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on 16 November 2012
Michael Reynolds' 'Steel Inferno' covers the history and deployment of the German I SS Panzer Corps during the Second World War. The book details the foundation of the corps, a brief history of the Waffen SS and of the 1st SS and 12 SS Divisions, and the fighting the corps - and in particularly these two divisions - was involved in during the Normandy Campaign of 1944.
On the whole 'Steel Inferno' is an easy to read book. However, whole sections of text are over-explained. In particular, throughout Reynolds continues to "translate" British terminology to American when there is no real need after the differences have been first explained. This is somewhat ironic since German terms are presented with little to no translation. In addition one needs some basic background knowledge of the campaign to get the most out of this book since little is elaborated on. Furthermore, there is a major issue when it comes to sources and Reynolds bibliography. Only the secondary sources Reynolds has used - a pretty decent sized collection - are listed but little specific information is given on the primary sources he has consulted. Finally, the inline citations are limited, sometimes problematic, and do not cover most of his claims made and quotes provided, leaving what seems to be most of the book un-sourced.
The opening chapters provide a background on the Waffen SS, and the foundation of the 1st and 12th SS Divisions and the I SS Panzer Corps. Reynolds highlights how the SS was founded in racist/nationalist philosophies, that its combat formations were afforded no special training (later units, as stated further in the book, provided barely adequate training) and instead relied on high morale from a fostering of a family spirit and arrogance of being better than other German troops. It is also noted that the first units were also utilised as murder squads, and would follow any order given. The myth that the 12th SS was deployed to combat with boys or young teens is quickly squashed, and it is highlighted how the division was like most of any other nation at the time and filled with 18-year olds, the difference being the 12th SS was founded on the young age group while other divisions recruited from across age groups. These opening chapters however are full of hyperbole and unsupported claims. Criticisms aimed at the likes of Sepp Dietrich are washed over, and the Waffen SS is somewhat made out to be the most high-tech and innovated formation ever, without evidence or comparison with other national or even German units.
The next two chapters deal with the weapons of war used, the organisation and tactics employed by both the Waffen SS and the Allied forces. Reynolds corrects several myths that have built up about the Waffen SS and highlights how the 1st and 12th SS were organised. Reynolds compares the weaponry used, however no sources are provided and the opinion offered differs highly from other historians out there, and comes across as largely Reynolds own opinion on the matter rather than information based on fact and analysis. In comparing tank design, Reynolds offers no information on the role intended for the tanks he talks about or how the Allied approach to war differed from the German. He appears to argue that since the Allies did not copy the German approach, they got it wrong. His entire position is not backed up, and goes largely un-sourced. In light of more modern scholarship, such as John Buckley's 'British Armour in the Normandy Campaign', Reynolds position comes across as very outdated. Reynolds other argument that the failure of tank design, as he sees it, should be placed upon the heads of the Allied political and military leadership seems to largely ignore the reality of the political, scientific, industrial, logistical, and strategic situation. In chapter 4 a comparison of the Waffen SS and Allied armoured divisions is made, although it is not pointed out that the Allied divisions were not designed to seek out and engage the German ones. So while the comparison is useful in allowing the reader to see the different approach taken by each nation, it is relevantly useless on the whole. Unfortunately, Reynolds quickly descends into a long discussion on what the British got wrong, rather than concentrating on the pros and cons of the Waffen SS divisions. Again, Reynolds comes across as stressing the point that the British did not fight the German way and does not seem to appreciate the fact that different nations adopted different methods of waging war, and most importantly that the war had changed dramatically from the early 'Blitzkrieg' campaigns. It comes across somewhat ironic when Reynolds states that the British had not learnt the "lessons of the past few years" and that "the price [would be] paid in casualties". Reynolds does not state it, but this equally applied to the German forces in Normandy and several examples soon follow throughout the book.
In chapter 5 Reynolds provides an excellent look at both the German and Allied chain of command, the lack of direction in the German case, and the strategy of both sides. The examination of the Allied strategy is quite good; however Reynolds spends far too much time examining the Allied side of things and somewhat overlooks the German. With the strategy examined, Reynolds turns to the actual fighting. A vivid account of the confusion and fighting of the first day of the battle is provided. Reynolds comments that Kurt Meyer's 'Grenadiers' is not the best of sources due to the political position of its author (and much later in the book acknowledging that he is melodramatic in his retelling of events), however in parts of this chapter - and more so in later chapters - he ends up allowing Meyer to tell the story of what happened through extended quotes and providing little critical analysis of these extracts.
The Battle of Buron, taking place on 7 June, is next described. On the whole Reynolds provides a balanced account of what took place and levels criticism at both sides and in particular Kurt Meyer's handling of the battle. Reynolds also takes time to refute Meyer's claim that the 21st Panzer Division did nothing during the day to help Meyer's men. While a good account is provided, one feels that other sources are more useful. William Buckingham's 'D-Day the First 72 Hours' covers the opening of the battle better, and provides a more rounded opinion on the other forces involved in the days fighting north of Caen: 21st Panzer and the British 3rd Infantry. Terry Copp's 'Fields of Fire' also presents a much more rounded opinion of the day long back and forth fighting between the Canadians and Germans, albeit in a much more compacted version.
