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 Seven Years War in Europe 1756-1763 – Franz A. Szabo

The Seven Years War is one of those ‘tweener’ periods in history.  It is bracketed on either side by the massive catastrophes of the Thirty Years War and the Napoleonic Wars, so there is a temptation to call it one of those ‘nice’ wars where nations played it safe and damage in wars was minimal.  In the US, most of the attention is directed at the local portion of the conflict, the French and Indian wars, which laid down the groundwork for American Independence.

But this is misleading.  The ‘cockpit’ of the war in Germany was the scene of the most cynical land grab by a country since…the last cynical land grab they’d done.  Alliances shifted so that countries that had been enemies for generations were now allies, and vice versa.  There were numerous battles fought with severe casualties on both sides, and nations had to dig deep to find the men to keep fighting.

Prelude

Like most wars, the seeds of the current war were sown in the war before.  The War of the Austrian Succession began when the Emperor of Austria had no male heir, and made the diplomatic rounds trying to get agreement for his daughter, Maria Theresa, to inherit the realm intact.  But almost instantly when she took power, Frederick II of Prussia invaded the province of Silesia and took it from her.  When the war ended, Prussia still held the province and thus nearly doubled its wealth and population, thus becoming a notable power and a permanent enemy of Austria.

With Austria now more angry at an aggressive Prussia than fearful of a less than powerful France, these two now aligned with Russia to fight the growth of Prussia.  England, still an enemy of France thus aligned with Frederick against Austria.

The Opening of the War

Since it worked so well the last time, Frederick opened the war with a quick land grab.  This time it was the state of Saxony, and quickly its army was incorporated into Prussia’s and its resources were stripped to support the war.  Interestingly, the stamps used to coin money for Poland were also captured, and counterfeiting was added to the tools used to finance the war.

Quest for Victory

But as in the previous war, matters changed after the initial blitz.  Attempts by Frederick to win a decisive victory and end the war repeatedly failed.  Now, having managed to surround himself with enemies, he found that they could threaten him at widely dispersed points.  His strokes deep into Austria were turned aside, but when his enemies tried to strike deep into Prussia he did manage to defeat them.  These latter battles are where his “Great”-ness hinges on.  But in-between these wins were defeats small and large, and even the victories cost men that his tiny state could ill afford.  And as time went on his enemies learned, and dismissed their most incompetent generals, and victories were hard to come by and even more expensive.

Staring Defeat in the Face

By the latter stages of the war Prussia was on the ropes.  The caution of the other side, and the great distances the Russians had to travel to reach the battlefield were all that had kept the country from being overrun.  Then, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia died and the Czar Paul switched sides to join him.  Even when he was deposed by Catherine, Russia did not feel up to continuing the war.  Austria had to give up, and restore the situation to that before the war started.

How Great is Frederick

If you ask this author, the answer would be “not that Great”.  It is obvious that he is no fan of Freddie, and many of his reasons are solid.  I do think he might have gone a little too far in exposing the less noble side of the King.  He relishes reporting every occasion that he fled a battle only to find his army won it in his absence.  He notes every time he neglects to reward a general for saving his bacon, or punishes one for obeying mistaken orders. He quotes numerous whining letters during troubled times claiming he would have to kill himself or die gloriously in some battle to avoid capture.

And many of these would have served as a good corrective for the usual gloss laid over Frederick the Great. But when somehow there is never a single time noted that Frederick boosted the career of a subordinate, when additional claims of fleeing battles are backed up only with ‘some say’…it is hard to take all of this seriously, especially when the coverage of the ups and downs of the other courts are covered more even-handedly.

So was Frederick a great general?  Well, he balances out his great victories with overaggressive losses.  He never seemed to be able to get out of these wars as easily as he got into them.  His invasions of major countries were uniformly dismal defeats.  I would shade this towards ‘no’.

Was he a great King?  There, you might have something.  Before Frederick, Prussia was not the top German state outside of Austria.  It might not have even been in the top 5.  But at the end of the period, the Kingdom was a great power in Europe, equivalent to France, Britain, Russia, and Austria.  And there would be no more Powers after that, as the middle rank states were absorbed into one or another power.  He certainly miscalculated the furor that his power grabs would unleash, but he managed to hang onto Silesia through both wars and dominate Saxony through most of the Seven Years War.  That’s good enough to earn that title – the fact that Prussia would dominate most of Germany was locked down by these two wars.  The domination of all of it would be set up by the Franco-Prussian war and Bismarck.

