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The Road to Berlin - John Erickson

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Paperback: 896 pages / Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson History / New edition: 4 Aug 1994

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      29.04.2013 19:43
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      A very large book about the Soviet-German war

      The Road to Berlin was written by John Erickson and published in 1983. This is the concluding volume of his mammoth two part history of the Soviet-German war and follows on directly from The Road to Stalingrad. You can tell a book is big when the reference section and bibliography accounts for nearly 200 pages alone. Erickson was an expert on Soviet military affairs and so you should be aware that this book is told strictly from the perspective of the Soviet Union. It's about how they responded to everything that happened on the eastern front. Their solutions, mistakes, disasters, triumphs. If you want any notable German perspective you'll have to look elsewhere. It's an unavoidable weakness at times but the insights into Stalin and his generals are often fascinating and one leaves the book with a better understanding of how the Soviet Union turned the tide after tottering unsteadily on the brink of complete collapse during the early stages of the German invasion. This second volume begins in 1942 with the Sixth German Army under Paulus suffering a fate that seems "impossible, unthinkable and unimaginable." The most powerful formation in the Wehrmacht has been caught in a massive Soviet pincer movement west of Stalingrad and 250,000 doomed German troops are now trapped in the rubble strewn city that bears Stalin's name. A quarter of a million men disappear from the German order of battle in a stroke. They never recover from the loss of Sixth Army on such a crucial front. Hitherto unblemished by defeat anywhere since the war started, this is a shattering blow for Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machine. Most of all though it means that their strength in the eastern theatre is greatly reduced. With their forces increasingly stretched and insufficient reserves to restore their equilibrium any hope of ultimate victory is gone.

      The German high command had considered themselves to be on the cusp of victory in the east but the sudden reality of their situation is now unavoidable and increasingly bleak. Despite - by their own estimation - having accounted for over two million Soviet soldiers and destroyed 20,000 of the enemy's tanks and much of its air force, the Red Army is not only still standing but constantly rebuilding and about to unfurl a series of huge sprawling offensives against the bewildered invaders. The Soviets have started to deploy large strategic reserves that the German high command fail to anticipate. Siberian divisions and the Far Eastern Front have marched west as the threat from Japan recedes. The greatest enforced industrial migration in history has saved many of the factories and workshops and now the productive might of the Soviet Union has gained them a superiority in numbers everywhere. As shocking as the loss of the Sixth Army was, the Germans soon discover that this was merely the opening gambit of a much larger operation. The Red Army now threatens to encircle the entire Army Group on the Don that Sixth Army was a constituent part of. The axis of the war has changed forever. The Germans had pushed ever deeper into the huge land mass with their eyes firmly fixed on Moscow and Stalingrad but the high water mark of their invasion has come and gone. With crippling losses in men and material, they no longer have the strength to fulfill Hitler's grandiose ambitions in the east and face a long, wearisome retreat against a ruthless enemy that is beginning to flex its muscles as a new superpower. The fate of the struggle in the east moves to Kursk - where the largest tank battle in history will occur. A campaign of unimaginable hardship and ferocity awaits as Stalin seeks to drive the Germans from Russian soil back to the old frontiers and beyond.

      The Road to Berlin is very different from the traditional "overview" narrative one has become accustomed to in books about the Second World War. The book is often told almost exlusively in the form of the movements and battles of the Red Army as they turn what appeared to be a looming defeat into a comprehensive victory. Erickson details literally every footstep of the Red Army right down to battalion level in incredibly (it has to be said) pedantic and comprehensive detail. If you want to know how and why the Red Army took a particular forest or fortress, navigated a lake, encircled or destroyed a particular German formation, then this is the book for you. To be honest, although I was aware of these books, I had no idea they were structured in this way and might possibly have thought twice if I had known. The level of detail is almost numbing at times and you do find your eyes glazing over now and again but it is worth the effort I think because there is so much factual detail here and all of it is connected to the wider strategy. If the Red Army wants to take a particular region then that often means several attacks in different areas must be launched to move the German forces around and diminish them in the crucial area. All very complicated but quite compelling. It's interesting to see where the weight of the conflict falls at different times. The Ukraine becomes very important as Erickson's book unfolds. Stalin gives the Ukraine priority because it would restore the agricultural and mineral resources of the area back to Soviet control and also put his army a footstep away from eastern Europe.

