Between Giants – Prit Buttar

The Battle for the Baltics in World War II

This book tries to fill a gap in the histories of World War II that tend to move directly with the troops from big battles at one place to the next battle and place.  Thus we visit Stalingrad when the Germans arrive and depart once the armies have moved on.  Here the author stays in one place from before the time the armies come until after they have left.  Even when the war is supposedly over, it isn’t all over.

The place is the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.  Three small countries that were carved out of the old Czarist Russia and Imperial Germany and when the two countries began to recover and rearm they both began to look at these countries again.

The first stage came when Poland was broken up between the USSR and Germany. Lithuania was awarded a slice of land that Poland had been occupying which sounded good.  However, it soon turned out that Germany had agreed to allow the occupation of all three states in exchange for a slice of land leading to the city of Memel, Lithuania’s only port.  Over the next months the Soviets strongarmed the three countries to “accept” an occupation.

With this came the arrest of thousands and the fleeing of ethnic Germans to Germany.  The Jewish groups tended to be more pro-Russian, knowing some of what the Germans had in store for them, which increased the anti-Semitic tensions above the normal levels.

The second stage was the German invasion of the USSR in 1941.  In a matter of a few weeks the war swept over the Baltics toward Leningrad.  The book describes the military actions but as you can imagine, this doesn’t take long.

The third stage was the German occupation and the Holocaust in the Baltics.  This isn’t easy reading, and the people of the Baltic states have a mixed record.  Some did try and help the Jews, but others did not and some were enthusiastic participants.

The fourth stage was the reconquest of most of the region, save the Courland Pocket, by the Russians.  There were units from the Baltic states in both armies, sometimes fighting each other.  This section is the best I’ve found on this campaign in any book – while not as hyper-detailed as Glantz’ works, is far better than the dismissive few paragraphs often given to this part of the war.

This fourth stage saw more flight of natives to escape the new occupation coming.

The final stage is the post war occupation.  Some kept fighting as the USSR reoccupled  the area, often for years.  The west was not able or willing to make this an issue and the USSR incorporated the Baltics until the breakup of the USSR in the 1990s.

I think the book is evenhanded in its approach to the subject – facts are laid out and you can judge them for yourself.  Nobody comes out with a white hat.  But knowing the facts is better than sweeping them under the rug.

The Confederate Approach on Harrisburg – Cooper H. Wingert

The Civil War Sesquicentennial Series

This series of books by the History Press during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War has interested me for some time.  They are relatively low priced, and instead of covering the rehashed major battle also tackle some less known aspects of the war. I decided to pick this one up and see what the books are like.

The book is a trade paperback, with a nice cover painting by Don Stivers. It is about 150 pages of text, with the standard additional pages for citations, references, notes and index.  There are some period and recent photographs and maps in the text, but not in that glossy paper you get in hardback books.  Good quality

The Gettysburg Campaigns Northernmost Reaches

The book itself is on the days where the Union was trying to collect militia and scratch forces to oppose Lee’s 1863 invasion of the North to limit the damage until the Army of the Potomac could march and oppose them.  Elements of Ewell’s Corps took the town of Carlisle, which had a military barracks, and then Jenkins’ Cavalry pressed on toward the Susquehanna River and Harrisburg.

Militia was busy entrenching the hills near the city and for a time there was thought of an attack.  But then Lee recalled the infantry to gather near Gettysburg in response to the reports of the Union army approaching, and the mission changed to aggressively covering the movement.  There was a skirmish at Oyster’s Point and Sporting Hill and then Jenkins pulled out.

The final action in this area was a few days later, when Stuart‘s expedition was wandering the area looking for Ewell’s corps.  He then bombarded the town of Carlisle, which had been reoccupied, before finding out where Lee was and joining him in turn,

Sure these are minor actions, but not without their interest. The book has a lot of detail – the local farmers who had goods confiscated, the scouts for both sides, letters from the militia soldiers and their commanders.  It is an excellent and detailed look at a small piece of a big campaign.

I’ll be getting more of these in the future.

The Guns at Last Light – Rick Atkinson

The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

I approached this book with a bit of trepidation, since I was very put off by parts of his Gulf War book where he inserted after the fact political jabs to score debating points on the young men that were, you know, protecting his life in the operation.  So I wondered if the same temptation to throw the book across the room would come here.

Thankfully, no. The book is a good roundup of the fight from Normandy to the end of the war, and covers the final operations that often get left out entirely. It is pretty common for books to end at the Battle of the Bulge.

It has been a while since I have read the first two volumes in the series but it seems like the focus has changed from showing the development of the US Army into an overall history of the Allies.  In a way, here, the US Army now becomes a minor player, well behind the generals, the Yalta conference, Monty and his issues, the French.  When you consider the first book was about a 6 month period with far fewer players, the final book covering a year was going to be spread thin – but adding in these other elements tended to spread it a little too thin.

With the expanded scope, some of the little vignette stories now are overblown.  Patton’s attempt to rescue POWs now has more coverage that any of the battles to take the Rhineland – possibly more than all of them added together.  The shooting of the one deserter for the war also seems bloated relative to the events around it.

So all in all, a reasonably good book that suffers from stretching itself to cover too much in too few pages.

The Path to Blitzkrieg – Robert Citino

Doctrine and Training in the German Army, 1920-39

This is another book that supplements Citino’s thesis about how the roots of Blitzkrieg grew out of the conceptual training of the army, and was a continuation of the ideas of the Prussian and German army since the time of Frederick the Great and before rather than a new concept rising in the 20th Century.  The concepts of rapid movement, independent action, and aggressive attacking fit with the requirements of a small nation trying to survive amid stronger, or at least larger foes.

After the defeat in WWI, the army was by treaty limited to a tiny size and could not hope to compete with even a weak neighbor state.  Ironically this helped focus the army on training its officer corps in essentials and to decide on what modern developments to adopt without having to deal with the politics of entrenched cliques that the victors had to.  Instead, the Germans concentrated on developing close interaction of the arms they had and bold leadership with independence and initiative.  These leaders were able to quickly adopt new technology like the tank and aircraft and fit them into their plans and produce the blitzkrieg.

The book describes the various exercises and the struggles for funding at first and later some of the problems with the massive expansion under Hitler.

Lest you think that this is praises the Germans too much, the same “small state on the defense” framework tended to thwart them as they went on in the war.  A small state doesn’t have to worry about supply, since they are fighting at home or nearly so.  A quick and decisive war doesn’t require a long term view of production and manufacturing.  The sort of issues that Britain or the US have to solve just to get a single man in combat were just brushed off by the Germans, and when the war was extended in time and distance the problems they refused to cope with turned out to bite them.

In the business of combat they were superior, but in strategy and in logistics they were not even amateurs, but often were bunglers.

A very interesting book on a part of history that hasn’t been written a lot about.