Challenge of Battle – Adrian Gilbert

The Real Story of the British Army in 1914

As a believer in the recent revisionism on the First World War, I often am annoyed by the way the war is reported in most histories.  The standard view is a Liege, a dash of German offensive, Mons, the Marne, then Ypers.  After that you have some Verdun, a bit of Somme and the British offensive in Flanders in 1917 and then the crisis of 1918 and victory.  Notice the relative lack of discussion of anything French.

This book was refreshing because while it was a history of British operations and the army alone, so the lack of mention of the primary allied partner is excusable, at least it did not recycle the overblown depiction of the combat power of the BEF at Mons and actually described anything between the Marne and Ypres.  And it is overall a great depiction of an army introduced to a new sort of warfare, and how it dealt with and eventually survived the process.

Like all armies in 1914, the actual results were a mixed bag.  When troops had good positions and artillery support, they held well and inflicted severe losses.  When turned or unsupported by guns, they could be pounded themselves.  The BEF was a good outfit, but the tasks it had to take on meant it eventually was destroyed in the process.  When the British next took the offensive, it would be with essentially a new army raised for the purpose.

A very good corrective to the standard gung-ho treatment.

The Rzhev Slaughterhouse – Svetlana Gerasimova

The Red Army’s forgotten 15-month campaign against Army Group Center, 1942-1943

Ever since the old Soviet archives were opened up a few decades ago, new information has been revealed about the war in the East in WWII.  In the US, this was first popularized by the works of David Glantz.  In the last several years works in English by Russian authors have also started to emerge, adding even more viewpoints.

While this work has less detail on a single operation than Glantz’ do, it does provide a walkthrough of a section of the front that has received less attention than others, despite its importance.  After the German attack on Moscow and the Soviet counteroffensive in late 1941, German attention and post war historian’s attentions shifted south, to the area where the 1942 Fall Blau campaign would begin, and end with the Stalingrad battle.  But at the time the Soviets spent considerable effort on the central sector, the one closest to Moscow.

At then end of the Soviet Winter Counteroffensive in 1941, the line in this area was in a very confused state.  For the most part, Army Group Center survived by clinging to the areas around cities and towns, and the Soviet forces bulged in and behind them in the forested terrain.  A major bulge remained between the north-south communication lines between the cities of Rzhev in the north, and Viazma on the main highway to Moscow. The rest was a jumble of counterbulges of Soviet forces and pockets nearly cutting off the Rzhev salient.  The front face of this extension was the closest German position to Moscow.

The First Russian Offensive – Jan-April 1942

Almost at once after the Winter counterattack ended, the Soviets regrouped and attacked again to cut off and surround the forces in the German bulge, and to rescue their own forces in the German rear areas.  While the front face of the bulge was pushed in, and some breakthroughs were made into the German rear near both Vyazma and Rzhev, in the end these incursions were cut off and eliminated.

The Germans Tidy Up – May-JuLY 1942

With the end of Soviet attacks in the spring in this sector, and before Fall Blau took off in earnest in mid summer, Army Group Center attacked and eliminated the pockets inside the bulge and a counterbulge on the west face of the salient.  This made their hold on the salient much more firm.

First Rzhev-Sychevka – July-September 1942

While the Germans were driving East in the south of Russia, the Soviets mounted a major offensive to take Rzhev or cut it off from the south by taking the town of Sychevka on the communication road to the South.  A massive frontal assault, it managed to bash forward to the outskirts of both towns at great cost.

Second Rzhev-Sychevka (operation Mars) – November-December 1942

This massive offensive, fully as large or larger than Uranus, which cut off the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, was intended to cut off the salient by attacking the top, front and rear faces at once. This would have cut off Ninth Army in Rzhev and torn the center front wide open.  However, the Germans were not as overextended here and the terrain was worse here than near Stalingrad, so the ruptures in the line created by the overwhelming attacks were eventually pinched off and the units crushed by armored reserves.

This offensive was both overshadowed by the success of Uranus, and downplayed by the Soviets because of the immense losses taken.

German Withdrawal – March 1943

In early spring 1943, the commander of Army Group Center realized that with his armored reserve depleted to halt the series of Winter offensives in south Russia, he would be unlikely to stop the next attack in the Rzhev sector that was sure to come when the Russians were ready.  Almost uniquely in the war, he managed to convince Hitler and the high command to allow a planned, phased withdrawal out of the position to a prepared line across the base.

