on 19 February 2010
I have studied the Second World War for the last fifty years and in that time, there have been some dramatic shifts in perception. In the early days,the German Army, via Blitzkreig,was seen as all conquering. Only the mud then snow before Moscow stopped the Wermacht from defeating Russia. In his book, Mr Kershaw goes a long way to rectifying this falacy. Far from being the mechanised route march to round up hapless Russian prisoners,portrayed by earlier authors, Barbarossa was a titanic struggle from the off. The Wermacht began to suffer serious casualties from day one and despite being far more oganised than their Russian foe, could not afford the casualty rates involved. Indivdual soldiers in their letters home began to express grave doubts about the outcome. Despite massive encirclements at Kiev,Minsk & Smolensk,capturing almost one and three quarter million Russian prisoners in the process,the cost to the German Army was unexpectedly horrendous. Mr Kershaw's forte is his ability to combine grand strategy with a selection of personel letters that reflect the serious doubts of the individual Landser. Whilst the Nazi Party apparatus trumpeted colossal victories,these letters tell of Divisons down to twenty tanks and Companies down to single figures with little or no prospect of immediate reinforcement and all this in the first six months. I cannot recall any other book that demonstrates more starkly the absolute folly of the German invasion of Russia. A superb book.
on 24 March 2010
This is a staggeringly good book, and a vital piece of the jigsaw when it comes to understanding the Eastern Front in the Second World War.
I have read widely on this subject, from war diaries to accounts of individual battles and to more general overviews. They are, of course, all bits of the jigsaw, and some are more vital than others. Despite its focus on both the initial Barbarossa end of the Eastern Front, and a heavy emphasis on the German experience, this book transformed my understanding.
Nowhere else did I gain such a vivid picture of the size of Russia. It's not just a simple case of maps, war diaries or figures for re-supply - it's the glueing together of all of this into a narrative that suddenly makes the great pushes and the kessels come alive - the strain on the German soldiers and the simple human scale of involvement in these actions.
In other accounts, of course, these first weeks and months seem to be a golden period for the Wehrmacht, as they plunge deeper and deeper into the Soviet Union, gaining stunning success after stunning success. The strain on and misery of the soldiers enjoying this apparent success comes out through Kershaw's knitting together of the narratives at various levels. This then helps feed into the reasons why the campaign spluttered out at the gates of Moscow, and provide a real, tangible picture of the overstretch that is often talked about in other accounts, without ever fully coming alive.
So, again, a piece in the jigsaw, but the most vital that I have read to date. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
on 8 December 2008
How do I start this review ?
I guess the first thing would be the recommendation to buy it. The read is easy and flowing. Easy, in that it is gripping and holds you, flowing in that as a history piece, it never becomes stodgy or bogged down.I would also say that I found this book to be tremendous value at the price as well. 580 pages for a few pounds in paperback.
The book provides an account of the opening months of Barborossa and does not, unlike other books on 'Barborossa' then file off to the years after. This book sticks with the opening operation, and the German attempt to knock out the Soviet Union quickly and in a series of co-ordinated hammer blows. Where the book or Mr Kershaw differs from other titles is that, not only is there the strategic overview, but we also get accounts of selected tactical encounters (rather than the strategic), and many letters and diary entries from soldiers serving. Most of these eye witness accounts are German, but Soviet offerings are included as well. Mr Kershaw does not then fall into the trap of "Well Corporal so and so who was there said this, so this must be true". He keeps these entries purely as embellishment, and as colouring of the subject he is trying to impart.
Despite having read many books on the subject matter, this was the first I have seen to concentrate on one of the first German obstacles, Brest-Litovsk. I was surprised to find out just how tough a nut this was to crack. But the main thrust of the book for me was the highlighting of the German Army's massive and quite frankly, unprecedented victories that kept bleeding themselves dry, or as Mr Kershaw put it from the translated German "Victoring itself to death".
and this seemed to be the main problem. Despite inflicting 2.1 million irretrievable casualties on the Red Army over 6-8 months, German losses, though nowhere near as high were simply not replaceable in military terms. Tanks, soldiers, experienced officers as well as other equipments too, could simply not got to the Front quickly enough or in quantity enough, especially as the front got further and further away from the Western border.
Memorable highlights of the book for me would be:
The unimaginable tenacity required to keep fighting in the bitterest cold of -40 degrees at times !
Some of the indecision of the German High Command as to where the main schwerpunkt (point of concentration) should be.
The Russian command's regular ineptitude and lack of care of losses taken.
The pure violence exhibited by both sides on the enemy and civilians (yes both sides on civilians).
This truly was the Ali v Frazier contest of all wars.... nothing could ever be comparable, and though I hate to say it, puts the Western effort very much as a sideshow (read "Europe At War - Norman Davies).
