Operation Typhoon – David Stahel

Hitler’s March on Moscow, October 1941

This is the third book in Stahel’s series on the War in the East, following “Operation Barbarossa” and “Kiev 1941”.  Together they paint a picture of an operation that was coming apart well before its actual stopping point.  The continual problem of too much space to cover with too few men and tanks, coupled with the steady if not increasing ability of the Soviets to put up resistance and the decreasing ability of the Germans to supply the far-flung units was the “handwriting on the wall”.  But rather than pay heed to the warning signs, both the government and the army leaders decided that one more offensive would change it all, thus digging a deeper hole.

This volume only covers the first month of the offensive, from the opening until when the fall rains locked the region in mud.  Presumably the final lunge for Moscow after the freeze and the Soviet counteroffensive are for future books.

Like Barbarossa, the attack met with initial success.  Germany’s decreasing armor forces were more or less concentrated on a single front, and one that had weakened itself in savage attacks during the earlier operations around Smolensk and the opening of the Kiev encirclement.  The result was a pair of large pockets that netted a lot of prisoners and also a lot of dispersed enemy soldiers in the rear area.   As was becoming common, the pockets were difficult to close, as the tank forces outran the infantry and were forced to man the lines themselves rather than move on.

The next phase, however, showed some warts in the plan.  Guderian’s forces started far to the south and were having trouble getting back to the Moscow region, as they had a long exposed flank to cover.  In the north, a lunge to take the city of Kalinin took troops off on a tangent – while it looked good on the map, the forces there ended up no closer to Moscow and defending a narrow corridor with Russians on both sides.  The Germans were having enough problems with a long front without adding a salient to it!

As October advanced, the weather began to cool and the need for shelter and winter clothing began to increase.  With no preparations having been done, and any preparations that might have been done negated by the long supply chain and lack of transport, the troops had to try to make do by stealing the homes of the locals and the winter clothes of them, or from captured or slain troops.

And as before, the ‘success’ of Typhoon still showed no sign of ending Soviet resistance.  One doubts that even the taking of Moscow would have changed this.  But despite signs that once again an operational success brought the war no closer to being over, the plan for the first winter was to undertake yet another offensive with even weaker, more stretched out forces, in another futile attempt to end all resistance.

Instead, what would happen is that with time, the Soviets would learn enough to be able to keep the field with the Germans and from that point on, the continual offensives would be moving the front in the other direction, back towards Berlin.

Omaha Beach – Joseph Balkoski

D-Day, June 6, 1944

This book is a detailed look at the invasion of Omaha beach on D-Day.  This is the beach that was best defended, more or less by chance, and came closest to being defeated.  While the preparation is looked into to some extent, the bulk of the material is how the troops on the beach adapted and created an entirely new plan, and won.

Worst Laid Plans

In an earlier book on the planning of the operation I mentioned the discordance between the desire for a ‘surprise invasion’ and the need to prepare the beach using bombardment.  Balkoski brings up another issue that compromised the initial assault.  Omaha beach is faced with steep bluffs, with a limited number of entryways inland – called ‘draws’.  Because of the need to bring masses of vehicles up these draws in the hours and days of the attack, the planners were concerned that the planned air bombardment would create huge craters.  So they reduced the power of the bombs, which might well have limited the effectiveness of the bombing.  The air forces, concerned about hitting the offshore forces, played it safe and the entire mission was dropped far inland, missing the fortified units.

A major improvement in the defenses was the lucky fact (for the Germans) that the experienced 352 Division was conducting exercises in the area and could take position to repel the assault.  The tides offshore pushed the invading troops out of the expected locations, and the obstacles were not cleared.  Most of the supporting tanks sunk. Casualties were severe.

Move or Die

It soon became clear that the initial plan to attack up the draws was suicidal.  The Germans had set up many bunkers covering the route, and the walls blocking them had not been blasted open by the engineers, since they were cut to pieces on the beach at dawn.  Flipping the plan on its head, the leaders left collected men they could find into scratch units and went straight up the sides of the bluffs.  The Germans had not covered these areas as tightly, so slowly men could get up on the cliffs and begin to take out the bunkers that were firing onto the beach below.

The Navy also helped, pushing destroyers close to the shore for point-blank fire support.  If the position could be spotted, they could usually hit it.  There were a few cases where they hit friendly troops in the confusion, but on the whole the support was critical to reducing the strongpoints.

The one part of the initial plan that ended up working well was simply the mass of the number of men and material that was to be put on the beach that day.  If the plan had gone right, these men would have been strolling off the beach and driving inland.  Instead, these troops were turned into infantry and used to pry open the stubborn defenses – but it was what was needed.  By the end of the day, the US was on-shore to stay, if not as far inland as they would have liked.

