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The Guns of August
Barbara W. Tuchman, Robert K. Massie
Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 - Max Hastings [b:Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945|55404|Armageddon The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945|Max Hastings|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320477380s/55404.jpg|53993] is the definition of a 5 Star rating. Max Hastings chronicles the final battles to defeat Nazi Germany. He starts the story in August, 1944 with the Allies about to launch Op Market-Garden in the West and the Soviets drawn up along the Vistula, preparing for their next stage of the assault into Poland. Mr Hastings is able to take you effortlessly from the foxhole or tank turret to the highest levels of SHAEF or STAVKA. He makes it all interesting and shows the results of decision-making at all levels. All the while, he brings new information to light while briskly moving the story along. There wasn’t a single area that I found boring or uninteresting. Couldn’t put it down.

What I found most refreshing was Mr. Hastings honest and clear-eyed view of all sides. If you don’t like seeing your side of the conflict or performance of your forces criticized, I would avoid this book. Hastings hands out criticism where deserved and praise where earned. Everyone is subjected to his critical analysis. He got me reconsidering my impressions about events in this period. I like to put little markers where I find an anecdote or fact that struck me. This book is a forest of those markers, far more than I could ever discuss in a review. Some of the themes and events that stick out:

The Soviet command system struggled to successfully employ forces but had some extraordinary generals who knew how to employ massive forces—and were mostly indifferent to casualties incurred as long as the objective was achieved. They must have been very good at reading between the lines to accurately assess the situation:

It is remarkable that the Soviet command system functioned as well as it did, given the ideological resistance to truth which was fundamental to the Stalinist system. In war telling the truth is essential not for moral reasons, but because no commander can direct a battle effectively unless his subordinates tell him what is happening: where they are, what resources they possess, whether they have attained or are likely to attain their objectives. Yet since 1917 the Soviet Union had created an edifice of self-deceit unrivaled in human history. The mythology of heroic tractor drivers, coal miners who fulfilled monthly production norms in days, collective farms which produced record harvests, was deemed essential to the self-belief of the state. On the battlefield, in some measure this perversion persisted. Propaganda wove tales of heroes who had performed fantastic and wholly fictitious feats against the fascists. Vladimir Gormin was reprimanded for reporting after an action that his anti-tank unit had failed to destroy any German tanks. A new return, citing two panzers destroyed, was duly composed and dispatched to higher command. “The statistics were always ridiculous. It was pretty hard to tell the truth,” said Gormin.

Yet somehow, through a morass of commissar-driven rhetoric and fantasy, Stalin’s armies hacked a path to victory. Most Soviet intelligence reports of the 1944—45 period are notable for their common sense and frankness.

Women Soviet soldiers performed many functions, both on the battlefield and behind the front. Although Hastings doesn’t spend a lot of time on the subject, he does bring in the women soldiers at various points. Some women were at the mercy of their commanders:

The Red Army professed that the 125,000 women in its ranks were mere comrades in battle and in suffering. In reality; however; and despite earlier remarks about Russian puritanism, many girl soldiers found themselves employed off-duty as sexual playthings for their officers, “campaign wives.”

Clearing the Scheldt estuary and opening Antwerp was a job given to the Canadians by Monty. I really need to read about this operation because it was so crucial to success. It should have been ordered by Monty much earlier and the Canadians had a very tough time of it, compounded by a shortage of troops:

First Canadian Army was committed to the unglamorous yet vital task of clearing the Scheldt, and above all the defences of Waicheren Island, to the shipping path to the port….Throughout the campaign, the Canadian Army suffered even more acutely than the British from a shortage of men. Because many French-Canadians bitterly opposed participation in “England’s war”, Canada’s Prime Minister Mackenzie King decreed in 1940 that only volunteers would be sent overseas, and that even these men would fight only in Europe. As a consequence, by 1944 some 70,000 fit Canadian soldiers—the “zombies” as they were known—remained at home…

The performance of the soldiers of the Western Allies vs. German soldiers vs. Soviet soldiers is covered in many places. Hastings lays down the assessment that the western soldiers were amateurs raised in democracy and relied on technology and high explosives to win the war.

