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The Guns of August
Barbara W. Tuchman, Robert K. Massie
Stalingrad - Antony Beevor My first Beevor, it was outstanding. I will be coming back for more. [b:Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943|542389|Stalingrad The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943|Antony Beevor|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348217283s/542389.jpg|42137] gets 5 Stars for the epic battle history presented here. What Beevor conveys better than others is the sheer brutality of the eastern front and the Stalingrad battle. While millions die, Beevor brings the tragedy down to the individual level. Atrocity is matched by atrocity until you mourn the death of each side while seeing each side having justification. The Nazis started it but the Soviets paid them back with interest.

Beevor takes the first 100 pages to give an account of the war in the east up to arriving at the outskirts of Stalingrad. Excellent and succinct. As the Sixth Army arrives at the suburbs of Stalingrad, the Germans feel like they will win shortly while the Russians despair at ever mounting losses. Yet in a few months everything will be turned around. The Germans get a taste of the desperation of the defense:

Fight like a girl While Richthofen’s bombers pounded Stalingrad, the armoured spearhead of the 16th Panzer Division had advanced virtually unopposed across the steppe for nearly twenty-five miles. ‘Around Gumrak’, the division recorded, ‘enemy resistance became stronger and anti-aircraft guns began firing wildly at our armoured vehicles from the north-west corner of Stalingrad.’

This resistance came from the batteries operated by young women volunteers, barely out of high school. Few had fired the guns before, owing to the shortage of ammunition, and none of them had been trained to take on targets on the ground. They had switched targets from the bombers over the city on sighting the panzers, whose crews ‘seemed to think they were on a Sunday promenade’. The young gun crews furiously ‘wound the handles, depressing the barrels to zero elevation -- the Soviet 37-mm anti-aircraft guns were fairly crude copies of the Bofors — and traversed on to the leading armoured vehicles.

The German panzer crews quickly overcame their initial surprise, and deployed to attack some of the batteries. Stukas soon arrived to deal with others. This unequal battle was watched in anguish by Captain Sarkisyan, the commander of a Soviet heavy mortar battalion, who later related what he saw to the writer Vasily Grossman. Every time the anti-aircraft guns fell silent, Sarkisyan exclaimed: ‘Oh, they’re finished now! They’ve been wiped out!’ But each time, after a pause, the guns started to fire again. ‘This’, declared Grossman, ‘was the first page of the Stalingrad defence.’

The Luftwaffe helps to subdue the defenders…or do they? The “house warmings”, as the Stuka attacks were known, only made the city tougher to fight in for the Germans whose army was made for swift, blitzkrieg battles…not urban bloodbaths. The Soviets turn every factory and substantial building into a strongpoint. What good are Panzers in an urban battle? Not much.

Because of the ever present advantage of Luftwaffe support, the Soviets become night fighters. They are good at it. The Germans are harassed on the ground and in the air at night. I was not aware of the Soviet U-2 biplanes dropping bombs at night but they were very successful at keeping the Germans from any rest.

Beevor presents the attitudes of each side as the battle evolves. It was truly a battle between two ruthless socialist societies for domination. The fanaticism of the young Nazis raised to worship Hitler against the patriotic fervor somehow rekindled in the Russians is discussed. Yes, the Soviet Special Brigades posted just behind the front lines to execute any who retreat and the NKVD squads roaming the rear for deserters and escapees account for some of the reasons why the Soviets held out. But there was something more, some patriotic motivation that resulted in such a tenacious defense.

After Operation Uranus succeeds in trapping the Sixth Army, the Soviets confidence is boosted tremendously. The commander Zhukov tells it like it is:

Zhukov was characteristically to the point when he described the encirclement of the Sixth Army as ‘a tremendous education for victory for our troops’. Grossman was also right when he wrote: “The morale of the soldiers has never been so high’. (Interestingly, neither of these observations exactly confirmed the official Soviet propaganda line that ‘the morale of an army depends on the socially just and progressive order of the society it defends’.)

Communist or socialist, the individual means nothing compared to the state. That is why the Soviets could send so many to die without giving them training, arms or tactics to succeed. And why the Sixth Army was consigned to die on the Volga. How about this guy as a leader?

Hitler: “What is Life, Life is the Nation. The individual must die…” remarks upon learning Field Marshal Paulus did not commit suicide as demanded.

Permanent addition to the WWII shelf.