Overall View

So how was the book?  Very good.  The detail of politics in all the countries involved is unmatched.  Again, there might be a slant in the Prussian view tending to make Frederick look more like a jerk than he was, but keep in mind that he undoubtedly was quite a jerk.  Descriptions of battles are relatively short, but balancing this is that many more battles are covered, including ones that Frederick was not involved with.  It does not cover the war outside Europe at all, but never claimed to.  It covers the Austrian and Russian sides better than any other history I’ve read.

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.

The Restoration of Rome – Peter Heather

Barbarian popes and imperial pretenders

This is the third book in a series about the end of the classical world and the development of modern Europe.  The first centered on the fall of the Western Empire, and the second was on the change in Europe from a Germanic dominated to a Slavic dominated eastern Europe and Balkans.

The Restoration of Rome covers another aspect of post-Roman Europe – the attempt to recover the idea of the Empire in a new world.  First, came the attempts to physically duplicate the Empire – starting with Theodoric the Ostrogoth.

Within 20 years or so of the Fall of the West, Theodoric took a faction of Goths into the Eastern Empire to make their fortune, just as many other groups had in the last several hundred years.  With a little luck and cleverness, his faction grew to be powerful enough to be considered a threat to the Empire.  Thus they were ‘invited’ to move into Italy to take it away from Odovacar, who had put the final nail in the Western Empire.

Theodoric succeeded very well, and managed to dominate the successor states and become the arbiter of the region.  For a short time he even acquired south France and Spain.  He and his court saw himself as a true successor of Rome.  And he might well have pulled it off – except he did not produce an heir.

This left an opening for the second attempt to physically recover the Western Empire – Justinian’s attempt to recover the West.  He managed to destroy the Ostrogothic state in the end, but did not have the strength to hold on when faced with the subsequent threats of the Lombards in Italy and the Muslims in the East.

The third successor to claim Imperial honors was Charlemagne and the Frankish Empire in North France and Germany.  This was the first successor to move beyond the Mediterranean core and set up an Empire in Europe proper.  Again, they managed to produce a mini Enlightenment that lasted a while, but soon the power of the Empire faded, this time for structural reasons.  Dr Heather notes that a feudal state has a fundamental issue with rewarding followers – a state like Rome can give jobs and money from tax revenues perpetually.  A feudal state leader needs to give land to followers, which results in a permanent transfer of power from the central government to the aristocracy. Eventually, central power fades away.  This happened to the Frankish Empire, and the subsequent Ottonian Empires in Germany.

The final chapter is a new take on claiming the mantle of Rome – the Papacy. Rather than using force to make a physical copy of Rome, that could not be sustained in a post-Roman world, the Papacy claimed a moral successorship to Rome and became a moral arbiter of the successor states in Europe.  They had to pull some interesting tricks to pull it off, but the Middle Ages until the Reformation and later centered around the power of the Papacy in Europe.

This is a great, readable series on not only the history of this period, but also its reflection on other times.

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.

Endgame at Stalingrad Book 2: David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House

The stalingrad trilogy, volume 3

This almost final book in the Stalingrad Trilogy covers the German Counteroffensives and Operation Little Saturn, and the death of the German Pocket after the failure to relieve the pocket.

The unexpectedly large pocket at Stalingrad meant that the Soviets had to re-evaluate their next offensive, Operation Saturn.  A good fraction of the forces would be tied down holding the pocket and defending against the threatened German counteroffensive from the South.  The plans were changed to Operation “Little Saturn” – a smaller offensive to broaden the offensive to the West and crush the Italian 8th Army.  Meanwhile the armored forces from the first attack would press the Chir River line to immobilize the forces closest to Stalingrad.  The strike force for Saturn’s east pincer would move to block any forces moving from Kotelnovko towards Stalingrad from the south.

The German’s counterattack ran into problems from the start as half of their force was embroiled on the Chir river and while it managed to hold ground and grind up units, it eventually had to retire due to Little Saturn’s forces threatening to cut it off.  The other pincer got off to a good start against the weak and tired forces holding the ring but were stopped and driven back by 5th Tank Army, the diverted Saturn attack force.