“The British soldier is a little slow-witted,” suggested a German intelligence report of November 1944. “The NCO is for the most part very good. Junior officers are full of theoretical knowledge, but in practice generally clumsy. . . not really trained to be independent. The rising scale of casualties has led the British Command recently to behave more and more cautiously. Favourable situations have not been exploited, since the leadership has not responded to the new situation quickly enough.” The Germans, however, praised British intelligence, reconnaissance, camouflage and ground control of air support. A report from 10th SS Panzer Division suggested that some recent German attacks had been compromised by noisy and visible preparations which had attracted British attention.

Hastings does not give high marks to almost any western general and believes the slow, methodical movement of allied armies in the west was due to fear of exposed flanks, reinforced by local counterattacks by the Germans. The Battle of the Bulge, Hastings argues, only made the high command more paranoid about bold moves. The German soldier fought fiercely right to the end:

Given the overwhelming Allied superiority of resources, the Germans’ psychological dominance of the battlefield was remarkable. A British intelligence report on the morale of German prisoners, composed after the Scheldt battles, concluded in some bewilderment: “Few thought that Germany had any hope of final victory; most had had their fill of fighting and recognized the futility of continuing the struggle. Nevertheless, they all fought hard. The deduction would seem to be that no matter how poor the morale of the German soldier may be, he will fight hard as long as he has leaders to give him orders and see that they are obeyed.”

Professor Sir Michael Howard, who possesses the unusual distinction of being both a military historian and a veteran of combat against the Wehrmacht, wrote frankly:

“Until a very late stage of the war the commanders of British and American ground forces knew all too well that, in a confrontation with the German troops on anything approaching equal terms, their own men were likely to be soundly defeated. They were better than we were: that cannot be stressed too often. Every Allied soldier involved in fighting the Germans knew this was so, and did not regard it in any way humiliating. We were amateurs…fighting the best professionals in the business…We blasted our way into Europe with a minimum of finesse and a maximum of high explosive.”

Yanks vs. Brits:

Many British soldiers were both jealous of the Americans’ vast resources and skeptical about their allies’ manner of fighting a war. “The contrast with our own way of doing things was enormous,” said Major John Denison. “They fought in a quite different way, approaching every operation like a gang of builders—very informal. We thought U.S. officers did not look after their men in the way we did. It was sacred in the British Army to ensure that your soldiers got a hot meal every 24 hours.” Almost every British soldier resented the power of American wealth in his battered homeland. A private of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, passing a column of American troops newly arrived from Britain, shouted sourly at them: “How’s my wife?”

Allied command vs. German command:

It is interesting to compare the German command structure with that of the Allies. The Russian system worked remarkably well from 1942 onwards, once Stalin showed himself willing to delegate to able commanders. Stalin shared Hitler’s monomania and paranoia, but acquired vastly better strategic judgment. The U.S. Chiefs of Staff directed their forces with great managerial skill, though their effectiveness was weakened by inter-service rivalries. Roosevelt displayed no inclination to play the warlord as Churchill did, nor to impose his authority upon the military decision-makers except on the largest issues. Churchill’s generals often complained about their master’s military fantasies, eccentricities and egotism. In small matters, Britain’s prime minister could behave high-handedly and pettishly. But on great decisions, however loud his protests, he accepted the advice of the military professionals. He possessed an extraordinary instinct for war. The partnership of Brooke and Churchill created the most efficient machine for the direction of the war possessed by any combatant nation, even if its judgments were sometimes flawed and its ability to enforce its wishes increasingly constrained.

