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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.