Even if it had made more ground, it is hard to see what could have happened.  The forces in the pocket did not have the mobility to retire across the snowy steppe in the face of heavy Soviet tank forces.  They could hold in place fairly well, but only a crushing German victory that re-established the original front had a chance of saving the forces at Stalingrad. This was not going to happen.

Little Saturn at the end of December led to both German offensives being broken off.  The focus then turns to the death of the Pocket over the next month.  It was important to the rest of the German army for these men to hold out as long as possible, to keep the Soviet forces busy.  The Germans managed to establish a new front far to the west to keep the war continuing, but the chance to win the war was definitively over.

Again, this is a very detailed, day to day and even minute by minute recounting of one of the major actions in WWII.

Endgame at Stalingrad: Book One – David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House

The stalingrad trilogy, volume 3

The “Trilogy” ended up being 4 fat books, hence the Book 1 and Book 2.  The first volume in the Series – To the Gates of Stalingrad – covered the “Case Blue” offensive that swept across Southern Russia to the outskirts of Stalingrad and to the Caucasus.  The second volume – Armageddon in Stalingrad –  covered the two months when the Axis tried to take Stalingrad and as the rest of the offensive petered out just short of their goals.

The third volume – in two fat books of which this is the first – covers the Soviet counteroffensive that crushed the flanking forces around Stalingrad and encircled the city with over 250,000 men inside.  This first book covers the planning and initial offensive – Operation Uranus- that provided the first successful major Soviet offensive in the war.

This is an incredibly detailed look at this battle – almost 700 pages.  It goes back to primary sources including Soviet archive documents that have only recently been revealed.  Glantz was one of the first westerners allowed to see these archives back in the 80s and 90s.  This means that the German slant in most earlier histories is mitigated. This is the most detailed history of this operation in existence.

While the Soviets did plan well, there were still some contingencies that they did not expect.  The counterattack in the city and the north side were unsuccessful.  But the breakouts further westward along the Don were very successful and managed to link up to the southern pincer.  The Soviets could not keep the forces on the Don from retiring on Stalingrad, swelling the number of trapped units in the pocket far past Soviet expectations.

This would affect the Soviet follow-on offensive plan, Operation Saturn in December, as more forces were needed to contain and reduce the city and defend against the threatened German relief attempt.

This book only covers the Stalingrad area operations. The Caucasus operations in this period are planned for a Volume 4 (!)

The Viaz’ma Catastrophe, 1941 – Lev Lopukhovsky

The Red Army’s Disastrous stand Against Operation Typhoon

In late September, 1941, the German invasion of the USSR was in the curious position of succeeding massively in some ways and failing miserably in others.  The losses of the Russians were stupendous, the land gained was impressive on the map.  On the ground, though, the army was stretched to cover an increasing front and could no longer support offensives in all directions.  Instead the eroding panzer forces had to be concentrated in one section of the front to break through.  And rather than having opposition fade with time as the plan required, Russian resistance seemed to be holding steady, or even growing. And winter was coming.

Unwilling to change any of the premises behind the invasion, the Germans instead decided to repeat the same plan that had merely given them impressive gains but no final resolution when tried in June at the borders or at Kiev in August.  And this time their forces were weaker.  Operation Typhoon was set up to lunge in the center of the front, towards Moscow.

The forces in this area had spent most of the summer attacking the Germans and were worn down and not in a position of defense.  In a matter of days, the front was shattered and most of the men in it killed or captured.  The reduction of the pockets continued for a month until the Autumn rains caused a pause in the offensive to work out supply difficulties.  This gave the Soviets time to build up a new defensive line to contest the next phase of Typhoon as the weather declined into full winter.  Again, the offensive had produced impressive victories without winning the war.

This is an immensely detailed look at a campaign that usually gets about as much explanation as I just gave it.  The view is from the Soviet side, and doesn’t spare anyone from the mistakes that led to the disaster.  It also provides evidence that the USSR has understated the actual losses by about half, and that a million men were killed or captured.

Another thread in this history is of the survivors of the fallen.  The author lost his own father in this battle and explains that body recovery and identification of the fallen in these battles is still going on today.  Former POWs are still being ‘rehablitated’ when these studies can prove that they did not surrender without cause.  Part of the reason for the author wanting an accurate list of losses is to keep the process going until all the fallen are recognized.  It adds a sobering thought that the impact of these battles isn’t over even so long afterward.

 

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.