      Hitler wants to retain control of the region for many of the same reasons but also because if it was lost the Soviet Union would then be within striking distance of the Rumanian oil fields that keep the German war machine running. So about 60% of the entire German strength in the east resides with Army Group South. Even the author admits that while he drew on 15,000 sources a complete comprehensive history of the war is practically impossible. This is about as detailed as you are likely to find. Erickson's writing is very precise and to the point and works well although I wouldn't have minded some more descriptive passages relating to the terrain and topography. When he does set the scene he does it very well so I would have maybe liked more of this. "The Autumn of 1943 once more brought low-hung cloud, fogbanks and rain to the battlefields. By day the sun, if it appeared, shone pale and fitful and at night autumnal frosts crackled on the surface of the mud and ooze. Winter was only weeks away, but for the Red Army the coming winter was to prove very different." The vast alien terrain of Russia was deeply alienating to a lot of German soldiers, the sheer expanse of nothiness affecting them on an almost existential level. This sense of foreboding loneliness could have been touched on a trifle more (as it is in many books about this theatre). The book also suffers somewhat from a shortage of maps. This is a monstrous book in terms of size but there are only a dozen or so maps to accompany the text in the whole volume. I think the most interesting thing about Road to Berlin is that it concerns the second phase of the war when the Red Army assumed a dominant position over the Germans and began heaving them back towards eastern Europe. Much more has been written about the German invasion and initial successes but for some reason (perhaps because it became so one-sided) the long retreat of Hitler's increasingly overstretched and battered armies is less prevalent.

      It is very appropriate that the book begins with the turning point at Stalingrad and then it becomes more compelling because "Zitadelle" (the German attack at Kursk) was like the last throw of the dice for Hitler. Nearly one million German soldiers and over 2,000 tanks are deployed in a salient the size of a western European country but they are worn down by the intricate Soviet defensive fortifications and the counter attacks by the Red Army. The entire German Panzer wing in the east is all but destroyed in a matter of ten days. While Hitler would fly into a rage when presented with reports of Soviet factories outperforming German ones many times over, Stalin learned to become a pragmatist and would devolve more to his generals when he felt it was appropriate. The Soviets absorbed the lessons of the early defeats and now that they had numerical superiorly there was little the Germans could do to alter the destiny of the war. The details of Stalin's contact with Churchill and Roosevelt here are interesting and help to give the book more of a broader context. Stalin becomes increasingly haughty in his dealings with the west as the Red Army takes control of the eastern front. He knows that the Soviet Union is now going to have considerable clout in the post-war world and that the war in the east dwarfs anything else happening around the globe. The author's account of the Big Three Teheran conference is very interesting and captures the shrewd Stalin's growing confidence. "Teheran was the opportunity for which he had stubbornly and determinedly pressed, for which he had maneuvered, blustered and bullied. With his pocket full of plans and his mind implanted with his own notion of 'co-ordination', it was an opportunity to exploit to the full."

      This section of the book also has an excellent tangent about the Soviet spy network and how they infiltrated German military intelligence. The German presence in the east is in the form of three huge Army Groups (North, Centre, South) and the Soviet strategy becomes the isolation and destruction of these formations. For a time the war becomes a battle of wits between the famous opposing generals Manstein and Zhukov but even Manstein can't save Hitler's eastern ambitions now. It's fascinating to see how quickly the German position goes from one of intimidating strength to a precarious and shaky one where entire army groups could be encircled at any time by the immense tide of the Red Army. The Road to Berlin is a considerable authoritative achievement but you should remember this is not like a traditional World War 2 volume and so you don't get the constant "above ground" commentary that a Beevor or Andrew Roberts would supply. Here, you are with the Red Army on the ground as they painstakingly remove the Germans from their territories river by river, forest by forest. The passages relating to Stalin's dialogue with his western allies are certainly welcome in this regard to open the book out somewhat. The accounts of the partisan movements and also Balkan politics are interesting too I felt. The Road to Berlin is certainly worth the effort (and both this and The Road to Stalingrad are worth buying) but this is probably not a book you can just pick up and delve into without any prior knowledge of what happened in the east and I suspect that some readers might find the level of detail borders on the tedious at times.

      It's not a book I am likely to return to any time soon but The Road to Berlin is certainly an impressive volume and one that will give you plenty of insight into how the Soviet Union turned the tide in the east and the strategies they employed to achieve their aims. At the time of writing you can pick up a used copy of this for a few pounds.

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