Timed to coincide with the mud season, it went off well enough.  The Soviets tried to turn the withdrawal into a rout by attacking during the process, but a combination of the weakness of the units and the natural reluctance to attack fixed positions without preparation led to no real results other than the territory gained and the ability to reduce their frontage too.

Results and Remembrances

As more information is collected, total losses for both sides in these campaigns are revised continually upward.  A conservative estimate is 1.3 million casualties for both sides.  More recent tallys surpass 2 million.  Some even claim 800,000-900,000 deaths which would estimate some three million casualties.  By any standard these are a major set of battles that should be studied more.

The final chapter of the book is a interesting, and thought provoking of the aftermath of the battle up to the present.  Even to this day, parties are working these woods and swamps removing explosives and finding and identifying bodies from the area of the battle.

This was an excellent book for students of the war.  I look forward to more Russian historians putting forward their view of the battles.

The Conquering Tide – Ian W. Toll

The War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944

This is the second volume in a projected trilogy on WWII in the Pacific.  It follows his book “Pacific Crucible” which deals with the early stages of the war – primarily the battles of Coral Sea and Midway.  This book goes from the Guadalcanal invasion to 1944 and the conquest of Saipan.  This would allow the start of the B29 strategic bombing offensive against Japan itself to begin.

This period is the ‘swing period’ of the war.  The Japanese started with a significant advantage in trained pilots and the initiative that let them attack peacetime garrisons and weak and unprepared foes.  After a few months, the Allies started to get their bearings and start to be able to contest the Japanese fleet, especially when divided.  The battle of Midway ended the period where the Japanese could realistically continue expanding in the Pacific, but the US still needed time to collect their forces, get them into the battle.

That is the period discussed in this book – the US seizure of Guadalcanal was risky, as the Japanese could strike hard at the protecting naval forces and the troops, but the air base on the island increasingly took its toll on the Japanese ships and planes.  Surface actions came frequenty, from the disaster at Savo to others that were more even or even victories.  But regardless, the Japanese could not push the US away, and every month brought the arrival of massive US naval forces closer.

The US Navy (with some significant Commonwealth help, especially the Australians) needed time to gain experience meeting the Japanese, and took their lumps.  But every Japanese ship damaged or lost was gone for good, while the US kept getting more ships.

Finally, the US forced the Japanese out of the Solomons, and then began the Central Pacific offensives at Tarawa, Kwajalein and finally Saipan.  By this point, the Japanese Navy is hardly a threat to the assembled fleets – the latest battle was the famed “Marianas Turkey Shoot” where the air force was crushed and the newest Japanese carrier blew itself up from fuel fumes more than US bombs or torpedoes.

The book is big enough to give a more thorough treatment of the campaigns than standard one volume histories.  It has a little of the view of the Japanese side, but it is more the US view of the war than trying to show what both sides were doing equivalently.  Hopefully the third volume continues at this detail rather than slide off when the war gets totally one-sided as often happens.  I look forward to the third volume with some interest, as I am reading more about this part of the war these days.

The Struggle for Crete – I. McD. G. Stewart

Landings on Crete

A story of lost Opportunity

The story of the capture of the island of Crete by the Germans in 1941 is one of the more interesting ones in World War II, as it marked the dawn of a new era of major airborne operations and the end of it, at the same time.

It sounds so orderly and modern, using aircraft to drop crack soldiers onto an island far beyond the reach of normal operations, and wrest control of a vital island from the enemy. Like most military operations, the reality is a little more messy.

Planning…such as it was

When the German advance through the Balkans had driven the Commonwealth forces out of Greece, some of the evacuated units joined the garrison of the island of Crete.  This island could be used as a platform for airbases to bomb inland targets.  Their guess was there were only a few thousand defenders, demoralized by their defeats, to drive off.

These estimates were far off – there were some 30000 defenders of the island, some poorly armed and shaken up by defeats, but others resolute.  The German plan relied on the airborne troops to take airfields and ports to allow other troops to be delivered by air and by ship.  This latter would have to pass the gauntlet of the Royal Navy first.  Most of the troops would be dropped in the first wave, and at all the airfields across the island.  This left little margin for error and few reinforcements if the initial landings went badly. Aside from this small reserve, further troops would need an intact port or airfield to arrive.

