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The Last Battle was written by Cornelius Ryan in 1966 and is about the last weeks of World War 2 in Europe as Hitler's Germany is besieged from east and west and the Red Army begins the final stage of its operations - the capture of Berlin. This is the 2012 audiobook version (make sure you buy the unabridged one) and will certainly keep you going for a while if you are stuck for something to listen to on the train. It's narrated by Simon Vance (he seems to have the audiobook market stitched up as he narrates half of the Bond audio books I've listened to) and is over 12 hours long. Ryan was an American author and I find that World War 2 history books written by Americans are often less pretentious and purple than the ones by their British counterparts and go for more of a novelistic structure rather than endless tangents and quotes from diarists and letters. American writers like John Toland, William Craig and Ryan were always very readable and produced some notable volumes in this overcrowded but always fascinating field. The Last Battle is a book I've always wanted to read but for some reason have never found at a tempting price but I did pick up this audio version in a second hand book shop and it has made me feel like I should get hold of the printed version in the future to add to the shelf. The book begins in 1945. The war is lost but Germany fights on and a surreal normality is somehow still present in the bombed out ruins of Berlin.
The Red Army is about 50 miles away but milk is delivered, the post tries vainly to get through. I like the way Ryan sets the scene and makes one picture what it must have been like. Berlin is in a strange limbo, just waiting for the end to arrive as essential services start to fragment and the city takes on a Dante-esque look. The western and eastern fronts have compressed to Germany herself and the military situation is hopeless but Hitler remains in Berlin and what is left of the once invincible Wehrmacht grimly fights on in this lost cause. One of the things I liked about the approach by Ryan in particular was his focus on the last battles in the east, specifically the desperate and ultimately futile position of Army Group Vistula in attempting to somehow stem the Soviet advance on Berlin. Army Group Vistula was an emergency formation, thrown together to plug a gap in the front left by the collapse of the Wehrmacht in the previous months. Because of the desperate manpower crisis, Army Group Vistula is padded out with Luftwaffe trainees and soldiers who would ordinarily be deemed too young or too old to serve with the regular army. Hitler, who by this stage of the war doesn't trust anyone, least of all his generals, appoints SS leader Heinrich Himmler as the commander of the new army, believing Himmler to have the necessary authority and fanaticism to instill fighting spirit into this ad-hoc force. And of course Himmler is completely loyal. Or so Hitler thinks.
But Himmler has no military command experience whatsoever and is completely out of his depth. He's soon a nervous wreck and reduced to sitting in his luxury train headquarters with absolutely no ideas (one of Himmler's few contributions to his ill-fated command is to build a defence line in completely the wrong place) and no grip on the army. Himmler eventually spends more time at a health farm than at the front and makes no secret of the fact that he doesn't particularly want this position. Even Hitler realises in the end it was preposterous to appoint Himmler and, perhaps further swayed by the outspoken grumbles of Guderian (the famed Panzer leader and army chief-of-staff), replaces him with Colonel-General Gotthard Heinrici, a noted defensive specialist and one of the craftiest generals left in the army. Heinrici is not the most famous or written about general of the war but I found it really interesting the way Ryan almost frames the book around him and the impossible battle he has to fight. There is a fascinating early meeting described between Heinrici and Himmler when the command changes and Himmler seems to suggest he might seek some sort of negotiated end to the war. Heinrici doesn't quite know what to make of this. Is Himmler serious or is it a bluff to see if Heinrici is loyal to the regime?
Where the author really scores is with his extended focus on the battle of the Seelow Heights on the Oder. This is about 50 or 60 miles from Berlin and the last natural geographical barrier that the Germans can utilise for defensive purposes. But Stalin has 6.7 million soldiers on the eastern front about 3 million of them have been ordered crush any remaining German resistance in the centre and capture Berlin before the Western Allies (who are getting close to the capital themselves) develop any sudden designs to seize this symbolic trophy. The hills are soon filled with nervous German soldiers awaiting the endless waves of Soviet tanks and Red Army infantry with their suicidal frontal attacks. It's very atmospheric the way that Ryan paints a portrait of this battle. The Red Army begin with a terrifying artillery barrage and shine thousands of huge searchlights at the German positions in an attempt to temporarily blind them as the attack begins. These searchlights do not have quite the effect that Zhukov had intended - the reflected light from all the dust and debris affects the sight of the attacking Red Army as much as it does the Germans. You also get the strange drama of Hitler's final days in that damp bunker where, detached from reality, he continues to attempt to direct the fortunes of a war that has already been lost, his few remaining field commanders increasingly out of his control and prone to independent action.
Of course, there is too the incredible story of General Busse's trapped German Ninth Army and the harrowing accounts of how it had to make its way through thick forests and Soviet lines with thousands of civilians in tow. By now the German commanders were ignoring the fragmented and delusional directives from Berlin and acting in the interests of their soldiers and the people. The bestial Red Army rampage through Germany is covered in sometimes harrowing detail and Ryan also attempts to explain why Eisenhower was so disinterested in reaching Berlin before Stalin despite the British urging him to make the city an Allied priority. What of the narrator Simon Vance? He's somewhere in between a BBC continuity announcer and a local radio DJ and although there were one or two moments of blind panic where I thought he might be about to reach for a Maroon 5 song or give us a fact for the day on the whole he's ok. More of an old thesper type probably would have been better but he's not bad at all. This is certainly a superior World war 2 volume that is only really downgraded because this particular area has been written about so much and produced so many other great books.
I would certainly have no hesitation in now buying the printed version too though. At the time of writing this is available for just over £10 which, even given the length of the audiobook, feels too much to me. I would look for a better deal or a second hand copy.