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Armageddon - Max Hastings

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Publisher: Macmillan Digital Audio / 2nd Edition: 21 April 2006

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      14.04.2013 19:18
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      Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-45 was written by Max Hastings and published in 2004 (I think). This is an audio version read by John Sessions. The book covers ground that is very familiar by now (perhaps too familiar really given the extensive literature already available) but is still nonetheless darkly compelling as the momentous and often harrowing story of the the last desperate stand of Nazi Germany is told yet again. I find Hastings a rather stodgy and dull writer sometimes in comparison to contemporaries like Antony Beevor and Andrew Roberts (and I would certainly recommend Ian Kershaw's The End and Beevor's Berlin over this book) but his research is always exhaustive enough to illuminate a few areas in a manner the reader may well have not encountered before. One thing about Hastings I do find irritating sometimes is his penchant for lacing the narrative with his own personal subjective thoughts more than many history writers do. This is of course a strength at times but it does make him seem a bit pompous now and again. An armchair expert. The book begins as the Allied operations in Normandy have proved to be successful. The Anglo-American invasion force is firmly established in France and with their huge material superiority (most crucially in air power) over the Germans it appears highly likely that the war could be over by the end of 1944. This optimistic hope fails to transpire though and Hitler's increasingly shattered armies grimly fight on well into 1945. The main themes of the book are essentially why the Allies couldn't end the war early and advance more quickly (as a consequence of this Eastern Europe was condemned to Soviet satellite status until the 1990s) and why the Germans continued to fight on when it was long since apparent that the war was lost and their military situation was hopeless.

      As Hastings reminds us, the once invincible German war machine had been blunted with catastrophic losses in the frozen wastes of Russia and never again regained its equilibrium or strength. After the launch of Operation Barbarossa, two thirds of the Wehrmacht was always engaged on the Eastern Front fighting the Red Army and so it was the Soviet Union that did the Lion's share of the heavy lifting when it came to thwarting Hitler's plans for a Nazi Empire that would last for a thousand years. In the other books by Max Hastings I've read I was somewhat taken aback by his obstinate refusal to give Britain any (military) credit whatsoever for anything it did during the war and he seems to rope the United States into the same bracket in Armageddon. Hastings suggests that the United States romantically inflates its own combat role in the European theatre of World War 2 and that its huge industrial resources were more important than its military contribution. The Americans were shipping large quantities of material to the Soviet Union and although Stalin and the Soviets never gave them much thanks for it those supplies were crucial. The Red Army was never too impressed by the planes and tanks they recieved from the West and used them sparingly because their own weapons were often superior (the Soviets produced the best tanks in the war) but with the vast size of their army they desperately needed things like jeeps and lorries, canned foods and sturdy boots. It was the United States who supplied most of these much needed essentials and plugged the shortfall that would otherwise have existed.

      Just to put the two theatres in perspective, the author says that the Allies killed 200,000 German soldiers in the course of their operations while the Soviet Union killed four million. One can of course bear in mind that the Soviets had been fighting the Germans non-stop since 1941 but the statistics still illustrate the unimaginable scope of the war in the East. Hastings, like many, believes the Germans were pound for pound the best soldiers of the war but he also suggests the Red Army were superior to the Allies too. He praises the Red Army generals to the rafters while the Allied commanders are incessantly criticised for being slow and cautious. Hastings seems to loathe Montgomery (I find criticism of Montgomery in these types of books is so predictable as to be tedious by now) and is also highly critical of Eisenhower. This again is nothing new as Eishenhower is lauded more for his extraordinary diplomatic skills (he was of course in charge of a multi-national army) rather than his military acumen. After Normandy, Eishenhower steadfastly refused the "single-thrust" approach favoured by some (most notably Montgomery because he wanted to be in charge of it) whereby the Allies would attack in a single concentrated point of impact as the quickest way of entering Germany and ending the war. Eisenhower decided it was too risky a strategy and preferred the "broad front" approach. They would "break" the Germans and keep them strung out by steadily advancing across a long front. Hastings is quite interesting in this section. He believes that the Germans were too weak to threaten long Allied flanks by this stage of the war anyway and so Eisenhower was far too conservative in his strategy.