The drop zones were right on top of the objectives, as if no resistance was expected. As it turned out, most of these areas were right in the middle of Allied troop deployments.

The Defense

The defense had a number of problems – it was occupied with the dumping of innumerable refugees and troops from the evacuation of Greece onto its laps.  Just getting them organized and fed was a challenge of sorts.  On the other hand, the original garrison had not been very energetic before that – there were no improved positions guarding the airfields, or beaches, or ports. When information started to come in that the Germans were thinking of invading, most thought of this as primarily a naval attack.  Still the airfields were not undefended.

The Airdrops

On 21 May the Germans landed in daylight all over the island.  The landings were a disaster, as the men landing on defending units were chopped up and wiped out.  Since this was the first airborne defense, the need to attack the airborne units at once was not known and only the forces at Heraklion did so on their own initiative.  Around the other airfields at Maleme at Retimo the Germans grouped up for attacks.

Also, the critical importance of the airfields was not known to the defenders. They thought that the troops could be brought in on flat beaches or fields.  They did not know that the paradrop reserves were so low.  They also imagined that naval invasions were an important factor that must be guarded.

Facing disaster, Student put all reserves at Maleme airfield and captured it.  Once down, troops were landed at any cost to provide the forces needed to take the island, as the paratoops themselves were mostly fought out.

The Advance

Once the lodgement was secure, mountain troops of the 5th Mountain Division were fed into the battle around Maleme and the defender’s position became critical.  The German air force was able to maul the troops and interdict supply.  Again, none of the defenders knew that by 22 June these planes would be needed in The defense could not be sustained and there were not the forces to reverse the situation.

An evacuation was ordered, that was aided by the pulling out of the German aircraft to prepare for the invasion of Russia.  Still, about half of the forces in Crete were lost.

The Butcher’s Bill

The tremendous losses of the airborne troops meant that the Germans would never risk them in a drop.  The lesson was that these troops could not survive for long in normal combat, so they could only be used if relief could be quickly.  The Allies learned that same expensive lesson at Market Garden, when the rosy estimates of how soon the British could come up the road were found to be in error.  The same result then was found – high quality troops destroyed.  Then the Allies made sure to never risk them again, only using them as infantry, or in the comic Varsity airdrop.

Hitler’s Wave-Breaker Concept – Henrik O. Lunde

An Analysis of the German End Game in the Baltic

This book covers the latter years of WWII around the Baltic region.  In 1944, the Soviet counteroffensives had pushed Germany nearly out of the USSR’s 1941 borders except for the Baltic regioin. Here, they were still withiin striking distance of Leningrad.

This extended the German lines in a long thin band northward with their backs to the sea. Was Hitler crazy?

Well, probably, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some reason to this deployment.

Keeping Finland in the war

Finland was increasingly restless as the war went bad. The loss of the Baltic would mean they would make peace – as they did when the retreat was forced in the summer

Training area for submarines

The region was the only safe place for testing submarines, especially the new models. This was likely a lost cause at this point

Secure supply of metals from Sweden

Losing the sea might threaten the iron shipments from Sweden.  This might justify some effort.

Holding off Soviets

Guarding this front locked down Soviet troops.  This is the most wishful thinking of the excuses, as the Soviets could and did draw out first line forces and use them elsewhere.

By Fall 1944, this flank had collapsed, and a good part of Army Group North was pinned in the Courland Peninsula where much of it sat out the rest of the war. Other coastal pockets were reduced.

This is an interesting, short look at a part of the Eastern Front that usually escapes coverage in the Barbarossa to Stalingrad then forget it histories that are so common. It is a difference to try and balance a series of bad options in a losing war effort to the usual discussion of how the Germans could have triumphed.

A Mad Catastrophe – Geoffrey Wawro

The Outbreak of World war I and the collapse of the Hapsburg empire

The East Front in WWI is very unrepresented in the historic literature, but some new books are coming out for the centennial.  This book centers on the first year of the war effort of Austria-Hungary in WWI, where a whirlwind of bad planning, poor preparation, foolish decisions, and political flaccidness led to an uninterrupted series of disasters in the field that led to them becoming an arm of the German war effort.

