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The Road to Stalingrad - John Erickson

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Paperback: 608 pages / Publisher: W&N / New Edition: 10 Aug 1998

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    Your dooyooMiles Miles

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      03.06.2013 19:08
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      An impressive and interesting book

      The Road to Stalingrad was written by the late British author John Erickson and published in 1975. This is the first part of his acclaimed two book history of the Soviet-German war, the series concluding with The Road to Berlin. These weighty books are told from a Soviet perspective (the Soviet Union was Erickson's area of expertise) and in the words of the author in his preface, The Road to Stalingrad is about how the "Soviet system" functioned under conditions of "maximum stress" and so is as much a social history as a military one. The character and personality of Stalin is of course pivotal to everything in the book and he's always a darkly fascinating presence at the heart of the storm. Machiavellian and sinister. The book begins in 1935. Marshall Tukhachevskii, the first Deputy Commissar for Defence and the prime candidate to be the commander-in-chief of the Red Army in any future conflict, proposes a "war game" to investigate what might happen if Germany attacked the Soviet Union. His proposal is met with little interest and receives no support but Stalin eventually agrees to the exercise nonetheless and is then furious when the results suggest that the Red Army's dispositions and active strength would make it very vulnerable to a surprise German attack of considerable weight. Tukhachevskii had been deeply concerned about Germany's rapid rearmament and militarism and believed Hitler's grandiose ambitions would soon pose a very real threat to both west and east but Stalin doesn't want to hear any of this. "Locked up in the Kremlin, the master of a world he had created by his own selective killings, and which reflected back upon him only those images he had ordained, steeped in his own 'genius' and fed on its outpourings, Stalin could rage away dissension and doubt, from whatever quarters it came."

      What thanks did Tukhachevskii get for his foresight? He was murdered along with most of the officer corps in Stalin's merciless purge. Stalin refashioned the Red Army as his own creature with the command based around those associated with the First Cavalry Army that had been raised during the civil war. The First Cavalry Army had sided with Stalin during his struggles with Trotsky and First Cavalry Army men like Budenny and Voroshilov are rewarded with prime positions in the new military structure. Gradually, control freak Stalin will loosen his grip though and learn to trust the most competent (Zhukov, Konev, Rokossovsky etc) of the brand new officer corps that emerge - even if he has no personal connection to them. A new cadre of Soviet generals "found themselves" and provided the Red Army with the organisation and leadership it so desperately needed. This is fundamental to the changing fortunes of the Soviet Union through the course of the war. The Road to Stalingrad is very different from The Road to Berlin in that a good portion is taken up with the lead up to war in the east so you get much more background history and many more passages relating to the internal politics of the Soviet Union and the areas they controlled. I think Road to Berlin is possibly a more compelling book at its best (Erickson's chapters on the Warsaw uprising and the dogged battles of the Vistula front in particular are fascinating and very powerful) but The Road to Stalingrad is less dense and reads more as a traditional broad political overview of the first phase of the Eastern Front rather than a strict military history (which Road to Berlin became in tracts, often making you feel like a Russian soldier yourself, crunching over ice dusted frozen wastes as every movement of the Red Army is detailed in forensic and sometimes ponderous detail).

      One obvious advantage the second book has over the first though is that the events chronicled here unavoidably feel much more familiar. How many books have been written about Stalingrad and the first stages of the German invasion? Too many to count. The siege of Leningrad, the early German Blitzkrieg, the German bickering over their strategic goals, coming to within touching distance of Moscow. This chapter of the war in the east always feels far more trodden and dissected than Army Group Vistula, Bagration, the Balkans etc. I feel that the author still manages to keep his narrative interesting and insightful despite this constant risk of repetition and it is undoubtedly having Stalin and his circle at the core of the book that proves to be the key factor in this success. Stalin is a victim of his own hubris early on. Convinced that he can avoid war with Germany (at least until such a point that the Soviet Union will be better prepared) with politics and his own presumed cunning (the noxious Nazi-Soviet pact), Stalin almost enters a state of denial and unreality when the Wehrmacht rolls forward across the Soviet frontier on Midsummer's Day, 1941. The Soviet dictator had ignored many warnings that the Germans were about to attack. They came from his spy network, generals and of course Britain and the United States. It seemed to be the worst kept secret in the world that Hitler intended to smash the Soviet Union. So the early disasters were Stalin's fault as much as anyone but he was quick to resort to revisionism to mask this early crisis. When the fortunes of the Soviet Union improved and they eventually won the war, he claimed it was all because of his firm leadership and collective industrial policies. The early blunders were brushed under the Kremlin carpet.

