on 10 February 2008
This is the second of four volumes covering the air war on the Russian front. This volume focuses on the German offensive in the southern part of the front in 1942, which culminated in the Battle of Stalingrad.
Bergstrom's narrative begins with a description of the air bridges the Germans used to supply isolated units in the winter of 1941-42. These successful operations showed the Germans that it was possible to supply large numbers of troops from the air, success which led them to try the same tactic the following winter. This is followed by a discussion of the state of both air forces, the German Luftwaffe and the Russian VVS, at the start of 1942.
To launch the drive into the Caucasus the Germans needed to first secure their right flank and Bergstrom devotes five chapters to the (comparatively) limited offensives with which they did this. The air battles over the Crimean at Sevastopol and Kerch are covered in detail, as is the failed soviet counter-attack at Izyum. In all these battles Bergstrom explains how the Luftwaffe maintained its superiority over the VVS. In fact it may even have increased it, as soviet pilot quality plummeted due to reduced training hours and the best soviet aircraft were reserved for the Moscow region.
The drive on Stalingrad and into the Caucasus is covered by five chapters. Bergstrom describes how the Luftwaffe initially massed its forces to achieve an overwhelming superiority before having to split them to cover multiple directions of advance. The air battle over Stalingrad itself naturally takes the central place in his text and he shows how, despite committing numerous reinforcements, and despite the stamina and determination shown by their airmen, the soviets lost control of the skies over the battlefield and in the end effectively withdrew their forces in September. All this is illustrated with plenty of examples and is tied closely to the situation of the armies on the ground which the airforces were supporting.
The soviet counter-attack which smashed the German flanks in November and surrounded the Sixth Army is covered by five chapters. The resurgence of the VVS , which had spent the time it had withdrawn from combat training intensively, is covered well. The battle had taken a sudden and for the Germans very unexpected turn and the difficulties they faced implementing the airlift are described in detail. Again, frequent examples of daily operations dramatise the narrative. It was now the turn of the VVS to dominate the skies over the Stalingrad battlefield and the atrocious losses suffered by the Luftwaffe in its generally ineffective efforts to supply the Sixth Army come clearly through. These final chapters also describe the hasty German withdrawal from the deep salient into the Caucasus region. Bergstrom shows clearly how armies of both sides suffered greatly when they outran their own air cover and in the open terrain of the steppes became easy targets for the enemy's bombers and ground attack aircraft.
The final chapter is a summary and conclusion. Bergstrom's description of the events of the campaign support his contention that the VVS, though qualitatively still not yet equal to the Luftwaffe, had significantly closed the gap through better aircraft, tactics and operational procedures. Appendices and an extensive bibliography round off the volume.
The book maintains the high physical standard set by the first volume in the series. A three-page glossary is now provided and the quality of the illustrations remains high. As with the first volume I would have preferred to see slightly more maps, but this is a minor point.
It is interesting to compare this volume with the Black Cross Red Star series, co-authored by Bergstrom, which covers the air war on the whole Eastern front. That series focuses more of the tactical level and so has lengthier anecdotes and tactical descriptions, whereas this volume looks more at the operational and strategic picture. It also benefits from being able to tell the compete story of the Stalingrad campaign rather than slicing it into sections split across volumes. Perhaps inevitably there is common ground between the two series with some of the same tactical incidents and first-hand accounts appearing in both. Readers might also want to look at `Stopped at Stalingrad' by Joel Hayward, which I have not read but which attracts glowing reviews.
In summary a very good book and one which I have no hesitation in awarding five stars.
on 1 November 2009
I was actually slightly disappointed with this book.
While it is a beautiful work giving a fair overview of the battle, it is not the definite book on the subject.
It does contain many nice photos, and provides a balanced account. This is its main strength but also one of its weaknesses. It sometimes feels as if the desire to provide an unbiased story by including tales from both sides has been too meticulously adhered to (this applies to all of the books in this series, actually).
The book can be a little confusing regarding losses . Sometimes claims are checked against reported losses, sometimes they are just accepted at face value. Often included in total losses are the aircraft that were badly damaged or those that were scrapped after returning to base, and while there might be some justification in using this yardstick, few other authors do so.
The author also compares the Demyansk airlift to the one carried out at Stalingrad. He then draws the conclusion that the main reason it failed at the latter city, was the resurgence of the VVS (Soviet Air Force) and the Russian flak.
While not neglecting the role the VVS had in the eventual outcome, it is just too simple to give them the main credit. The Demyansk airlift was conducted in late winter/ early spring thus the weather was better, the encircled force was only a fraction of the one at Stalingrad, the flight distance was way shorter and the airlift was flown out of much better bases and near proper railheads. In addition, it is claimed that the Luftwaffe was much better prepared to operate in winter conditions than the previous season. Even if they had gathered much experience, many of the crews failed to utilize proper winter procedures. (This is taken from the book Stopped at Stalingrad by Joel Hayward).
The latter book is much better for serious students of the battle, and while it is highly readable, it does not contain as many photos and firsthand accounts.
Conclusion: Buy this book for a general overview of the battle and for its pictures and accounts, but do not expect to be satisfied if you want the definite story.