The strength of this book is the background it gives on Austria-Hungary, which is pretty rare.  The internal political strains are an important factor in why the army was allowed to lag behind other major powers.  All the powers would find themselves not prepared for the kind of war WWI turned out to be.  Austria-Hungary was unprepared for the last war before that.

Austria-Hungary was unique in having the worst initial war plan.  As much as you might scoff at the supposed Schleiffen Plan, or the .French Plan XVII, what the A-H army planned to do bordered on the insane.  Feeling the need to invade Serbia to punish them for killing the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, they diverted a major part of the army South to Serbia.  But given the rapid increase in Russian units on the other front, this army was then planned to be shipped right back north across the entire country to face the Russians!

Despite the lack of many forces, the A-H army attacked the Russians in the Polish salient right off.  While this had some initial success, the half of the Russian army not tied down by the troops being shuttled to Serbia and back were able to attack into the rear of the advancing troops and send them tumbling back and away.

The offensive into Serbia was an embarrassing failure from the start.  The land is extremely rugged, and the A-H army didn’t have much artillery that could handle the vertical slopes.  The first offensive fell apart.

And if at first you fail, well, do it all over again.  For the rest of the autumn, the army tried and failed to defeat the Serbs, and the Russians as well.  None worked, and the cost was disastrous.  Even the Germans could not prevail and push the Russians out of Poland, having to retreat twice.  The Austrians were pushed back to the top of the Carpathian mountains.

Ironically, the betrayal of the Central Powers by Italy the next year would lead to a resurgence of a sort by A-H.  Many of the varied ethnic minorities in the nation were ambivalent or worse about fighting the Slavic Serbia or Russia.  But all could agree to fight the hated Italians, who were as unready for serious warfare as Austria-Hungary had been the year before.  The savage battles of the Isonzo – twelve in all, creatively named the First through Twelfth Battles – would at least give the country a taste of victory to match the losses.

Verdun – John Mosier

The Lost History of the most important battle of World War i, 1914-1918

John Mosier is one of the group of ‘revisionist’ historians who have collectively helped fill in the gaps that are created by the standard line of historiography that has dominated the field for as long as I have been reading about it.  Even when I had no additional information, I was vaguely aware of the limits in the West Front dominated, England-centric view which starts with the Schleiffen Plan – BEF – Mons – Marne – Ypres – Verdun – Somme and so on.  In this view the French hardly seem to be involved in the war at all!  Surely they had something to do with it.  Also, the million or so Americans somehow never get mentioned.

Mosier’s theory, first brought out in “The Myth of the Great War”, is that much of the history is distorted.  The Germans maintained a large tactical advantage over the French and especially the English throughout the war, based on better tactical flexibility and integrated use of large caliber artillery pieces with the ground forces.  The Allies did not catch up partly because they ground up their experienced soldiers repeatedly in yet another big push.  The Americans were able to match the Germans tactically because their large, fresh forces were taught by the French mountain troops to use similar tactics to the Germans themselves, and broke the stalemate in the Allies favor.

This book, Verdun, is following the same view of the war, but has centralized the focus to the area around the fortified region around Verdun.  He widens the scope to the battles in the region in 1914 and 1915, where the city was nearly surrounded in the first offensives, then subsequent September 1914 German offensives again nearly isolated the city, followed by frantic French counteroffensives that bled them white while gaining nothing.

Then came the German major offensive in 1916 that is better known, although Mosier convincingly contends that many major incidents are misunderstood.  Then came the Nivelle offensive, which claimed to push the Germans back to their start line.  There was only one problem – it didn’t, and they knew it.  So for the next year the French had to attack in that area under Petain and could take no credit, since they were taking the positions that they were supposed to have been taken the year before.  However, the small, limited goal offensives did rebuild the morale of the army.  They took positions, and the leadership didn’t bleed them to death doing it.

In 1918 the Americans came, and in separate operations on either flank of Verdun swept the Germans back in the St Mihiel offensive and then turned and ground them out of the Ardennes tangles in the Meuse-Argonne offensives.  They were able to beat the Germans in major operations, which was something the French lacked the strength to do.

As in his other book, this is not a tactical level account of individual battles, but more of a military and political analysis of these battles and the war around it.  But it makes sense, and fits with some of the other new historians’ theories too.

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 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.