The following chapters, covering the first week of the battle, all provide a good look at the fighting from both sides, and an excellent look at both the Allied and German strategy. A good look at the campaign from the German point of view is built up. In addition, a wide variety of quotes and extracts are utilised that spice up the narrative, however Reynolds does seem to let these quotes tell the story in places. This is especially true of extended passages from Meyer, where he is left to tell his version of events way to much rather than Reynolds providing a balanced position. It is interesting to see Reynolds not condemn the German forces for mistakes he has already criticised the British over. Earlier in the book Reynolds lambasts the British for organising "O Groups", where senior officers would group to organise upcoming actions. Reynolds recounts how officers from the 12th SS organised such a meeting, and were subsequently hit by artillery fire disturbing the chain of command for the upcoming attack. Yet no criticism is brought up. Likewise, German attacks in the Normandy terrain are shown to be as costly as the British and Canadian attacks, but again no disapproval is forthcoming. Reynolds' sourcing and scope of writing also comes into question. An extended quote is provided from a Canadian soldier, who recalls a German armour attack that was repulsed. Reynolds then informs the reader that the last part of this account was crossed out in the Canadian regiment's war diary, and references this to the Canadian Official History of the Campaign by Colonel Stacey. The Official History contains the same story, but not the quote Reynolds uses and does not mention anything about text being crossed out. This makes one question why Reynolds has not provided accurate source information, and what point he was trying to make: Is the Official History incorrect? Is the Canadian soldier/war diary wrong? Did the event actually take place? No answers are provided.
Reynolds account of the Battle of Villers-Bocage is extremely problematic. While an okay account of what happened is provided, the chapter is littered with errors. Reynolds comes across extremely critical of the British 7th Armoured Division before the fighting even started. While it is true a large number of errors were made by the British before and during the battle, Reynolds essentially states every move or decision the British made from the start was wrong and places the blame for everything squarely upon the head of Brigadier Hinde. While Hinde did in fact make mistakes, Reynolds misses out a lot of the context to explain Hinde's decisions prior to the battle. For example Reynolds gives the incorrect impression that when the 7th Armoured Division started its advance, that it did so as a compact formation whereas it was strung out. When Hinde made his decision to halt for the night, he had to wait for troops to catch up and the halt invited the possibility of a southern strike into the gap in the German frontline or turning to advance on Villers-Bocage. Reynolds gives the impression that from the German point of view only one option was available, which does not explain why Reynolds notes that the Germans were rushing reinforcements to plug the gap south of the Allied forces, and not being rushed to the Villers-Bocage area. Strategy aside, Reynolds does not explain - if he agrees or not - that it was also British policy to halt for the night to bring up supply vehicles and that the British had been advancing all day and would have needed refuelling. When Reynolds moves on to the fighting on 13 June, he erroneously claims a lone tank held up the entire British armoured division, which is just plain incorrect and ignores what happened. He further overblows the initial skirmish of the battle and downplays the rest of the days fighting. While Reynolds levels some spot-on criticism at the commanders of the British 7th Armoured Division and 30 Corps, and highlights that the British commanders overplayed the arrival of elements of the 2nd Panzer Division, he deliberately misleads the reader on the overall picture. The German attacks are downplayed, the disposition of the British force is misrepresented, and Reynolds acts as if the entire British division was sitting outside the town doing nothing. He also, unbelievably, suggests that the British should have sacrificed their entire division around the town to change the strategic situation, which ignores the strategic reality of the campaign, not to mention the operational method of the 21st Army Group, and the perilous manpower situation the United Kingdom found itself in. While there are some precise criticisms of the British force, the chapter on the whole is a shambles. For an accurate look at the battle, and a more balanced analysis of both the British and German forces, the works of George Forty, Henri Marie, and Dan Taylor should be consulted.
Reynolds account of Operation Epsom, while providing an interesting and informative look at the battle from the German point of view on a day to day basis, provides an extremely flawed and simplistic look at the operation on the whole. His account of the planning, and what the operation intended to achieve is also weak and one would recommend 8 Corps official history or Lloyd Clark's 'Operation Epsom', from the Battle Zone Normandy series, to gain a better understanding of the planning and execution. Reynolds analysis of why Epsom ending is just as flawed and somewhat unbelievable. He claims that the Germans destroyed the British bridgehead over the River Odon and implies the offensive had been halted with little effort. What Reynolds does not explain is that the British still held a bridgehead across the river, and that the Germans had halted the offensive only by committing all of their mobile forces and reinforcements to the battle, and that the British offensive had halted their own planned offensive to attempt to destroy the Allied beachhead. Reynolds claims the British gave away the initiative and went onto the defensive due to a belief that a German counterattack was to be expected. While this last point is correct, it is only correct by ignoring what happened. By sticking firmly with the I SS Panzer Corps, Reynolds deliberately avoids discussing the massed counterattacks against the British bridgehead and new frontline, mainly by the II SS Panzer Corps, that was fought off over the days following the conclusion of Epsom and that this was the reason why the offensive was ended. Likewise, he does not point out while the British were able to withdraw and redeploy their armour - in fact retaining the initiative as they were then able to strike at will - the Germans were not able to do so, quite so freely. Clark's work give a much better account of the operation as a whole, and Kevin Beaverstock's 'Breaking the Panzers' illuminates the threat facing the British frontline and why the offensive came to an end, completely ignored by Reynolds.