Balkoski has mixed in numerous quotes and observations from the men on both sides into the text.  He has done some great research and it shows.  I’ll be getting his other books on this subject.

Take Budapest! – Kamen Nevenkin

The Struggle for Hungary, Autumn 1944

These are interesting times on the Eastern Front.  The opening up of the Soviet Archives has spread from just the works of David Glantz to other authors, and to more varied topics on the four year struggle.  This book covers the first attempt to knock Hungary out of the war and take the capital, which came up just short of the city.  The Soviets would have to regroup and try again in the winter, this time with success.

In the summer of 1944, the Soviets had crushed Army Group Center, driven to the Baltic Coast, and swept into the Balkans, forcing the Romanian and Bulgarians to switch sides.  The Germans were reeling, but the Soviets were tiring as well.  Could they knock out Hungary too, and possibly break out into Austria and points west?

The first part of the plan to take the country quickly was to get the government to change sides and take its defending units out of the line.  Unlike the earlier attempts, though, this was foiled by the Germans backing a coup in their favor and installing a more radical government under Sztojay.  With the enemy at the gates, this new government’s first act was to attack the local Jewish population.

With the chance of an easy win scuttled, the Soviets tried to win by force, using the last reserves for a lunge to Budapest before German reinforcements might arrive.  It was a good try, and they made it to the suburbs before the front firmed up and the weather broke.  As a side benefit, the forces moved here would be missed when the Soviets attacked on the Polish front and drove nearly to Berlin – reaching the Oder.

The book has good information of the unit actions for both sides in the campaign, and it was interesting to get full details over actions usually dismissed in a sentence or so in the books on the whole East Front that was all we had thirty years ago.  The author is fair to each side, even defending Stalin from some of the usual “If Stalin had listened to me, Budapest would have fallen!” claims make by old generals after the war, when it was safe.  He examines Malinovsky’s claim, but doesn’t find it too convincing when the true situation is understood.

 

 

Sauron Defeated – J.R.R. Tolkien

History of Middle Earth. Volume IX

This compilation of Tolkien’s drafts and notes finishes up the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and adds some other writings to pad out the book to a reasonable length.  I finished the first part very quickly, then ran out of steam on the new material.

The part I found hard going was “The Notion Club Papers” which seemed more like a bunch of inside jokes for his buddies at the weekly ‘literary critique” get-togethers they had.  It finally started to pick up when one of them started having visions of the fall of Numenor – tied to some Anglo Saxon root rather than Middle Earth.

Then in the last section, he lifts the good parts out of the Notion Club and drops it entirely into his Middle Earth and we see that story get fleshed out polished.

At this point I am about half through the series – I strongly prefer the ones that follow the development of the books I am familiar with to the more detached works.  If you are tempted to read these I would start with Volumes VI to IX which follow the writing of Lord of the Rings. If you don’t like those, the others are likely to be even harder to get through.

 

Belisarius – Ian Hughes

The Last Roman General

This is the last book, chronologically at least, in Hughes’ trilogy featuring major generals of Rome in the late empire or early Byzantine empire.  This one features Belisarius, a general who won a major victory against the Persians, was sent by Justinian to conquer the Vandal kingdom in North Africa and then the Ostrogoth kingdom in Italy.

As in the other books, Hughes does a great job in collating the available information into a coherent story.  It was interesting that he seemed to downplay the traditional idea that Justinian was jealous of Belisarius and his success.

However, unlike the other two books Hughes seems to go out of his way to try and puncture the general’s reputation by downplaying the victories as due to “luck” or “good subordinates” and crowing about the setbacks and defeats.  When a subordinate disobeys orders, it is the general who is attacked, since he should be able to rule a fractious collections of nobles with their own personal armies like a modern day sergeant can bully a raw recruit.

Hughes seemed to certainly be a lot more understanding of the similar problems Aetius and Stilicho faced than he is here.  Belisarius does get his share of hero worshipping press, but we don’t have to compensate for that with slanted attacks.  His merits will stand or fall on the facts.

Aside from that, an excellent book from the author and Pen and Sword Books, who I am glad to have discovered as a publisher of ancient military history over the last few months.

The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov

I picked up this book when I saw it at a discount at a mainline bookstore.  It is a nice leather-bound copy of the trilogy – replacing a trade paperback version that had some flaws from the start and has some repairs.  And it has been a while since I read it.

