Stalin’s War With Germany, Volume 2. Grafton, 1985, 1199p – including 223p of references and sources, 78p of bibliography and a 38p index.)
I read the previous volume on Stalin’s war with Germany, The Road to Stalingrad, last year. Like that, this too is blighted with an alphanumeric soup of Army and Front names. The Red Army had variously:- Shock Armies, Guards Armies, Guards Tank Armies, Air Armies, Artillery Armies, Motorised Divisions, Rifle Divisions, Guards Cavalry Corps etc – designated by prefixes such as 1st, 2nd – all organised into different Fronts – Southern Front, South-Western Front, Leningrad Front, Steppe Front, Voronezh Front, Bryansk Front, four Ukrainian Fronts, three Baltic Fronts, three Belorussian Fronts, which morphed and changed or merged as the war progressed. Added to this is the proliferation of German units some of which are delineated in words (Sixth Panzer Army) or Roman numerals (XLVI Panzer.) Keeping track of it all is well-nigh impossible. Best to go with the flow as the narrative is very broad brush and consists mostly of plans to attack here or there with the various Soviet forces available to whatever Front is being discussed at the time.
The book gets out of these difficulties when it comes to the diplomatic area, being lucid on the various discussions with the Western Allies on Poland, Greece, Romania etc. In the matter of discussions Tito was unusual among the resistance leaders in German-occupied territories as he stood up to Stalin. The Western Allies were hamstrung in their dealings with Stalin as regards the post war settlements as they had no armies in Eastern Europe. A surprise to me was that there had apparently been a German plan to kidnap President Roosevelt from the Big Three conference in Tehran. Otto Skorzeny (who did rescue Mussolini from his mountain top imprisonment after the Italian change of sides) had a look at the possibility but dismissed it. Seemingly an aeroplane did land some German agents but the plot was foiled as the Russians had a spy in their midst. How much of this was genuine, how much a Soviet fabrication is debatable; Erickson says he has seen no documentary evidence.
This volume starts with the aftermath of the encirclement of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Thereafter it describes an almost consistent series of Soviet victories, though there were occasional holdups and slight reverses along the way. The emphasis on the Stavka is lessened here compared to Volume 1, perhaps because there were little or no crises for the Red Army to endure from 1943 on, only extremely bloody slogging. The role of the artillery in reducing German positions prior to Soviet attacks is made obvious – plus the importance of holding back the tanks until the infantry had made the breakthrough.
By this account the halting of the Soviet armies in front of Warsaw was not entirely an exercise in cynicism. They had just made a rapid advance, were at the end of long supply lines, with depleted forces and worn equipment and had suffered considerable losses (nearly 300,000 casualties over the two Fronts concerned in the relevant campaign.) Despite a wide exposure to World War 2 histories I had not been aware till reading this that there had also been an anti-Nazi rising in Slovakia as well as in Warsaw. Then again matters on the Eastern Front have tended to be skimmed by US or British accounts.
It is notable that in this book the war in Italy, D-Day, the breakout from Normandy, the crossing of the Rhine etc are incidental, off-stage, barely mentioned except in terms of co-ordination of attacks. The scale of the Soviet effort comes through loud and clear. In their terms, theirs was the only war. Even some of the German units involved in the Battle of the Bulge were later moved east.
The savage nature of the fighting for Reich territory in East Prussia and in front of and inside Berlin is given note. The 1st echelon of Soviet troops was well-trained, even clean-shaven, and relatively disciplined. The 2nd echelon was a complete contrast, made up either of POWs released by the advance and hurriedly retrained or conscripts from the various recently liberated Soviet republics – all of whom had suffered at German hands (Erickson’s description is “brutalised”) and some of whom may have resented both sides equally.
There is less sense in this volume of Stalin’s controlling hand on the armies, again perhaps due to the victories being won. His impatience comes through, though, and his possible vengefulness.
At one point Erickson gives the figure of over 1,500,000 Communist Party members being casualties in the Great Patriotic War. This underlines the magnitude of the Soviet Union contribution to winning the war as not every soldier would have been a party member. And there were of course the civilian casualties. The final attacks were pushed through with huge losses. Still, even at the end, there were German armies in the field capable of resistance, though some others were going through the motions.
Erickson had the benefit of speaking to some of the Soviet generals involved in writing his history of “Stalin’s War,” It was however written well before the demise of the Soviet Union and may well now have been superseded.