Yup, more military history -- I guess I am sort of on a military history kick. Back in July, I tackled another one. Zhukov's Greatest Defeat by David M. Glantz is another one that's been on my shelf a while. Previously, I had read Glantz's When Titans Clashed and was favorably impressed, so I bought some more of his books.
Glantz is known for writing Eastern front WWII books using Soviet archive material which was previously unavailable. This book is in the same vein. The problem with many older works on the Eastern front is that the Soviet side of the story has not been available. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, a lot of official history was propaganda, and often not very credible or substantiated. Even where it was accurate, it was difficult to come by the detailed background information. So it was often the case that Eastern front military history was written based on the German historical records (which the Allies seized at the end of the war and made publically available) or German memoirs. As might be expected, some of these memoirs have revised history to make their authors look better. Only recently, has it been possible to get a balanced look at the historical material. It should also be noted that this process of releasing Soviet archive material is not yet complete. It's not even clear that what has been released has been fully analyzed either.
Zhukov is known to many as the savior of the Soviet Union in WWII. Stalin certainly had the will to survive, but many credit Zhukov as providing the necessary strategic military skill to beat the Germans, especially after the purges of the Red Army officer corps. Zhukov is credited with a key role in defeating the Germans in the Battle for Moscow in late 1941. From that time on, Zhukov is seen as the top Soviet military commander, stopping the Germans at Stalingrad and directing the unstoppable Juggernaut from Kursk on. The impression is one of an undefeated leader. Sure, there were hickups along the way (like Izyum in 1942), but the basic impression remains.
Zhukov's Greatest Defeat challenges this popular view. The book reveals the previously covered up Operation Mars. Despite the vast size of the operation, it has been omitted from Soviet era official writings with only the briefest hints in fragmentary pieces. Only the opening of the Soviet archives allowed the real story to emerge. While the Germans recorded accounts of intense fighting, it seems they also did not know the true nature of the battle either.
Operation Mars was intended to encircle and destroy the German Ninth Army in the Rzhev salient near Moscow in late 1942, just as Operation Uranus encircled and destroyed the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Operation Uranus was followed up by Operation Saturn, Ring, etc. to produce the total collapse of the southern Army Groups which was only halted by Manstein's famous Backhand Blow. In a similar way, Mars was to be followed up by Operation Jupiter to totally destroy Army Group Center.
In the end, German reserves held, though seemingly just barely. Many German forces were severely mauled and some of the reserves needed to be pulled out for lengthy refitting. But the Soviet side experienced appalling losses with 335,000 casualties out of about 670,000 committed to this operation. About 100,000 of the total were deaths. And this all in one month of fighting. To put the collosal scale of the Eastern Front in perspective, these figures (both total casualties and deaths) are roughly one third the amount the US suffered in all of WWII in about four years of fighting. In the end, the Rzhev salient was evacuated some time later, so it doesn't even seem like the Germans had a lasting victory.
In this book, Glantz imagines what the commanders must have felt like. And so from time to time, he adds some brief passages of fictionalized first person narrative. But he carefully contains that writing to convey a mood and never to convey the actual facts of the campaign. As you might expect the extremely intense nature of Eastern front combat is very evident in this book. At times, it can feel overwhemling. The maps in this book are fairly good. The geography is done on a gray scale background with the unit designations printed in white in the foreground. And best of all, the maps don't miss items mentioned in the battle descriptions.
While we know Zhukov as a relentless commander, this book also shows his ruthless and sometimes petty side. It's not clear to me though whether this side of Zhukov was simply a product of Stalinist times or whether his inherent human failings were coming out. It is well-known that Stalin pitted Zhukov against Konev in the Berlin campaign. In Operation Mars, Zhukov is jealous of Vasilevsky's success in Stalingrad. Further, Stalin exploits the rivalry by dangling reserve armies as the prize between the two. When Mars starts to break down, Zhukov gambles more desperately by pushing his commanders harder, despite the human and material costs. It seems his reputation is more important to him. And finally, when Mars is a foregone conclusion, Zhukov becomes vindictive and punishes failure by making them continue futile attacks with a horrific cost. To top it off, several commanders are removed to both shift the blame and as revenge.
I would have liked to mention a tie-in board wargame, but I don't know of any published game which covers it. In summary, I would recommend this book to any serious WWII Eastern front military history buff. Glantz has found what is perhaps the biggest revelation yet to be revealed from the Soviet military archives on WWII.
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