By contrast, for all the tactical genius displayed by German soldiers fighting on the battlefield, they could never escape the consequences of serving under the direction of a man who rejected rationality. Hitler believed that his own military skills and judgment were superior to those of any of his professional advisers. He immersed the leadership in a morass of detail, wasting countless hours of his commanders’ time, about armament design and the movements of trifling numbers of men and tanks.

Many battles are covered in some detail along with generally excellent maps for big picture orientation. The Hürtgen Forest campaign comes in for special criticism:

Carlo d’Este has called the Hürtgen “the most ineptly fought series of battles of the war in the west” It is hard to disagree. A fatal combination of unimaginative command decisions by Bradley and Hodges and undistinguished combat performance by some of the units committed enabled the Germans to inflict greater pain than they suffered in the Hürtgen. While the British floundered in Holland, the U.S. 12th Army Group became almost literally lost in the woods There is an argument that it was simply not feasible to make substantial advances in terrain such as that of the German border amid winter weather but Hitler’s panzers were soon to prove otherwise. “We never do anything bold, Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff Bedell-Smith complained at a staff conference. There are at least 17 people to be dealt with, so [we] must compromise, and compromise is never bold”

The relationships between generals and leaders are often brought to light. The competition between Zhukov, Konev and Rokossovsky in the Battle of Berlin is highlighted. Many Soviet soldiers paid with their lives so one general could achieve success. Another area of friction was between Monty and Eisenhower. While Eisenhower is painted as no more than a competent manager, Monty is portrayed as insufferable:

ON 7 DECEMBER, Eisenhower met Montgomery, Tedder and Bradley for a planning conference at Maastricht. In recent weeks, Montgomery had resumed his familiar written and verbal bombardment about the need to concentrate allied efforts upon a thrust to the Ruhr, “the only worthwhile objective on the western front.” He argued that since Normandy the absence of a single ground commander had caused allied efforts to fail. He now proposed that 21st Army Group, with a U.S. army of at least ten divisions under command, should attack in pursuit of a Rhine crossing between Nijmegen and Wesel…

The British commander’s credibility as a strategist had been greatly diminished by the events of the autumn. Since June he had rendered himself so obnoxious in American eyes that most senior U.S. officers detested him.

As Supreme Commander, Eisenhower continued to display exemplary patience and discretion in avoiding a breach with the British field-marshal. Because relations between the two were somehow maintained, it is easy to forget that Montgomery provided Eisenhower with plentiful reasons to demand his dismissal. This would have been a disaster. The 21st Army Group’s commander was a British hero. He was also, despite Antwerp and Arnhem, by far the ablest professional the British Army possessed…

It was vital to the Allied cause that Montgomery should keep his job. Eisenhower was perhaps the only man with the diplomatic skills to make this possible, despite Montgomery’s relentless provocation of the Americans in general and the Supreme Commander in particular.

Monty performed well in the bulge, yet shortly thereafter resumed his obnoxious ways.

Yet in this crisis he (Eisenhower) showed his statesmanship and was rewarded by a highly competent performance from Montgomery…At a time when there was disarray, if not panic, at First Army headquarters, the foxy little field-marshal kept his balance. Coolly and calmly, he redeployed British and American forces to create a solid northern front against the German advance.

The British XXX Corps at Dinant was shifted to block the last miles to the Meuse. It was scarcely called upon to fight, for the Bulge was an American battle. But Montgomery displayed the quality most vital to a commander in a crisis—grip. Many even among those Americans who detested him applauded his contribution to the defence against Germany’s winter offensive. When Brigadier William Harrison of the 3oth Division met 21st Army Group’s commander, he thought: “Here is a guy who really knows what he is doing.”

I could go on extracting more quotes from the book. Hastings tears apart the air war strategy; he covers the plight of all the nations and people under the Nazi yoke and later under the iron grip of Stalin. He explains the terrible bloodbath in East Prussia and later in Berlin. He touches upon all the topics you want to hear about. I can’t say enough about how good this book is. Just read it.