When I was reading Nelson’s Trafalgar: The Battle That Changed the World a few months ago once of the reviews said that it was to the battle of Trafalgar what Beevor’s book was to the battle of Stalingrad. After reading both I definitely believe that to be the case. Each of these books are the must-read titles for their respective topics.
Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege by Antony Beevor gives us an in-depth look at Germany’s disastrous Operation Barbarossa in general, and the fate of Hitler’s sixth army in particular. We already know the basics of the story. Hitler decided that he would attack East after overrunning Western Europe. The Nazis bit off more than they could chew, underestimated the Russians, and paid a dear price. This is all true, but Beevor adds much more detail. In addition to the usual strategic and tactical narratives, Beevor fills the book with assorted bits of historical minutia and anecdotes that make story seem more real.
The human (as well as animals such as horses) suffering experienced by both sides in this battle, in addition to the area civilian population is almost difficult to comprehend. Every time I thought it had reached a peak, it got worse. Long-term malnutrition, starvation, typhys, dysentary, gangrenous frostbite, malaria, rampant lice infections, scurvy … the list just goes on and on, for month after month. And this is all before any wounds from battle.
And for my fellow fans of Hogan’s Heroes, you can understand all of the jokes about threatening to send German troops and officers to the Eastern front.
Years ago I wondered what the state of the Wehrmacht was by D-Day in 1944. After reading this book I’m convinced that the Allies faced what was already a largely defeated Germany by that point. This would make the resistance the Nazis put up all the more amazing.
Here are some items of note from the book:
1. The Soviets were at times more brutal to their own than to the Germans. They executed approx 13,500 of their own troops at Stalingrad. p. xii
2. Leading up to the invasion of Russia, the Soviet ambassador to Berlin had his own torture and execution chamber in basement of the Soviet embassy. p. 7
3. The Wehrmacht depended on 600,000 horses to tow guns, ambulances, and supplies. This drastically slowed the German’s legendary Blitzkrieg. p. 13
4. In the first three weeks of fighting the Red Army had lost over 3,500 tanks and 6,000 aircraft and two million men. p. 28
5. Hitler made the strategic error of going after Stalingrad for the area’s resources instead of marching on Moscow from the beginning.
6. Soviet troops used dogs with explosives strapped to their backs as anti-tank weapons.
7. When birch trees could not be found, the Nazis built roads in the mud using Russian corpses.
8. Tolstoy’s How Much Land Does A Man Need? p. 83
9. Soviet political officers would stand behind Soviet troops and shoot any who showed cowardice.
10. The German’s were not particularly impressed with the pulchritude of the average Russian woman. Upon capturing some Russian female soldiers “whose faces are so repulsive one can scarcely bear to look at them.” p. 110
11. You may be using the term “decimation” improperly. One Soviet commander used i in its proper context, shooting every tenth man under his command in the face as punishment for cowardice. p. 117
12. One of Stalin’s sons, Vasily Stalin, escaped combat duty completely and instead made a propaganda film about the air force. p. 133
13. In the summer of ’42 Germany was producing 500 tanks/month. German intelligence was worried as they believe that the Soviets were producing 1,200 tanks/month. The reality was much worse, the Soviets were in fact producing over 2,200 tanks/month! p. 223
14. As the months wore on the German in particular were cut off and literally starving. Most had malnutrition and a great number died from starvation alone, and the living were literally teaming with lice. pp. 304 – 306
15. Stalingrad Madonna p. 312
For another feel of life on the Eastern front, get your hands on the DVD of Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron with James Coburn.
This book is a must-read for history buffs or anyone even remotely interested in the topic. If you only read one book on Stalingrad, make it this one. This battle and the larger war are critical pieces of 20th century history that help to put the following 60 years in perspective, the Cold War in particular. What happened at Stalingrad also helped to shape what became the AK-47 assault rifle.
Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945 is already in my queue.