      The author remarks at one point that Montgomery achieved no great encirclements of the German armies that opposed him - as if this was some great damning assessment of his ability. To the best of my knowledge Montgomery was never asked or required to "encircle" any German armies in his sector of Western Europe. Anyway, Hastings believes the Soviet generals (Zhukov, Rokossovsky, Konev etc) were much better than their Allied counterparts because they were bolder and more daring in staging operations. That is true of course but the Soviets were much harsher and more unemotional when it came to accepting causalities. The Soviet High Command were desperate to reach Berlin before the Western Allies and so decided to use their numerical superiority to bludgeon their way to the German capital, sacrificing vast numbers of men in suicidal attacks until the inevitable moment of breakthrough arrived. To use a boxing analogy, the Red Army was like a fighter prepared to take three or four punches just to get into position to land one themselves. Hastings accepts that this brutal approach would never have been stomached by the Allies and that any American or British commander who sacrificed lives on such a scale would have been sacked in disgrace. Similarly, the ferocity of the German and Red Army soldiers was a result of coming from totalitarian systems (a very militaristic one in the case of Germany) and the conscripted "citizen" armies of Britain, America and Canada could never be expected to replicate the bestial fanaticism of war in the East. So, like Ian Kershaw's The End (great book but he did end up chasing his tail), Armageddon is somewhat circuitous at times with the author repeatedly hammering at a theme that both he and the reader can already explain.

      Hastings doesn't have too much new to say about the reasons why Germany fought for so long but then I don't think there is much more to say on this matter. Fear of Soviet occupation and revenge of course was the primary motivation but he does tend to remind us of the first World War more than Kershaw did in his book (if memory serves). One of the fundamental pillars of the Nazi movement was the belief that Germany had remained undefeated on the battlefield of World War I and been betrayed by traitors (and then an unfair peace settlement). This time the Nazi High Circle (or what was left of it by 1944) was determined to fight to the bitter end - until "one minute after midnight" if necessary. What the author does really well is to present the war from the ground up rather than reduce it to a series of battle maps. There are many, many accounts from ordinary people caught up in the storm of the conflict and the atrocities committed are harrowingly told to us in unflinching fashion. In particular, the Red Army rampage through Eastern Europe and into Germany. Things that tend to be glossed over or hardly mentioned in many books I've read are addressed by Hastings here. For example, the population of Holland nearly starving to death and the futile and bloody attempt of Polish guerilla fighters to usurp the Red Army. It's one of the great ironies of World War 2 that Britain and France declared war on Germany because Poland was invaded and yet Poland ended the war as a puppet state of a dictator who was every bit as evil as Hitler. Once the Red Army had reached Eastern Europe in their millions there was really nothing that could be done to shift them.

      This of course doubles back to the question of whether the Allies should have made more of an effort to reach Germany before the Red Army and prevent them from dominating the East. Churchill certainly felt they should have done this but the Americans were never much interested. They probably should have been in light of the Cold War that would soon descend but at the time they were more concerned with defeating Japan and getting their troops home than European geopolitics. One other thing Hastings is good on too is the intensive Allied bombing campaign. He believes it was not only morally dubious (Dresden etc) but also a misguided strategy that took money and resources that might have been better spent elsewhere. It's a sober book naturally but there are a few moments of levity and some good anecdotes. I like the story of a Canadian Brigadier who took a German surrender near the end of the war and was asked what his background was by the German general who was surrendering to him. The Canadian officer suspected that the German wanted to make sure he had an extensive and decorated military background so at least he would be surrendering to a long serving professional soldier. The Canadian did have a long and distinguished military background but told the German officer that he had no military experience and sold ice creams before the war started.

      Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-45 is an impressive volume but I think the wide range of literature in this field is an unavoidable drawback and while I admire the obviously huge amount of knowledge and research that Hastings brings to his work I must admit to finding him a bit dull sometimes compared to some of the countless writers who inhabit this well worn territory. I got this out of the library but at the time of writing you can buy it used for about seven pounds. It's worth considering the printed version but I would read Beevor's Berlin first if you haven't already done so.

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