leaders each had different agendas and tried to fool the others in order to gain their point.  Hitler was relatively uninterested in political goals and wanted to seize the Baltic Coast and the Ukraine.  The Staff, while pretending to follow orders, was bent on driving on Moscow. The Army Group command wanted to avoid the Panzers outstripping supplies and the infantry that was reducing the encirclements.  The Panzer Leaders wanted to drive forward to avoid giving time for the enemy to regroup.  At every level the Germans were spending effort trying to spin the situation in order to convince the high command of their view.

In the meantime, everyone was avoiding the real issue, that the opposition was not fading out, that the rear area confusion of scattered Russians was making the supply situation even worse than the original rickety estimates, and the units that pre-war planning had missed were gathering ahead of the isolated spearheads as they drove toward Smolensk.  Instead of the free movement in the rear that Blitzkrieg wanted, a new attritional war was about to start that Germany would not be able to win.

It is interesting how this turns on its head the usual idea that Germans were great planners.  From my recent reading of the two World Wars, it seems that strategy and planning is where they fell down in a major way.  They could fight the battles tactically, but choosing who to fight and where to fight was where they made major mistakes that led to them losing both.