If I had anything to say against the book, I would post two arguments. First, I would take issue with solely blaming Hitler for the things that went militarily wrong in the first year. I think the German High Command made a few indecisive mistakes before he intervened, and Alan Clark in his 'Barborossa' makes a good case as to where Hitler could actually be credited with helping to save the Wehrmacht in the winter of 41/42 by keeping it standing despite the winter rather than a suicidal retreat with millions of Soviets on their tails.
To be fair, I think Mr Kershaw swings on both sides of the coin on this one, and for me did not come down on one side or the other TOO obviously.
The other point I would make is that this book is for me, really an accompanament to perhaps a more 'clinical' history on the subject. What I mean by this is that there are other books that give a much more sterile miliary overview of the battles, and leave you in no doubt as to where each division and corps were. 'War Without Garlands' does not entirely attempt that because it enters other spheres of importance that come into the story, including the 'Human interest' stories that so enrich this tome. That being the case, I would have to say that this is not a completely purist Military overview of the campaign...... it has other depth to it that you will not read in other offerings.
A fantastic read ! The first I've read of Robert Kershaw's, and have now been moved to buy other books by him. Thanks Robert ;-)
on 1 January 2011
Operation Barbarossa is universally considered as the defining event and the turning point of land operations in the European Theatre of Operations. After the German Angriff nach Osten the war was no longer a matter of a European struggle for supremacy but took intercontinental dimensions and after less than 6 months sealed the fate of Nazi Germany and her allies. This book describes the German Army operations ranging from the start of Barbarossa till its standstill and its reversals in front of Moscow of early december 1941. There is no doubt that Barbarossa was not an option born of Hitler's lunacy but a well thought operation whose success was to be the zenith of Hitler's regime, the realisation of what was first described in Mein Kampf ,and finally an event capable of finally forcing England to accept a peace treaty to sanction German power on the European mainland. This did not happen and from December 1941 German showed clearly her weaknesses and in spite of local successes was no longer able to mount attacks of the same scale of earlier ones. The reasons of this abject failure resides not just in the unexpected resiliance of the Soviet regime but mostly in the inability of the Nazi ierarchy to grasp the realities of the scale of their enterprise. Blinded by their ideology based on racial prejudices the Nazi regime showed their ignorance and lack of planning, that comdemned their finest troops to a gruesome struggle for survival against a cruel and determined enemy. An excellent book strongly recommended not just because of the remarkable coverage of military events but especially for the author's oustanding ability to provide a wider picture of the story including also political, strategic and human factors.
on 3 February 2009
An outstanding account of the first six months of the Russo-German war from June 1941 onwards which I would heartily recommend to anyone interested in World War II and the Eastern Front campaign.
This book combines text on strategy and operations of Operation Barbarossa with an enormous amount of 'worm's-eye' view experiences of German soldiers, with a good balance of coverage.
I read this very readable book, over 550 pages, in only two sittings. Particularly interesting to me were the experiences conveyed in the text of the German army, firstly, in the period immediately preceding June 22nd 1941, the moment of invasion into Russia, and, secondly, of the German army infantry's progressive discomfort during its long distance march further and further into the Soviet Union. I am sure there are many other individual battle experiences that others will find interesting to read.
There are some very useful maps of strategic and tactical operations.
An index to these maps somewhere in the book would have been useful but this omission did not detract from my reading experience.
on 19 July 2009
I have read few accounts as good as this of the war in the East, combining the strategic and the tactical with personal reminisces.
The concentration is on the Army Group Centre, with little on the Leningrad Campaign or events in the Ukraine, Kiev pocket excepted, and while there are a few personal accounts from the Russian side the vast majority are from the German side. Often these are junior ranks from letters home, of soldiers who died in the campaign. For a more strategic account, of both the run up to the campaign and the strategic errors on both sides I would recommend "Absolute War", but this book complements it well, with a lot more detail and is far more readable. It flows very well with only a few areas of repetition that would have benefited from a little more editing.
Mr Kershaw seems to see the ultimate failure of Barbarossa to be due to the lack of preparation for a prolonged campaign, and in particular the lack of logistical support and lack of ability to replace the losses of specialist technical and officer personnel. It seems from his point of view the campaign had more or less ground to a halt before the winter campaign and counterattack got started, destructive though these were.