      By the end of 1941, the Russian capital was under threat and the Germans controlled over half of the grain, coal and steel available to the Soviet Union. Around seven million Red army soldiers had been killed or captured. It looked to the outside world as if the Soviet Union was all but finished. A great lumbering monolith that had been outmaneuvered and humiliated on the battlefield and was ready to topple. Erickson's detailed scrutiny of the methods and decisions that turned the tide make for some fascinating chapters and his extensive knowledge of that defunct empire and extensive research really comes to the fore. One important change comes in the way that the Red Army is hamstrung by military commissars and secret police. These political officers are placed within the army by party and state because Stalin (like all dictators and their military apparatus) is absolutely paranoid about losing control of the Red Army. The political officers are often incompetent and also suspicious of the Red Army, creating fractious and strained relationships at every turn. They complicate and confuse the command structure. Stalin - despite his natural instincts - is well aware of this and in 1942 changes the structure of the army. A new cadre of talented (if brutal) generals comes to prominence as the German invasion loses momentum and Stalin gives them more freedom of action. Perhaps the most extraordinary feat of the Soviet system is the evacuation of factories and heavy industry to the east through total manpower mobilisation. Stalin, through more interaction with his generals, learns the important lesson that space can be traded for time. With the evacuated industries they eventually produce tanks, planes and guns on a level far beyond the Germans. When Hitler is told the estimates of monthly Soviet tank production he flies into a rage and refuses to believe it.

      It's interesting that - unlike Hitler - Stalin would never visit the front and more or less stayed in Moscow, even when it appeared to be in danger of attack. His generals and soldiers always felt his presence though, however far away he was. Stalin was always on the telephone and would also dispatch some very sardonic and laced telegrams (and many are included in the book for us to read) to any general he felt was not performing as he should do. If you were a hapless Red Army general in the early days of the war when the Germans were destroying everything in their path, your prospects of a long life were not that great because even if you somehow escaped German encirclement or capture, Stalin was waiting to pronounce his own judgment. Although Stalin never visited his soldiers they too felt his presence through the course of the conflict. One gathers in the book (and many others obviously) that a key weapon of Stalin besides propaganda in control of the mass of the army was fear. The ruthless NKVD squads, lost soldiers being treated as if they were deserters and shot out of hand. The regular army included penal battalions who were used to clear minefields (charming) and when these men were liberated in their thousands at the end of the war they were often sent to detention camps by Stalin for the high crime of having been captured by the Germans. Erickson writes about how Stalin developed two parallel armies. There was an army of "quantity" that was literally used as canon fodder at times, thrown into bloody battles of attrition where the generals were perfectly happy to sacrifice thousands of lives just to affect a breakthrough somewhere.

      Then there were the "guards" armies, more elite and professional formations. The professional upgrade of the army and the return of gold braid, medals etc, was a clear sign that Stalin had bungled the conception of the army at first and was now reversing his previous approach. Stalin is judged by the author to be "an admixture of attrition and offensiveness, much of the latter ill-judged and even reckless." He was a thug and mass murderer and made more mistakes than he would ever admit to but ultimately he proved to be a shrewd and able war leader. The notoriously sniffy and difficult to impress British army chief Alan Brooke had few kind words about the ability of anyone he met in the war but he was impressed by Stalin's grasp of detail and military strategy. I must say that I like the way Erickson sets up the book early on and foreshadows what will happen. The first chapter proper opens with the Red Army in a sorry state as the author reflects on reforms that might be needed to drag them into the modern world. Stalin's invasion of Finland had seen over a million Red Army soldiers (supported by a powerful air force) humiliated by 200,000 Finish troops in the arduous winter war. Though heavily outgunned and outnumbered, the Fins had isolated and destroyed whole Soviet divisions time and again and made Stalin's vaunted army look like a clumsy prehistoric monster caught in a giant net. The invasion was supposed to project Soviet military power around the world but it made them look weak and incompetent instead.

      Hitler and the Germans had been watching closely of course and noted with interest how Stalin's forces had made such heavy weather of a war against a country that (in military terms) was nothing compared to the might of Nazi Germany. The author is quick to point out though that this wasn't the whole picture. The Germans might have been better advised to take account of 1939's Battle of Khalkin Ghol - the disputed zone of the Soviet-Manchurian border. Thanks to a talented corps commander named Zhukov and prototypes of what would become the formidable T-34 tank, the Red Army had secured a clear victory against the ferocious Japanese in this far flung Mongolian outpost. Zhukov, T-34s and the reserves of the Far Eastern Front would all come to haunt Hitler and the German high command in the east. The Road to Stalingrad might seem a trifle familiar at times if you've read a decent amount of World War 2 volumes but it is worth the effort and looks nice next to The Road to Berlin on the bookshelf. My paperback copy is over 500 pages long and has a decent smattering of black and white photographs in the centre (more maps might have been useful though). At the time of writing you can buy a used copy of this for around three or four pounds.

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