Friday, 6 January 2012

Book Review - War without garlands : Operation Barbarossa 1941 - 1942 by Robert Kershaw

War without garlands : Operation Barbarossa 1941 - 1942 by Robert Kershaw

England : Ian Allen Publishing, 2010 (Originally published 2000)  ISBN 9780711033245

Given that this book's title is misleading, and that it is poorly edited (running a manuscript through a spell checker is not editing!), it is a fascinating and illuminating read.

This book is essentially the story of the German Army Group Centre's attack on Russia, from the 22 June 1941 to their withdrawal from Moscow in early 1942 - with a sideways glance at Army Group South's encirclement of the Russians around Kiev, and Army Group North's siege of Leningrad.

Kershaw's style of storytelling - he's not the (Ian) Kershaw of the Hitler biographies - is to rely heavily on letters, diaries, SS reports and unit histories. This is quite successful in that it gives the reader a sense of immediacy, and makes this large book (580 pages) a pageturner almost to the last.

While most readers with an interest in World War II will know the history of Operation Barbarossa, Kershaw's book gives us the feeling of what it was like to be a German or Russian soldier caught up in the fighting.

While the general history emphasises the enormous victories by the German army, what comes out through the quotes of letters and diaries in this book are the immediate enormous losses by the German Army Groups, even while they were scoring victory after victory. Kershaw makes the point that this first year of Barbarossa (indeed the first six months), wiped out the "old" core of officers and NCOs, who had fought through the earlier campaigns, and they were being replaced by cadres more steeped in National Socialist ideology. This loss of the "moral" core of the Army is noted by Kershaw. Even at losses of manpower running at a quarter of the rate of the Soviets, the German Army lost over half a million men in the enveloping battles before getting to the gates of Moscow, with a corresponding loss of equipment.

The folly of the Germans believing that Russia would collapse in a matter of weeks came back to bite them, with equipment failing not just from the cold, but from being worn out, as it wasn't replaced after the earlier campaigns in France and the Balkans. The German's lack of strategic basis for the campaign also created problems, with a desire to destroy the army in the field meaning that Panzer units were being moved hither and yon to fight the Soviets where they were massed, rather than focussing on taking cities such as Moscow and Leningrad in the initial thrust. The planning was also hit hard when the OKH discovered they were not fighting the 200 divisions they expected, but 360.

Operation Typhoon, Army Group Centre's thrust at Moscow, started too late in the year, and was almost doomed to fail before it began: the lack of logistical support before the attack due to the inability to move material across the primitive Russian road and rail network meant that the remaining front-line forces (20 - 35% smaller than at the beginning of Barbarossa) did not have enough fuel, ammunition, replacement tanks and motorised transport - not to mention the criminal lack of equipment to fight the penetrating cold of the Russian winter.

The mood of the soldiers throughout the campaign seems to be one of weary forbearance - never getting enough sleep or food, many of them succumbed to disease and cold owing to lack of physical health, and even in victory there seems to be a lack of a feeling of triumph.

If you are a student of World War II history, and the Russian campaign in particular, this book would be worth hunting out - it gave me a new perspective on the early German triumphs in that campaign.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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