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.

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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.

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.

 

Utah Beach – Joseph Balkoski

Utah Beach is a companion volume to the author’s previous Omaha Beach. Like its companion, it follows the first day, June 6, 1944 on this second American Beach in detail. It moves from conception as a late addition to the invasion to widen the front to the end of the first day.

The terrain at Utah was not as imposing as Omaha, with its high cliffs, but in many ways less suitable for an invasion. There was a fine beach, but the land behind was so low and flooded that all traffic inland had to cross narrow causeways.  These could be defended by as little as a handful of men with some guns indefinitely.  The planners tried to avoid this by having two airborne divisions drop behind these causeways at night before the invasion and seize the inland end that night to keep defenses from being set up.  So in addition to the complexities of a naval invasion of a defended coast, the plan needed to add airdrops and plans to relieve these troops as soon as possible.

Mass airborne attacks were a new thing, and like most new things they did not go off as planned.  There were high winds and mistakes in locating the landing zones that led to the two divisions being scattered all over the region.  While not as bad as the debacle in Sicily the year before, a confused series of battles broke out as the two airborne divisions landed in the middle of two German divisions. While the confusion in the US troops was considerable, with units in the wrong locations and often fragments of the planned size, the Germans found the situation incomprehensibly confusing, as there were pockets of paratroopers all over the place.

The dawn invasion did not go off like clockwork either.  The tides led to the landing craft drifting a mile off course.  This meant that units were not at the planned locations, so that attacks had to be reorganized on the fly.  Luckily, it was quickly done and the fire on the beaches was much less than at Omaha.  It was easier to reorganize without the severe losses at that beach, but it was just as essential to clear the beaches and move inland.

When the nearest causeways were reached, they found that the airborne forces had managed to regroup in the night and take the far end, allowing the troops to move inland rapidly and rescue the isolated paratroopers farther inland.

The first day lodgement was six miles inland, and would expand deeper when pockets of the 82nd Airborne were linked up with.  Casualties were only 800 for the sea landed forces – but the airborne forces lost but when you add in the airlanding the losses rise to 3450 men,  about half dead or captures.  This is approaching the losses at Bloody Omaha beach that same day.

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.