It of course, is a classic of the “Golden Age” of SF, and I think it wears its age well.   As to why it made such an impact, I think it due to its historical sense.  There’s a story about how it started.  The fairly young Asimov was on his way to a story conference with his editor, John W. Campbell, but he had a problem – no story ideas.  He had been spending his time reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, so in the  conference he started discussing Gibbon by casting it into a galactic empire.  Campbell liked the idea and Asimov ran with it.

I’ve read quite a bit of SF from that period and even the majestic series seemed more like superhero stories or Buck Rogers’ adventures than a preview of real history.  Stanley Weinbaum was a good builder of alien worlds, but he did not live long enough to produce something like this.

Foundation

The book starts on Trantor, the capital of the empire, where Psychohistorian Hari Seldon is put on trial for predicting the fall of the empire.  He is a new kind of scientist that uses mathematics to predict future history by statistical means (much like how the mathematics of thermodynamics predicts the properties of gases without knowing how each individual molecule will move).  His group was formed to try and limit the effects of the fall by creating a storehouse of human knowledge.  They are sent to Terminus, a planet on the outer fringe of the galaxy to do this as the Encyclopedia Foundation.

Fifty years later, Terminus is isolated as the outer portions of the empire break away into independent states and threaten its independence.  The leadership of the Foundation wants to trust the diplomat from the empire, but (in a comical bit of science-y realism) Mayor Salvor Hardin has his words “semantically analyzed” to show that the fellow didn’t say one useful statement during the entire visit.  At this critical point, a vault placed by the founders opens and a message from Seldon is played – and the tells them that the purpose of the Foundation is not to make the encyclopedia at all, but to form the core of the Second Empire after a thousand years from this one planet.  Periodically Seldon will appear and give advice, since it is all part of his plan.

From here, it is a story of how the tiny, resourceless Foundation manages to first survive, then dominate its neighbors and form the core of the next empire.

Foundation and Empire

The second book shows the foundation facing a major threat as the Empire itself learns of them and sends a major force under a great General, Bel Riose to conquer them.  A Foundation agent is trying to undermine the action from inside while the fleets fight for survival.  Things are looking grim indeed before an unexpected, but historically inevitable conclusion saves the Foundation.

So the march to greatness seems assured for the Foundation, but the nation itself is ruled by a dictator and is oppressive to the Free Trader planets that produce much of its wealth.  The Free Traders are looking for Allies and turn to a mysterious one called ‘The Mule’ who has risen to prominence suddenly.  They abduct his clown, and discover that the Mule is a mutant, with strange powers.  The Mule declares war, just as a Seldon Crisis opens the vault.

The leaders of the Foundation are dismayed when Seldon’s message is nonsense, not applying to the current situation at all.  The Mule is outside the Seldon Plan, and suddenly they are on their own – and beaten.  The Foundation falls to the Mule.

The only hope seems to be to find the Second Foundation, which Seldon said he had set up on the other end of the Galaxy, for help.  But can they warn it before it is too late?

Second Foundation

To quote the author – “this book is about the search for the Second Foundation”.  The last book ended with the secret of the location kept from the Mule, but he is still looking.  And the Mule is sure that the Second Foundation is working against his empire.  Can he find it and destroy the Seldon Plan for good?

In the second part, it is the Foundation itself that is looking for the Second Foundation to destroy it.  After the Mule’s early death, his empire broke up and the Foundation rose again.  Some credit the Second Foundation, a world of supermen, while some deny the very existence of it.  And some fear that a dependence on the magical Second Foundation will stunt the Foundations own path to greatness.  Enter Arkady Darrell, a clever teenager who throws herself into the mix with interesting results!

Arkady is one of Asimov’s more memorable characters.  It is a great change of pace to the ‘sweep of history’ tack of the books and as a teen at the time I first read this he captured the facets of a maybe too clever girl perfectly.

Cats are not Peas – Laura Gould

A Calico History of Genetics

This book is an interesting mixture – partly a history of life with a cat, this one a male Calico named George, and partly a history of genetics itself and the author’s own investigation into the field in order to learn about studies into cat genetics and calico genetics.

The mix works well, keeping the subject from getting too dry – there are amusing stories about the cats, about librarians who won’t let anyone see their books, and about poor genetics researchers who had predictable trouble getting cats to do what they want.  It was probably a relief to turn back to fruit flies.

It isn’t a long book by any means, and does tell a good story and give good information on genetics in general and cat genetics in particular, if mostly concentrated on the calico genes.  For one reason or another it got pushed aside for some time before it found its way back into the rotation and finished, but it wasn’t the fault of the book.