In the following chapters, dealing with the other major battles around Caen, Reynolds appears to return to a fairy balanced view of what happened. Both sides point of view of the battle is well represented, and the German approach to these battles is well detailed. An interesting, albeit limited, discussion about the capability of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, along with its commanding officer is also brought up. The chapter covering Operation Goodwood, is of a much better quality than the previous ones that have covered major fighting. A very accurate and balanced look at the plans and preparations of both sides are provided, although it feels that too much time is spent on the British side of things. The back and forth and bloody fighting of both sides is detailed in a very balanced way and the operation is laid bare for what it did and did not achieve although Ian Daglish differs widely, in his `Operation Goodwood' on von Luck's role in the fighting near Cagny. Reynolds provides a detailed analysis of German tank losses, slightly lower than commonly published, and destroys the myth of how many British tanks were lost during the fighting although more recent work such as Simon Trew's `Battle of Caen' suggest different British figures. It is unfortunate however to see no figure provided for overall German losses, considering the analysis that went into overall tank losses. The subsequent fighting against the Americans, British, Canadians and Poles is also handled, on the whole, in a balanced manner with very few apparent errors. With that said Reynolds account of Operation Totalize, and its objectives, are at odds with more modern work such as Brian Reid's `No Holding Back'. A paragraph is reserved to help destroy the myth of how Michael Wittmann died, and Reynolds notes it was via anti-tank fire not from any aircraft. However, in relating how he died - attacking across open terrain with exposed flanks - Reynolds provides no criticism and uses Kurt Meyer to glorify this attack. Throughout these chapters a detailed look at the casualties, both manpower and tank wise, suffered by the 12th SS is built up, and Reynolds highlights how the losses the division took is at odds with the incorrect figures commonly published.
One of the major problems with this work, is how Reynolds deals with the various war crimes attributed to both the 1st and 12th SS. The Wormhoudt massacre is first to be discussed. In acknowledging that insufficient evidence exists to state clearly if Wilhelm Mohnke played a role in the murder of British soldiers, Reynolds comes across as downplaying the entire event. When the 1st SS history in the Soviet Union is discussed, the number of war crimes attributed to the division is ignored except for one example. In this case, the murders committed by the division are downplayed against an example of Soviet brutality. While it is clear both sides committed war crimes, Reynolds provides no balance on the issue and is clearly taking sides. Crimes committed in Italy are talked down, and accusations made against American atrocities go un-sourced. Reynolds quotes Max Hasting's work on the Normandy campaign, in which Hasting accuses Allied forces of shooting Waffen SS captives out of hand and on a regular basis. No primary source evidence is brought to the reader's attention to support this, and no discussion is made on if this was the case, why were so many members of the LAH and 12th SS taken prisoner. In criticising the handling of post-war war crime trails, against former members of the 12th SS, for relaying to much of hearsay, Reynolds ironically recounts hearsay evidence alleging war crimes committed by British forces against members of the Waffen SS. Reynolds does, somewhat, redeem himself in acknowledging that prisoners on both sides were killed and that all war criminals, regardless of side, should have been brought to justice.
'Steel Inferno' is therefore a mixed bag. On one hand a decent look at the campaign, from both sides, is provided. The role of the I SS Panzer Corps, and that of the LAH and 12th SS, is well discussed. A grand selection of quotes, from former members, is used to spice up the account and add to the oral history of the campaign. Reynolds makes a quip that accounts of various battles have been flawed for relaying on incorrect primary sources, however Reynolds throughout allows extended primary sources - in particular Kurt Meyer - relate what happened instead of using various primary and secondary sources to build up a picture of what actually happened. In the opening of 'Steel Inferno' Reynolds states that his aim is to provide an account free of bias, however by page 11 this goal seems to have vanished. In places he comes across as almost worshipping the members of the 1st and 12th SS, and throughout the book talks down about Allied troops of all sides. Throughout, the Allied troops always make the incorrect move and the Waffen SS troops have always made the correct one. Reynolds levels a lot of spot on criticism at the various failures of the Allied powers during the campaign, however the same cannot be seen on such an equal footing in regards to the Waffen SS, and a number of major conclusions are only reached through ignored evidence and flawed context. In this respect, this work is of very mixed quality.