He doesn't shy away from the ferocious breakout attempts from the various pockets, an infantry war rather than tank war. He also describes many atrocities by the Wehrmacht, who clearly were cut from the same cloth as the SS. He also gives some description of the extermination camps and death marches of the Soviet POW camps. Of the 2 million POW from the first six months of the war, 97% did not survive the war. This was before the Wansee conference, and in many ways was its prototype. This was a war of extermination, of Slavs as well as Jews. There are also vivid descriptions of Soviet atrocities, no one should be surprised at the mass rapes and destruction when the Soviet armies got to Germany in 1945.
on 30 May 2011
A very interesting book to study. It encompasses a select strategic overview of Operation Barbarossa with an abundance of anecdotal experiences. In fact the main theme of this book deals with the thoughts and actions of the German soldier as he fights a determined enemy, poor roads, violent rain storms, extreme temperatures and a battlefield that stretched forever.
The book begins a few days before Barbarossa launches as he Germans move to assembly points and make final preparations for the invasion and will end with the Russian counterattack in front of Moscow which started in early December. Between these two events, the strategic highlights are presented for Brest-Litovsk, Minsk, Smolensk, Leningrad, Kiev, Vyazma, Bryansk and the advance toward Moscow.
This overview is interesting but its too limiting for the serious student. David Glantz's "Before Stalingrad" has a more complete picture of Operations Barbarossa, Typhoon. But there is much more to this book than the strategic overview. The author seamlessly weaves hundreds of first hand experiences to help the reader understand the human side of war in addition to the technical. A description of what its like to struggle through muddy roads a foot deep or build a corduroy road or start a tank or truck in -20 weather or to keep your hands from falling off in that same freezing weather. The desperate situation a soldier finds himself in when wounded and miles from his unit or the partisans are hunting you. What is feels like when your assigned to clear a huge dark forest that could have Russians hiding behind every other tree.
Blitzkrieg is a favorite topic in the book and there are sidebars on panzer tactics, pocket encirclement and the costly job of clearing them, logistic problems and more.
The author also provides a number of maps that complements his narrative and includes engagements for Brest-Litovsk, Minsk, Smolensk, Leningrad, Kiev and Moscow. There is another map that shows all of the major encirclements that were cleared by the Germans in 1941.
There are 132 photos to study and you won't find a single commander in the batch. All the photos are of troops on the ground, panzer attacks, POWs. The assortment was good but some are showing their age and are faded. Despite the less than perfect quality, the photos were still interesting.
There is also a brief Notes section, Bibliography, Appendix and Index.
Though it was an interesting read, I was a little disappointed with the incompleteness of the battle coverage. I would still recommend it for new or casual readers of the war for it does highlight the important battles of 1941 and includes some interesting topics that sometimes are overlooked by other authors.
on 15 April 2012
A commendable book: well written and unputdownable. It will give you great insight in the immensity of operation Barbarossa from the perspective of the ordinary soldier. Of particular interest for me were:
- the bloody nose the Germans received at the onset of the operation in the battle for Brest-Litovsk (the first Soviet pocket).
- the quick realisation that this operation would not be a repeat of the French campaign. The Russian soldiers often fighting to the bitter end, even in hopeless circumstances, and doing so, inflicting massive German casualties. "Better three French campaigns than one Russian."
- the author explaining very well how the German army was "victorying itself to death" while moving even further into Russia: the costly Kesselslachten, the logistic 'tripwire', the enormous distances, the tenacity of the Russians. While these "victories" created annihilation, destruction, prisoners and atrocities on a massive and unprecedented scale.
- the German offensive finally stuttering to a halt in the great battles before Moscow. Some soldiers already seeing the spires of Moscow only to be thrown back in gruesome winterfighting in snowstorms in -25 C or lower. The accounts of the retreat from Moscow are harrowing. Specifically for the civilians whose houses and property were systematically burnt during the retreat. Pitilessly setting them outside in cruel freezing temperatures down to -30 and -40 C.
on 7 January 2012
This book finally explains the apparent conundrum of how the Wehrmacht during Operation Barbarossa lost 60,000 dead in six weeks whilst apparently scything its way effortlessly through the Soviet Union. The sheer brutality of the campaign and the toll it took on all parties are unflinchingly described and text is terse, spare and well-written.
I have a number of quibbles: the author seems slow to judge the Wehrmacht, which aided and abetted genocide and the author is - to my mind - insufficiently judgmental of the notorious 'Kommisar Order'; also the focus of the book is clearly slanted towards the German rather than Soviet experience, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
When I acquired the book, I was unimpressed to find photographs apparently xeroxed from a machine fast running out of toner... For all that it's a wonderful book.
on 30 March 2011
So much has been written on this subject that it is exciting to read a book with a fresh approach, and one that sticks to the topic. This is an excellent book and I found the single most pertinent point was of the German Army `Victorying itself to death'. This is a concept that has not been brought out before, and one that is unfortunately all too common. As a concept It should be a compulsory study for all military commanders and for all senior managers.
A good read and highly recommended